FC Barcelona play their first match of 2012 tomorrow against Osasuna in the Copa del rey, knowing that a handsome victory could go some way to setting up a Clasico showdown with arch-rivals Real Madrid. Not only that, but it would alleviate some of the concerns about the hectic schedule ahead, and who wouldn’t welcome a chance for the youngsters to get a run out?
Barcelona fans will look back at last year’s encounters with Osasuna with great fondness, although it must be noted that the side from Pamplona are amongst the most improved in the continent. Despite the 8-0 loss at the Camp Nou back in September and the 7-1 defeat at the hands of Los Blancos at the Bernabeu, coach Jose Luis Medilibar has guided Osasuna to fifth place which – if sustained – will be the highest since the historic 2005/06 season. As always, Pep has reminded us that no match is without its risks.
That said, Barcelona will almost certainly field a strong side, and because their last match of 2011 was against Hospitalet it will mean consecutive starts in goal for Jose Manuel Pinto. The veteran Spaniard is one of my favourite players, and it is no surprise that he is set to sign an extension to his current deal. When all was said and done, he knows that he is an important member of the dressing room, a valued member of the senior squad and is set to claim a few more medals without doing an awful lot of goalkeeping. In my eyes, it was a no-brainer.
Some are suggesting (Catalan newspaper Sport) that Pinto’s renewal is clear indication Pep Guardiola will also sign a new contract, although personally I would wait until Pep himself says that he is staying before taking it as gospel.
I expect that tomorrow’s match will be a chance for Martin Montoya to continue his development, although there is a chance of the 3-4-3 making another appearance given its success against Osasuna and in the last match versus Hospitalet. If that is the case, it could mean successive starts for Andreu Fontas which seemed unlikely at best just a few months ago. Fontas may never win the entire fanbase over, or Guardiola when fighting for a starting berth, but he has been improving steadily.
Should Fontas get the nod, I fully expect Gerard Pique to be there in support with Javier Mascherano my prediction for the final defensive slot. Eric Abidal had been granted a longer winter break given his health problems over the past year, so tomorrow may come too soon for the Frenchman. For Pique it will be a chance to ease back into form with a clean slate for the New Year; some might say that Geri has been in a bit of a "dip" in form, I remain confident in his abilities.
Sergio Busquets may start in defensive midfield and his presence is key for the 3-4-3 to work to its full potential. As the fulcrum, some take Busquets for granted, but it is clear to me and the majority of Barcelona supporters that Busquets is irreplaceable and the team does suffer without him. Of course, the same can be said for his midfield partners, but it is hard to sort them into any type of order signifying their importance.
Xavi has been training as normal, which is a relief as I thought he would struggle throughout the season with that troublesome Achilles injury. However, it seems that we cannot have it all our own way as Andres Iniesta has yet to fully shake off some sort of niggling injury. He may well start tomorrow, but I would err on the side of caution with Don Andres, especially with the plethora of replacements.
With Xavi and Busquets locking up two of those midfield slots, I would guess at a start for Thiago Alcantara who did play in the 8-0 win, and will be looking to impress. While the European Championships are some time away, Thiago must be looking to build a case for inclusion, even if that does mean starting ahead of Xavi et al in a few games.
Cesc Fabregas may have to "settle" for a spot in midfield even though he has adjusted to his new role upfront with gusto. I enjoy watching Cesc play, but I fully believe he will have to adjust to this role as the extra man in the middle and attack, almost like he is both positions at once. While the free role does lead to goals galore, it is not sustainable in the truly "big" games, which begs the question: is it viable in any situation if it isn’t in the most important?
Lionel Messi may have returned from holiday later than his teammates and Pep did mention him in the press conference today as a "maybe" starter for the match, but who is he kidding? We all know Leo will look at him with puppy eyes asking to play and Pep will simply ruffle his hair and send him out anyway! Maybe I made that last part up, but it isn’t far from the truth I’m sure. Alongside Messi could be the duo of Alexis Sanchez and Pedro, two players who must adjust to each other’s company and quick, what with Villa’s injury and all.
Osasuna will look to defend for all they are worth, hoping for a chance along the way, as an away goal could prove valuable. A defeat by a singular goal would not be the end of the world for Los Rojillos but even the most optimistic of Osasuna fans will know that is almost certainly beyond reach for a side hit by a couple of injuries to key players. Expect goals, although I am not sure how many.
Match Prediction: Barcelona to win by three goals, although I fancy Osasuna to grab one along the way.