The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Tomorrow evening Barcelona will be forced to do the unthinkable – play a football match without Lionel Messi. Only it’s not really a problem, after all, the opponents tomorrow are lowly Sporting Gijon. If I, or indeed Pep Guardiola could have handpicked a match for Lionel Messi to serve a single-match suspension, it almost certainly would have been this one. Sporting are without a win in seven matches, and have only managed a single win in their past 10 competitive matches. Since the turn of the year, poor Sporting Gijon fans have only witnessed their side score six goals, and of those, they have mustered a distinctly unimpressive two away from home.
Sporting have been so disappointing that they even sacked their manager of six years Manuel Preciado, replacing him with Javier Clemete. With that change, they lost any shred of sympathy I might have felt if things get out of hand at the Camp Nou tomorrow evening. Manuel Preciado was a hard-working and most importantly honest coach. Unlike almost every other manager in world football, he stood up for himself against Jose Mourinho, securing the admiration of many a Culé in the process. Sure, Gijon were on a terrible run of form, but I thoroughly believe that Preciado was doing as good a job as anyone could have with the players at his disposal.
Basically, I respected Manuel Preciado, but I am not too fond of the man who replaced him, Javier Clemente. Not only has Clemente spent extensive time in charge of Espanyol over the years, but he also racially abused Samuel Eto’o back in 2006. Admittedly, he did "clarify" his meaning, and Eto’o was the instigator after he spat at one of the Athletic Bilbao players, but I struggle to accept that his ill-advised words were not meant to be construed in the manner they were. Anyway, since replacing Preciado, he is yet to win a match, nor lose a competitive match, with two draws in La Liga and a loss in a bizarre midweek friendly with Lokomotiv Moscow. Hardly any better than Preciado’s efforts are they?
In a way, I am disappointed that Messi is unavailable, especially as he would have relished a chance to play against the porous Sporting defense and add to his superlative-exhausting home tally, but with the second leg of the Bayer Leverkusen match in midweek – also at the Camp Nou – the rest will certainly be beneficial to the Argentine. I would mention that it shouldn’t matter too much in the race for the Pichichi, but a quick glance at this weekend’s fixtures indicates that Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo are at home to Espanyol, virtually guaranteeing a landslide win for the league leaders. It’s not that I think there is added motivation for Espanyol to roll over given that a further win for Real Madrid even further decreases Barcelona’s chance of retaining the league, but Cataluña’s second club hasn’t registered a win at the Bernabeu since 1996, with that stat courtesy of the fine people @InfostradaLive for those on Twitter.
Let’s hope they prove me wrong, but the gap at the end of the weekend will almost certainly be 10 points, sorry if that’s gonna spoil it for anyone.
Victor Valdes will start in goal looking for his 13th clean sheet of the league season, and to extend the seven-match unbeaten streak he (and presumably the rest of the squad) has against Sporting Gijon. Valdes was excellent last week – man of the match even – although one would suspect that he will have a little less work to do.
Defensively, I suspect that the absence of Eric Abidal through injury (cursed international breaks, ruining our players...) could spark the return of the 3-4-3. The three-man backline would certainly be feasible, given that Sporting boast one of the league’s worst attacks, although with Bayer Leverkusen taking priority for the week, Guardiola may use this fixture as an opportunity to rest a couple of key defenders. Dani Alves could be given a rest, if Pep opts for the 3-4-3, plainly because the formation does not allow room for the Brazilian. Well, it does, but not in his favoured and most effective position. Also in line for a rest could be captain Carles Puyol, but I feel that Pep is unlikely to promote sufficient replacements from the B team to allow that to happen.
Whatever the case, I believe Gerard Pique will start, thus quietening the absurd rumours that he wants to leave the club for a return to Manchester United. Conveniently, the reports fail to acknowledge that Barcelona would reject almost every bid for Pique; therefore it would take an astronomical bid from a fairly cash-strapped club to lure a settled, world-class player away from Barcelona. I realise rumours are usually a bit far-fetched, but this is crazy. Or from Pique’s point of view if a bid was made: would Shakira really like to move to Manchester? Exactly.
Starting alongside him in a 3-4-3 would likely be Javier Mascherano, who has displaced Pique as the second choice centre-back purely because he has been better. I am not buying into the punishment stories that have becoming more common in the media, Pique has just not been playing as well as Masch has been. That leaves a single spot left in a 3-4-3, and Puyol would probably fill that gap, but it is possible that Marc Muniesa could deputise for our beloved captain. In the event that Pep opts for the 4-3-3, expect Adriano to fill in at left-back, with Dani Alves staying at right-back.
The midfield will unfortunately be without Sergio Busquets, who along with Lionel Messi is out serving a suspension for yellow card accumulation. Usually, I despise when Busquets is out, as usually the team is severely impacted by his absence, but the 3-4-3 could negate that impact. Jonathan dos Santos would be an able replacement for a match, especially at the Camp Nou, and with Xavi, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta in support, the team would continue to carve out chances and retain possession at a level similar to usual.
That’s not to say that Thiago will not start, but given his troubles with his lower right leg (the official website describes a problem with his right tibia), I think tomorrow’s match may come too soon for Thiago. Personally, I think Thiago would benefit hugely from a start in the Champions League knockout stages, no matter the scenario, so would be better rested tomorrow in lieu of Wednesday’s game.
Offensively, the suspension of Leo actually puts a strain on things. For example, the false #9 position usually occupied by the Argentine will be worryingly vacant, with seemingly little option to fill it. Will Cesc be pushed forward as he has been previously? Alexis Sanchez has been a revelation in recent weeks, and he excelled in a similar position for Udinese, but he only returned from the USA (where he played for Chile against Ghana, if you can figure that out) this afternoon. Surely that’s too late for him to truly be considered an option for tomorrow? In that case, what I wrote in the last paragraph could be proved irrelevant, as I think Thiago could be an excellent choice in the false #9 position.
Whoever plays in the false #9 position will be supported by two superb wingers, and I say that in confidence no matter who Pep picks. Cristian Tello is a unique option on left-wing, with pace in abundance, but I think he will have to settle for a spot on the bench. Pedro has been in the news in the past day or so with his quotes on Pep’s future, and his place in the team, and tomorrow he will get his reward for the patience he displays with a start. With Lionel Messi out, the onus will be on Pedro to step up in the goals department. He is the highest scoring member of last season’s squad available for selection against Gijon and I suspect he will provide us with a reminder why. With Pedro on left wing, Isaac Cuenca is the only "real" option to play on the right, but Alves may get the nod, depending on Guardiola’s mindset.
Predicted Line-up (3-4-3): Victor Valdes; Carles Puyol, Javier Mascherano, Gerard Pique; Jonathan dos Santos, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Seydou Keita; Cesc Fabregas, Pedro Rodriguez, Isaac Cuenca.
Match Prediction: Barcelona to win by at least three goals, I would guess at a 4-0 win.
On a side note, if you haven't already, we would really appreciate your feedback on the site in our survey. The responses we have so far have been great and a few more would really top it off. To take our survey, just follow this link.