How on earth can you follow up that performance? Of all the things in the world, this is probably the only downside to being Lionel Messi. After his immaculate showing on Wednesday, the Argentine magician is sure to be high on confidence, but with that five-goal haul, the expectations of the little man has risen yet further. It’s not like we expect him to grab five goals each game now, but Leo Messi keeps raising that bar higher and higher, and before long, some will consider a match without a goal as a catastrophe for La Pulga.
So, when Barcelona take to the field tomorrow at El Sardinero against Racing Santander, how many of you are expecting Lionel Messi to score? In fact, a better question may even be how many are you expecting Lionel Messi to score? Quite simply, while we may not realise it, the pressure on Lionel Messi is building to levels that would destroy any mere mortal. Luckily little Leo remains ice cool both on and off the field.
Racing Santander are languishing in the relegation zone, three points behind 17th place Villarreal. With Villarreal playing on Monday night against Getafe, the Blaugrana could really do the Yellow Submarine a favour by winning tomorrow evening. If that isn’t enough motivation, then Barcelona needs to win to keep any slim hopes of retaining the league title alive. Depending on the result of the Real Madrid – Real Betis match, which is underway for those wondering, Barcelona may cut the gap ever so slightly with a win. However, being realistic, we know Barcelona will be fighting to keep that gap to 10 points.
That in itself may seem pointless to some fans, "if we aren’t going to win it, then why try?" is a popular opinion at this stage, but in my opinion, there is no need to end up getting humiliated in this title race. Concede ground now and not only do we lose momentum, but we open up the possibility of Real Madrid visiting the Camp Nou either having already secured La Liga, or giving them the chance to win the league at our beloved stadium. Who wants that to happen?
Fortunately, that is unlikely to ever happen, purely because Barcelona are finally hitting some form. The 7-1 win over Leverkusen was great, but it is the recent upturn in both attitude and performances that is giving us hope; hope that Barcelona can pull off the impossible, or at least challenge for the UEFA Champions League. When Sporting Gijon equalised last week I feared for the worst. Barcelona have been so inconsistent that I truly thought we were destined to fail, or at least disappoint, something that I have grown worryingly used to over the course of the season, but we triumphed 3-1 and my fears were unfounded. I cannot speak for the entire fan base, but I feel like our faith in the team has been fully restored.
That’s not to say we cannot improve though.
First off, Victor Valdes will start in goal tomorrow but if the Blaugrana are to reduce this deficit or win the Champions League, he must up his game. The club hasn’t kept a clean sheet since the 8th of February, in a run that has seen Valdes concede eight goals in the space of six games. However, I understand that this is also the fault of the defense, which also needs to improve. Dani Alves is superb offensively, but could do with a solid defensive display to aid his teammates who often have to cover for his marauding runs, thus being dragged out of position themselves. If Carles Puyol is cleared to start, his presence will go a long way to solving those issues, especially as he will be paired with The Wall: Javier Mascherano.
Mascherano continues to impress, and I believe that if he carries on dominating La Liga defences, then Barcelona will have no need for Thiago Silva or any other top-class defender. A squad player? Perhaps, but promoting within should be sufficient to cover even the worst defensive crisis next season, saving the club a whole bunch of money.
Alves is likely to start at full-back tomorrow along with fellow Brazilian Adriano, although I wouldn’t rule out a rare start for either Martin Montoya or Marc Bartra, with even Marc Muniesa a possibility for the left-back slot. It all depends on the fitness of the usual first team players, and obviously, Pep Guardiola’s mindset. I think the kids could get it done, but see no reason why the usual suspects need a rest considering that we have a rare midweek without a match.
Personally, I think the midfield will be unchanged from midweek as well, with Cesc, Busquets and Xavi combining to create a trio that will give the Racing players nightmares. Even if one of them drops out, Andres Iniesta would be pushed back into the middle, and that midfield will prove too much for Racing to contain. I also believe that the front-line will be unchanged as well, although Cristian Tello could start after his brace in midweek. With so many players in form, or on the brink of hitting form, Guardiola’s job is difficult in the sense that only 11 players can take the field at one time.
Predicted Line-up (4-3-3): Victor Valdes; Dani Alves, Marc Bartra, Javier Mascherano, Adriano Correia; Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas; Pedro Rodriguez, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta
Match Prediction: Barcelona to continue their good form with a 4-1 win.
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