Keen to bounce back from the disappointing past week or two, FC Barcelona host Real Mallorca on Saturday, in a must-win game for the Blaugrana. Sure, the season is still young, but to drop points again would be a devastating blow for morale, not to mention a huge boost for Real Madrid both psychologically and table-wise.
Barcelona currently lie third in the Liga BBVA, behind Real Madrid and surprise leaders Levante, while Mallorca are 13th by goal difference. On paper, this is yet another mismatch, but as we all know: football is not played on paper. The beautiful game is contested on the pitch, and in Mallorca, Barcelona have a worthy adversary.
The corresponding fixture from last season ending 1-1, with an under-strength Barcelona left to rue a hatful of missed opportunities. Sound familiar? My memory of the match from last year is fuzzy, but re-reading the match report and watching some highlights, it seems a whole lot like the past few weeks. Barcelona were having some problems with injuries, and despite a fine start to the match, they ended poorly, mainly down to fatigue.
If I remember correctly, Barcelona ended that match with five attackers, and even if they wanted to, this will be a near-impossibility tomorrow. Pedro is out for three weeks, Alexis Sanchez is still not 100%, and obviously Bojan and Jeffren left the club in the summer. That leaves Lionel Messi and David Villa from the first team, both of whom are experiencing a slight dip in form. The situation pales in comparison to that of Villarreal, but by Barcelona’s standards, this is a mini-crisis of sorts.
In essence, Pep Guardiola will have gone back to the drawing board for this game, and in the absence of Pedro and Sanchez, he may opt for a 3-4-3 formation. This would create more chances, and surely that will lead to more goals? Well, it all depends on the personnel.
Victor Valdes is unbeaten in near 700 minutes (697 to be precise), and to be frank, those 700 minutes have passed without too much concern. Opponents are fully focused on keeping the score down, and I can only remember Jesus Navas getting close to scoring past the Catalan. Real Mallorca are not prolific, though in Emilio Nsue, they do boast a threat to Valdes’ record.
Barcelona 1-1 Real Mallorca Emilio Nsue goal 3-10-2010 (via ikaaarus100)
Last season saw Nsue level the scores with a bullet header before the stroke of half-time. Special attention must be paid to the youth international. That means that Guardiola should be playing his strongest defense, and considering my guess at a 3-4-3, that means a return for Gerard Pique, and Carles Puyol to play alongside Eric Abidal. The trio are expected to feature on the 50-man shortlist for the Ballon D’Or according to El Mundo Deportivo, though the official list is not released until next Tuesday.
Ahead of the defense, Sergio Busquets is the obvious option as anchor-man and Barcelona need him to dictate the tempo. One of the most obvious criticisms of the past few Barcelona performances has been the tempo of the passing, and Sergio Busquets must take the responsibility and recycle possession quicker. If Busquets does his job well, the rest of the team will improve, and as a result Barca can expect more chances against a stubborn defense.
However, I expect that Busquets will be without midfield partner Xavi Hernandez, who Mundo Deportivo claims will be rested for Saturday’s match. Xavi has been great, but is clearly in need of a rest, and hopefully he will return refreshed, ready to improve the tempo of Barcelona’s play. Should Pep opt to rest Xavi, there will be Thiago Alcantara to fill in.
Thiago started the season well, but in recent appearances he has been a little off the pace and dare I say it, overwhelmed in the midfield. His pass completion is certainly reminiscent of Xavi, but Thiago does not yet possess the ability to run the game from the middle of the park. However, each game brings more experience, something he cannot get sitting on the bench. Not only will he improve in that respect, but Thiago might just be what Barcelona have been lacking in the past few games.
Always a threat from long-range, it will not matter about intricate build-up play if Barcelona can get Thiago a free shot from 20-30 yards out. In pre-season the Blaugrana were certainly not at their best but Thiago carried the team as best he could, putting in numerous Man of the Match displays en route. Oh, and lest we forget the superb goals...
Thiago Alcántara Gol Manchester United HD (via MrAnToVeLeZ)
Alongside him, I would love to see Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta. Each would open up space for Thiago and carry a significant threat of their own. Neither are as ineffective as Seydou Keita, and both link up extremely well with Lionel Messi. For Cesc, these are the most important games of his career. It was all well and good firing in goals when Barca were 3-0 up, but now he must deliver when the team is not at its mesmeric best.
Sandro Rosell was criticised for spending such a vast amount of money on his arrival, and despite the revenue from shirt sales, this is where Cesc Fabregas will repay his transfer fee. For years he led Arsenal FC to the UEFA Champions League, despite the help or lack thereof from some of his team-mates. We need to see that Cesc Fabregas again if Barcelona are struggling. That being said, there is always the possibility that the Blaugrana will dispatch Mallorca like they did Villarreal and Atletico Madrid.
Andres Iniesta has been magnificent upon his return from injury, and despite claims to the contrary, did not dive to win the penalty in last week’s encounter with Sevilla. Instead, he relied upon lightening fast footwork, and a clumsy attempt at a challenge from Federico Fazio. His interchanges with Lionel Messi have been nothing short of jaw-dropping, which could prove key tomorrow.
Despite my post on Wednesday, I feel that Lionel Messi will start against Real Mallorca, and this is for a number of reasons. First up, he has scored all of his goals at the Camp Nou, so who knows, maybe he will be relishing the comforts of home tomorrow? Aside from that, it is clear that Barcelona need him more against Mallorca than they do against Viktoria Plzen. The Czech side are a fine outfit, but at the moment, the league must be the priority.
Also, with a tricky trip to the Basque Country and San Mames in the offing next weekend, Barcelona cannot afford for Messi to play in midweek. He needs his rest for that match, and he probably got enough from the day-off Barca had yesterday to carry him through Mallorca. With fellow La Masia graduates Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique in the line-up with him I feel us Culés need to give La Pulga a chance to shake it off without rest...
This is me changing my mind, but rest assured, I would feel differently if Alexis Sanchez or Pedro were fit.
Considering my choice of 3-4-3, I am guessing at a wing pairing of Adriano and Dani Alves. Whether they operate in attack or in midfield is not that important, especially as a midfield position would see Iniesta and Cesc moved closer to goal. Either way, Barcelona can switch between 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 with relative ease.
Real Mallorca are without a win this month, and coach Joaquin Caparros will be looking to renew his sole tactic when facing Barcelona. For those who forget, Caparros was previously in charge at Athletic Bilbao, and every match with the Basques involved a bunch of fouls, and an attempt to change the focus to physicality over tiki-taka. Caparros also knows that David Villa is suspect to losing his temper when provoked, and this may be why El Guaje is left on the bench.
Mallorca are also without a win away from home, and like many before them will operate out of a 4-2-3-1 formation in an attempt to stifle the midfield creativity.
Match Prediction: The game will go one of two ways: Barcelona will either win narrowly, or run up a cricket score. I am leaning towards the latter...just. My guess is 4-0 Barcelona!