Barcelona return to league action this Sunday, playing host to newly promoted Real Betis. Coincidentally, the Blaugrana squared off against Real Betis at the Camp Nou 363 days ago, winning 5-0 with a hat-trick by Lionel Messi the highlight. However, that was in the Copa del Rey, and tomorrows encounter means a whole lot more to each club.
Barcelona need to claim all three points if they wish to stand any chance of retaining their title, regardless of the Real Madrid result today. Real Betis on the other hand will be looking to extend their run of three consecutive league wins, and close the gap to Malaga in the final European qualification place. But let’s be honest, Betis shouldn’t stand a chance.
Barcelona have been pretty dire away from home, but at the Camp Nou they have been simply unstoppable. In nine league matches, they have scored 39 goals and conceded zero. That records extends to other domestic competitions as well; in total Pep Guardiola’s side have not conceded a home goal in around 1,190 minutes of competitive football. That’s over 19 hours of football without a single goal going in the oppositions favour.
And people still claim Real Madrid are better defensively?
With a midweek Clasico at the Bernabeu on everyone’s mind it is imperative that Barcelona keep their concentration, as they can ill afford another slip-up. In fact, I would suggest that not only three points, but the performance is paramount heading into the difficult match away from home. Confidence levels could be higher, but Barcelona have an opportunity to really pile on the goals tomorrow evening and head into El Clasico on a positive note.
After all, Real Betis will try and attack the vulnerable Barcelona backline as per their usual approach, and at the Camp Nou, it will not do them any favours. Barcelona may appear fragile defensively, but the stats dictate the opposite, and if Betis attack as expected they could run up a cricket score.
Victor Valdes will start in goal looking for a 10th consecutive home clean sheet in La Liga, and it may come as a surprise to some, but it’s worth mentioning now that he will NOT be playing in the Copa Clasicos, at least if last season is anything to go by.
Tactically, I would predict a 3-4-3 with spots for Javier Mascherano, Gerard Pique and Eric Abidal. That would keep Carles Puyol fresh for midweek although I would understand if Guardiola decided to play the captain. His injury troubles are firmly in the past now, and the risk involved is minimal, with a maximal gain (defensive security up against the pace of Ruben Castro). Mascherano should retain his place, although one suspects that Eric Abidal may not be so fortunate if Puyol is selected.
Guardiola has no fresh injury concerns in midfield, with Andres Iniesta fully recovered from his knock, and almost certainly ready to be started tomorrow. Sergio Busquets will start in holding midfield and I expect that Xavi will be alongside him in central midfield. Barcelona desperately needed his creativity in the first half of the Osasuna match, but the second half was a marked improvement with Lionel Messi dropping a little bit deeper than usual once he was substituted into play. Thiago was a major disappointment over the course of the 90 minutes, but with the Clasicos on the horizon, he could retain his place in midfield.
Cesc Fabregas should complete the midfield, although I expect him to rotate with Lionel Messi during the match taking turns to drop deeper, especially if Xavi is rested. Dani Alves may feature as right-winger with Pedro set to miss the next week or so with a hamstring injury. Isaac Cuenca would get the nod if I were coach given Sanchez’ injury record, but a vast improvement is needed over his midweek performance if Cuenca wants to challenge for a first Clasico start.
If Barcelona wants to win the league this season, they must put in a good performance tomorrow. Odds are that they will.
Match Prediction: Barcelona to win 4-0, with two from Leo Messi and one each for Cesc and Xavi.