Having already claimed three wins from their opening three UEFA Champions League group stage matches, Barcelona could secure their place in the knock-out stages tomorrow with a victory over Celtic at Parkhead. While a draw would be far from disastrous for Tito Vilanova’s side, the Catalans will be keen to keep their 100% record alive as Barca look to become the first team to finish the group stage with 18 points on two separate occasions having previously accomplished this feat back in 2002/03.
However, given the difficulty that Barcelona faced against Celtic at the Camp Nou, victory is by no means a certainty. After all, Neil Lennon’s team put up a valiant fight just two weeks ago so the Hoops will be confident they can do the same or go one better and take points from their illustrious visitors tomorrow evening; with a vociferous, partisan crowd behind them, who knows? They might just cause an upset...
Finally there has been some positive news on the injury front as Gerard Piqué has been cleared to play once again. The Catalan has been out for quite some time now – roughly two months – and in that time he has missed nine matches. Curiously, since being substituted with that foot injury against Spartak Moscow, Barcelona have conceded twelve goals without Piqué in the centre of defense. While it’s unclear whether or not Geri will start tomorrow, Tito Vilanova did mention that Piqué should feature at some stage. I for one cannot wait.
Victor Valdés will start in goal looking to build upon his impressive performance against Celta Vigo. While our #1 did not keep a clean sheet, we were treated to a couple of glimpses of the Valdés of old – the one-on-one stop against Iago Aspas being the clear highlight. After being beaten by the only shot on target in the previous meeting between the two sides, Valdés would love to take a clean sheet back to Spain.
In defense, Dani Alves should start on the right and along with Jordi Alba; he could hold the key to victory. Celtic kept the pitch as narrow as they possibly could at the Camp Nou and without Isaac Cuenca or someone similar to keep the width, the responsibility will fall to the two full-backs. Of course, Alba scored that all-important winner at the Camp Nou in the final minute of stoppage time after an assist from Adriano so Celtic will know about the danger he poses on the left-flank. In the centre of defense, Gerard Piqué could start although I think he will have to settle for a place on the bench. Marc Bartra and Javier Mascherano were exceptional against the Hoops just a couple of weeks ago and I would trust them to do a similar job tomorrow evening.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets continues to miss out through suspension leaving Alex Song as the only (feasible) option at pivote. Jonathan dos Santos did make the squad, but is unlikely to start with the Cameroonian in the picture. However, Tito does have a dilemma to solve with regards to the final two midfield berths? Does he start Xavi knowing that the Blaugrana would benefit from his immense composure – especially given Busquets is unavailable? Maybe he opts for Cesc Fàbregas; the former Arsenal captain is arguably in the form of his life after all? Then we have Andrés Iniesta. Can Barca afford to leave the Best Player in Europe on the bench in what promises to be a tightly-contested battle? It’s a tough decision, and no matter who starts, Barcelona should have enough to dominate the midfield and monopolise possession.
Moving on to the attack, Lionel Messi should start despite taking a knock in the dying moments of Saturday’s win and the Argentine will be desperate for a goal to dedicate to his new-born son Thiago. In support, I expect to see Pedro Rodriguez and David Villa – will Celtic be able to cope with MVP? Cristian Tello and Alexis Sanchez could both start, although with Celtic expected to give the Barca attack very little space, the pair may find it difficult to make a real impact on proceedings.
The visit of the World Champions couldn’t have come at a worse time for Neil Lennon as what was initially a fairly small injury crisis has grown into quite a sizeable issue for tomorrow’s hosts. Emilio Izaguirre and James Forrest are both sidelined with hamstring injuries; Lassad is out with a groin problem while both Gary Hooper and Georgios Samaras are unlikely to feature. The Greek faces a late fitness test and therefore could make the starting XI, but even then he is unlikely to be firing on all cylinders. Sure, Celtic were superb at the Camp Nou but have struggled since then, only notching a single win from their last three matches – and that was against lowly St. Johnstone.
FC Barcelona 2-1 Celtic – UEFA Champions League – 23rd October 2012
Barcelona came from behind to record a well-earned victory as goals from Andrés Iniesta and Jordi Alba cancelled out Georgios Samaras’ contentious opener.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Bartra, Mascherano, Alba; Song, Xavi, Fàbregas; Pedro, Messi, Villa
Celtic (4-2-3-1): Forster; Lustig, Ambrose, Wilson, Mulgrew; Brown, Wanyama; Samaras, Ledley, Commons; Miku
I’m torn on this one. It’s either going to be very close, or Barca will run away with it, and I suspect it will be the former. Another 2-1 Barca win