Forget midweek, forget the Clasico; forget the final jornada; tomorrow might just be the defining night of the season. FC Barcelona host Real Betis at the Camp Nou in a must-win fixture, while both Real Madrid and league leaders Atletico Madrid face much tougher tasks, travelling to the Basque Country and hosting Villarreal respectively. For Carlo Ancelotti and Los Blancos, this might just prove to be the final nail in the coffin. At the moment, they are by no means down and out, but their title aspirations are certainly on life support – and that’s just a couple of weeks after Real could have extended their lead at the top of the table to four points.
Travelling to the Anoeta is never an easy task, but knowing how badly his club needs a result will only serve to increase the pressure on under-fire Italian coach, Carlo Ancelotti. On the other side of the capital, Atletico Madrid should be feeling confident. They lead La Liga by a single point, and held the Blaugrana to a 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou on Tuesday in the first-leg of the UEFA Champions League quarter-final. On that evidence, it’s apparent that Atletico Madrid are quite a team.
But Villarreal are a good side themselves, and with Arda Turan and Diego Costa missing, Atletico Madrid will need to dig down deep and produce the goods to retain control of La Liga. Balancing this title challenge with the UEFA Champions League truly will be a test of Diego Simeone’s mettle and his squad’s depth. Even the slightest slip-up and FC Barcelona will be ready to pounce. Whether it’s tomorrow, in midweek, next weekend or at the very end of the season, Barcelona are ready and waiting to knock Atletico Madrid off their perch.
While Barça have injury concerns of their own, they should still have more than enough in the tank to dispatch relegation-threatened Real Betis at the Camp Nou tomorrow, building up some momentum before they venture to the capital in midweek. What better way to prepare for that titanic clash than by regaining top spot in La Liga? One can dream anyway...
I alluded to it earlier – Barcelona are not in great shape physically. Gerard Piqué fractured his hip in a challenge with Diego Costa in midweek, and therefore is ruled out of action for the next month. Victor Valdés suffered a season-ending knee injury against Celta Vigo, while club captain Carles Puyol continues to struggle for fitness as his storied career comes to a close. The veteran centre-half does not yet have medical clearance to return to action, but has been named in tomorrow’s 19 man squad; a squad that will also be without the suspended Jordi Alba.
Consequently, Jose Manuel Pinto will start in goal and is yet to concede a La Liga goal since his return to the Barcelona goal. Indeed, the eccentric keeper boasts an impressive 50% clean sheet-to-games record – hardly the record of the incompetent back-up that some media have been quick to portray.
In defense, Martin Montoya gets my vote to start at right-back, with Marc Bartra and Javier Mascherano likely to continue at centre-half. If possible, I would appreciate a chance to see Carles Puyol back in action, but at this stage it seems likely that our beloved captain may be the one to drop out of the squad and watch tomorrow’s action from the stands. Adriano Correia is virtually unopposed for the starting left-back berth, so expect to see the Brazilian get the nod tomorrow.
With Atletico Madrid in mind, I would rest Sergio Busquets and start Alex Song. It’s at the Camp Nou, and it’s "only" Real Betis anyway. What’s the worst that could happen? Andrés Iniesta rested a little last weekend, so I anticipate a return to the starting line-up tomorrow, possibly with Sergi Roberto, but more likely with Xavi in support. Cesc Fàbregas and Roberto can then rotate into the midfield in the second half, or perhaps Busquets will get some time in a more advanced role off the bench? Whatever happens, I think Martino needs to keep the main suspects rested where possible, but if Cesc Fàbregas starts – and particularly if he finishes the game – it may be an indication that the 4-3-3 will return on Wednesday.
The strikeforce picks itself; Lionel Messi obviously gets the nod, but should rest as soon as the result is beyond doubt, while Alexis Sánchez and Pedro both deserve starts. Cristian Tello probably deserves some game time too, but it is a precious commodity in this team; a substitute role seems about the best he can wish for.
After 83 minutes against Malaga on Monday night, Real Betis were sitting pretty. They were 1-0 up and looked like they might gain some valuable ground on the rest of the league. Less than ten minutes later, Gabriel Calderon’s side were left scratching their heads and staring relegation in the face after a 2-1 defeat. Eight points separate Betis and their closest rivals, Almeria. They are nine points away from safety and will have just six matches left after this weekend.
In short, they probably need a point or three tomorrow. However, with one of the league’s worst defensive records and a meagre away record, it seems more likely that Betis will return to Pamplona on the wrong end of a Manita than with the three points. Indeed, one bookmaker are offering the same odds for a 7-0 home win as they are for an away win.
It looks hopeless, but Betis will at least retain a glimmer of encouragement with Ruben Castro in the squad; the Spanish forward has got five goals in his last five appearances against the Blaugrana and with Piqué out injured, maybe Castro will extend that record tomorrow...
Real Betis: WDLLWL
Real Betis 1-4 FC Barcelona – 10th November 2013 – La Liga
A Cesc Fàbregas-inspired masterclass from Barcelona secured an easy away win, as the Catalan midfielder grabbed two goals and an assist to claim a deserved Man of the Match award. Neymar and Pedro were also on the scoresheet for the Blaugrana with Jorge Molina claiming a consolation from the penalty spot in injury-time.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto; Montoya, Bartra, Mascherano, Adriano; Song, Fàbregas, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Pedro
Betis (4-2-3-1): Adan; Juanfran, Amaya, Paulao, Chica; Nono, Reyes; Leo, Molina, Cedrick; Castro
I think Betis will get on the scoresheet, and I don’t think Barcelona will waste too much energy with Wednesday in mind, but they will want to send a message – a 4-1 home win for me.