FC Barcelona travel to Seville tomorrow where they will face fifth-place Real Betis at the Estadio Benito Villamarin. The Blaugrana have been in imperious form on their travels thus far this La Liga season, with seven wins from their opening seven away fixtures. Tito Vilanova’s side will be keen to record their eighth with a win tomorrow, but Betis have gone from strength to strength under the guidance of Pepe Mel and even defeated Real Madrid back in Jornada 12. However, Barcelona will pose a very different threat to that of Real Madrid and therefore Los Verdiblancos will have to be at their best if they wish to defeat the league leaders.
After all that worrying and commotion, Culés around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief when it was confirmed that Lionel Messi only bruised his knee in a collision with Benfica goalkeeper Artur Moraes. While it was obvious that the Argentine superstar’s long-term future was not in any jeopardy, there was still a possibility that Messi would be forced to sit out a few games – and the world was wondering just how Barcelona would cope if that were the case. Would Cesc Fàbregas fill in as a false nine? Could David Villa start as a traditional centre-forward? Fortunately, it’s unlikely that we are going to find out – Lionel Messi is back in training and could start tomorrow.
Victor Valdés will start in goal after sitting out Wednesday’s scoreless draw with Benfica and with a number of key players likely to return in defense, Valdés will be confident of his chances to keep a clean sheet. After all, Real Betis have only scored nine goals in their seven home matches – the joint-worst record of any team in the top-half.
Speaking of the defense, Dani Alves has recovered from his latest muscle injury and is set to start ahead of Martin Montoya at right-back. Surprisingly, the young Spainard has been left out of the squad altogether after a string of impressive performances – presumably with the Copa del Rey and Cordoba in mind. However, the move does leave Barcelona a little short on the right – what if Alves suffers a recurrence of his hamstring injury? Presumably, Adriano would be a suitable replacement, but even so, why not keep Montoya in the squad? Regardless, Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano should start at centre-half with Puyol set to drop to the bench after starting Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League clash with Benfica while Jordi Alba will start at left-back.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets will start as, despite the arrival of Alex Song, the Catalan remains Barcelona’s undisputed number one at pivote. The Cameroonian midfielder has not been terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s also crystal-clear that he simply isn’t at Busquets’ level. Ahead of Busquets, I expect Cesc Fàbregas and Xavi Hernández to start, and the pairing who have formed a formidable partnership under Tito Vilanova – could it be better than "Xaviniesta"? And more importantly, if it is, then what nickname should we give them?
Offensively, Lionel Messi will probably start, so it’s simply a question of who features alongside the Argentine. David Villa has struggled for form in recent starts, and much the same can be said of both Cristian Tello and Pedro. Andrés Iniesta is virtually guaranteed to start on the left leaving just one spot left to fill. So the question is, will Tito choose to restore Alexis Sánchez to the starting XI after roughly a month on the sidelines?
Betis under Pepe Mel have always tried to go one-on-one with Barcelona – with mixed results. In the Copa del Rey two seasons ago, Barcelona ran out 5-0 winners at the Camp Nou, but lost 3-1 in the second leg. Last season, Barcelona won at the Camp Nou, but drew on the final day at the Estadio Benito Villamarin. Can they go one better and secure victory tomorrow? Well, Pepe Mel has confirmed that his team will go out "to play" the Blaugrana, and with Ruben Castro in inspired form (the striker has six goals in his last six games), Betis might just fancy their chances.
Real Betis: WLLWWW
Real Betis 2-2 FC Barcelona – 12th May 2012 – La Liga
A brace from Ruben Castro looked set to hand Betis a victory on the final day, but Seydou Keita’s struck in injury-time to secure Barca a point.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta
Real Betis (4-2-3-1): Adrian; Chica, Antonio, Dorado, Nacho; Benat, Canas; Sevilla, Molina, Campbell; Castro
I’m backing Barcelona to claim their eighth away win of the season, but it’s going to be close. I’m going for a 2-1 win