This Saturday, FC Barcelona face off against Sevilla in one of the games of the season so far. While Sevilla are without a couple of key players, they will no doubt provide a stern test for Pep Guardiola’s men, and the Blaugrana are going to have to be at their best if they wish to claim all three points, and stay atop of La Liga.
Sevilla have not been impressive so to speak, but find themselves occupying the final UEFA Champions League spot, with an unbeaten record. They may have only scored eight goals, but their defense has made the difference, leading them to a joint-second best defensive record in the league. However, Sevilla may have an unbeaten record, but have yet to claim all three points away from home, and considering their destination tomorrow, it’s unlikely that will be changing.
FC Barcelona have been simply irresistible at the Camp Nou, and in matches with Villarreal and Atletico Madrid, they have scored 10 goals, and not seen one in reply. In four games at home, Barca have scored 21 goals, and not conceded a single one. Aside from AC Milan, every team to play at the Camp Nou this season have left without a point to show for their efforts. Just to add to the perfect defensive record, Victor Valdes is on a roll of five consecutive clean sheets, and would very much like to make it six.
Sevilla have a gargantuan task ahead of them, and they must face it without their leading goal-scorer, Alvaro Negredo. Wide spread media reports claim that Negredo pulled out of the recent international games citing a hamstring problem, and it seems as though he has not yet recovered, and Barcelona will surely be content with that news. Also ruled out is Diego Perotti and summer signing Emir Spahic, though the Bosnian cannot play due to suspension.
To me it is fairly ironic that Sevilla are struggling for injuries, but Barcelona seem to be getting over the majority of theirs, with Cesc Fabregas likely to play some part tomorrow evening, and Alexis Sanchez is set to return "any time soon" according to reports in Spain. This leaves only Gerard Pique and Ibrahim Afellay on the injury list, and even Pique is a short-term absentee.
In previous matches at the Camp Nou, Guardiola has opted for a 3-4-3, and this was notably done to (near) perfection against Villarreal and in the first half against Atletico Madrid. Now, the question is whether he feels brave enough to implement it in such a difficult match, after all, it could turn out like the Valencia match. Therefore, I am going to guess at a 4-3-3 that Pep will want to emulate last season’s 5-0 win over Sevilla. Dani Alves was sublime in that match against his former employers, and this was solely down to his position at right-back.
Alves was hard to mark, and even harder to follow, and compensate for when he made his charging runs, and this created more space for the attackers and midfielders. It was typical Barcelona, but despite the predictability it was so difficult to defend. This was of course one of the matches that made up the incredible 16-game winning streak and it was not hard to see why.
I would expect the obvious choice of Victor Valdes in goal, and a back-four of Carles Puyol, Javier Mascherano, Dani Alves and Eric Abidal. This would provide the overlapping width Barca have become renowned for, while keeping a solid defensive base. Both Puyol and Mascherano will be adept at making blocks, and last-ditch challenges. This may prove invaluable if Sevilla pose the threat expected of them on the counter-attack.
In front of that the choice is obvious. Sergio Busquets will act as the anchor man, but will drop back to create a three-man defense when Alves and Abidal are on the overlap, and in effect, Barcelona will have their 3-4-3. Xavi and Andres Iniesta will complete the midfield, and I believe Cesc Fabregas will have to settle for a place on the bench alongside Thiago Alcantara.
Andres Iniesta is just back from injury, but his performances in the last two games have been world-class. His link-up play with Lionel Messi is simply mesmeric, and Sevilla will have to pay special attention to the cute little one-two passes they often attempt.
This means that Lionel Messi is going to start, which is of no surprise, despite the very-slight knock he picked up against Viktoria Plzen on Wednesday. Alongside him will be Pedro and David Villa, and aside from Pique’s absence, it will be the same team that demolished Sevilla at almost the same stage of last season.
Pressing the Sevilla defense will be paramount in this match, as will an early goal. When Barcelona score early, especially at the Camp Nou, the opposition’s morale tends to drop, while Barcelona tend to find that extra gear or two. It is a deadly combination, and one which Sevilla will be doing their utmost to avoid.
Also important is to keep the shape defensively, and for the midfield to get back and aid the defense when needs be. Plzen had a couple of spells of possession the other night, and this was in part down to the lack of tracking back from Xavi and co. Barcelona need possession of the ball to nullify the Sevilla threat, and with it they can create chances. It is a no-brainer that they should want to get it back as soon as possible.
If they can retain possession, chances will be created in abundance, and one doubts whether Lionel Messi will be kept off the score-sheet for the second game in succession, such is the standard we have come to expect from the diminutive Argentine.
Match Prediction: A tough first-half with a goal around the 35-40 minute mark, and then an easier second half with lots of ball retention, and some more chances. I would say a two-goal win: either 2-0 or 3-1.