FC Barcelona entertains Real Zaragoza tomorrow as they return to league action after a midweek international break. With 31 points from their opening eleven matches, Tito Vilanova’s side have raced into a three-point lead at the top of the table and the Blaugrana will extend that lead to six points with a win tomorrow. Having amassed over two times as many points as their visitors, Barcelona are huge favourites and with captain Carles Puyol cleared to return, they should register their 11th win of the season. However, it’s rarely as straight-forward as it seems.
As mentioned above, Barcelona have been buoyed by the return of Carles Puyol, who has received the medical green light after six weeks on the sidelines with a dislocated elbow. In that time, Barca have conceded 12 goals, at an average of 1.5 per game. Will Puyi’s return bolster the Blaugrana’s fragile backline? Almost certainly, although it’s unlikely that Tito will choose to throw his captain straight back into the fold considering what happened against Benfica. On the other hand, with Gerard Piqué back in the fold Barcelona may well record their first clean sheet of the month tomorrow evening.
In goal, Victor Valdés should start despite the birth of his second child Kai, although if he cannot or chooses not to play then Jose Manuel Pinto, who has proved himself to be a more than capable replacement, will deputise. Regardless of who starts in goal, Tito is sure to have a defense in mind for tomorrow’s game and with a crucial UEFA Champions League trip to Russia in mind, Vilanova could choose to rest a number of key names. Gerard Piqué for instance has only just returned from injury, and as a result Tito may opt to rest the elegant centre-half. However, Piqué did not travel with the Spanish national team to Panama so I fully expect him to start tomorrow.
Javier Mascherano played the full 90 minutes for Argentina in midweek against Frank Rijkaard’s Saudi Arabia (what does Sabella have against us?), and therefore El Jefecito may have to settle for a place on the bench. With Sergio Busquets suspended, Alex Song will be unable to fill in at centre-half which may allow Marc Bartra a chance to start alongside Piqué. Moving onto the full-back positions, Dani Alves also played 90 minutes for his country in midweek (and won a penalty which Neymar missed in rather hilarious fashion) so the Brazilian is unlikely to start tomorrow. The only trouble is that Martin Montoya travelled to Panama rather unnecessarily and may not be at 100%. At left-back, Jordi Alba is one of the only options with Adriano still injured, although he is not the only option. Montoya could fill in at left-back with Alves or even Jonathan dos Santos starting on the right, or maybe Tito could switch to a three-man defense of Piqué, Song and Bartra? Whatever the case, I wouldn’t bet on a clean sheet.
In midfield, a lot depends on Tito’s defensive selection. Assuming the usual 4-3-3, Alex Song will start at pivote with Xavi Hernández in support. Both Andrés Iniesta and Cesc Fàbregas played a half against Panama, so neither are "better off" than the other, which could lead to Sergi Roberto making a rare start in midfield. Certainly I would give Sergi a chance to shine, primarily because he is unlikely to disappoint, and secondly because Barca will need both Cesc and Iniesta firing on all cylinders against Spartak Moscow on Tuesday.
In attack, Lionel Messi will start despite playing 90 minutes for Argentina on Wednesday (seriously Sabella?) although it’s likely to take a little more than a couple of flights to put Leo off his game. Likely to full of confidence after breaking Pele’s record last weekend, Messi could run riot against a shaky Zaragoza defense who conceded three last weekend at home to Deportivo La Coruna. Unfortunately, Alexis Sanchez picked up an injury on international duty with Chile, so he is unavailable, but after Cristian Tello’s impressive performance against Mallorca and Pedro’s hat-trick in midweek, I’m sure Barca will cope just fine without the Chilean. Personally, I expect Tito to start with Tello and Pedro on either flank; but I wouldn’t rule out an attacking role for Fàbregas or Iniesta either. In fact, with Alexis injured there might even be a spot in the squad for young Gerard Deulofeu...
Zaragoza were dealt a blow this week with the injury of Glenn Loovens who suffered a knock to his knee in training and is therefore set to miss tomorrow’s clash along with former Barca B left-back Abraham and right-back Cristian Sapanaru (both suspension). With Ivan Obradovic still sidelined with a serious knee injury, Zaragoza coach Manolo Jimenez has been forced to turn to his B team and call up 21-year old full-back Hector Hernández to the squad. Whether the youngster will start remains to be seen, but left-back will be a definite weak-spot for our visitors. In attack, Barca will have to keep a close eye on veteran Portuguese striker Helder Postiga who bagged a brace last weekend against Depor and is on six goals for the season.
Real Zaragoza 1-4 FC Barcelona – 7th April 2012 – La Liga
Barca recovered from shaky start to fight their way back from a goal down to run out 4-1 winners at La Romareda. Aranda put the hosts ahead after missing a penalty but goals from Carles Puyol and Lionel Messi put the Blaugrana back ahead before the break. Abraham’s red card looked to seal the result, although Barcelona left it until the final five minutes to secure the points as Messi and Pedro rounded off the scoring.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Bartra, Montoya; Song, Xavi, Sergi Roberto; Pedro, Messi, Tello
Real Zaragoza (4-5-1): Roberto; Zuculini, Paredes, Alvaro, Hector; Movilla, Romaric, Apono, Montanes, Rodriguez; Postiga
Barcelona have not been scoring as freely as they might have hoped at the Camp Nou, but they have the perfect opportunity to knock a few past a depleted Real Zaragoza tomorrow evening. The visitors have been in fine form recently, but have a tendency to capitulate against the top two. I’m going for a 4-1 home win.