FC Barcelona return to league action tomorrow as they travel to La Romareda to face a resurgent Real Zaragoza side who will be looking for their fourth consecutive victory. Just a few weeks ago this fixture seemed straight-forward, but Zaragoza have regrouped to post wins against Valencia (at the Mestalla no less), Atletico Madrid and fellow strugglers Sporting Gijon. While the Blaugrana will provide a much sterner test, Manolo Jimenez’ side will be high on confidence and looking to exploit any signs of fatigue in the Barcelona ranks.
However, Barcelona have the prize of victory to focus their minds, not to mention the added incentive that the three points would cut the gap to league leaders Real Madrid down to three points – albeit temporarily. With Los Blancos facing a difficult match against Valencia, this matchday could rank amongst the most important of the season. Should Madrid drop points, then the comeback will certainly be on, but another win for Jose Mourinho’s team would bring them one step closer to their first title during Guardiola’s reign.
La Liga is world renowned for the lack of true equality, which often equates into large point differentials between second and third place let alone second and last place, therefore the battles between the "Big Two" and the relegation threatened sides are often one-way traffic. Try telling that to Pep Guardiola though:
"With eight or nine games left until the end of the competition, the games against teams near the bottom of the table are the most difficult there are … I think they have a good chance of staying up, and that makes them even more dangerous."
As usual, it’s hard to disagree with Pep in this situation, look at how well Blackburn played against Manchester United this past Monday, for the first 80 minutes anyway. With so much to play for, these teams tend to play for a point, making it exceptionally difficult for the opposition to make the breakthrough. Unfortunately for Zaragoza, this approach isn’t unusual for Barcelona. In fact, I would go as far as to say the tactics Guardiola employs have been custom-made to counter-act that very approach. It’s merely a question of whether or not the players deliver the goods.
Victor Valdes will start in goal as he goes in search of a third successive Liga clean sheet, and his 17th in total for this league campaign. If Valdes is successful, it will also match his clean sheet total from last season, as well as moving him to within three matches of equalling his personal record of 20 clean sheets in a Liga season. With this campaign looking as if it will go down to the wire, I say that Victor at least equals that total, if not surpasses it.
Defensively, Gerard Pique’s injury has put the Blaugrana under a bit of strain, but Adriano’s recent recovery means that things aren’t as bad as they might have been. Dani Alves should start at right-back, with Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol both available to start in the centre of defense, while Adriano can start at left-back. Personally, I like the look of that defense, as both full-backs can push forward to help the attack, while both of the centre-backs are focused, tenacious competitors. Sure, Pique is getting back to his best, but a back-line of Masch and Puyol does ease the nerves just that little bit more.
Sergio Busquets will start in defensive midfield possibly in the best form of his short, but stellar career, although he is unlikely to have the support of Xavi, Busquets has displayed on numerous occasions that he can dominate the midfield on his own. Xavi’s calf injury may not have been serious enough to stop him starting against Milan, but let’s be honest; the back-up guys should be able to get it done tomorrow. Thiago was excellent last week, and will be looking to make it back-to-back starts in league action, but I tend to think that Cesc Fabregas is the more obvious and likely choice if Xavi misses out. With Andres Iniesta in support, Barcelona have more than enough creativity in midfield, so Seydou Keita could be considered, but Cesc’s goal-scoring record and relative physicality should get him the nod.
Offensively, Lionel Messi will be out for goals as he tries to regain the lead in the race for the Pichichi, especially as Cristiano Ronaldo is unlikely to grab many goals against Valencia. Now that I’ve said that, Ronaldo will probably grab a hat-trick, but ideally only after Messi has done the same! I suspect Alexis Sanchez will be restored to the right-wing after sitting out the win against Milan, and Pedro must be in line for a start as he looks to find his scoring boots again. Maybe, just maybe this is the week Pedro re-emerges.
Predicted Line-Up: Valdes; Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano; Busquets, Cesc, Iniesta; Pedro, Alexis, Messi
Match Prediction: Zaragoza will make it difficult, but once the first goal comes, the floodgates will surely open. 3-0 Barca.