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La Liga: Real Betis vs FC Barcelona: Match Preview

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Well this is pointless. Barcelona travel to Seville tonight to face Real Betis in their final league match of the season. While Real Madrid can reach 100 points with a win in their final fixture, Barcelona are merely playing for pride and to keep some momentum going heading into the Copa del Rey final which will take place 13 days from today. However, at stake for Real Betis is extra prize money as a loss could see them finish at low as 15th, while a win could take them up to 9th if results go their way. Considering the financial state of almost every club in La Liga, that difference in prize money could be vital.

Pep Guardiola has been dealt a blow of sorts in the build-up to his final league game in charge with stand-in goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto ruled out of tonight’s encounter with a sprained ankle, meaning that the eccentric Spaniard joins fellow compatriots Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, David Villa and Andreu Fontas on the sidelines, with Chilean Alexis Sanchez, and obviously long-term absentee Eric Abidal rounding off the ever-increasing injury list.

With Pinto out injured, but certain to recover barring any setbacks, that means that Victor Valdes will start in goal in his final appearance of the season. Valdes will be looking to keep a clean sheet in order to secure his fourth successive Zamora, but bear in mind his form prior to the decision to start Pinto for the remainder of the season. Will we see the Valdes of old return or will we see the error-prone Valdes in goal tonight?

Defensively, I expect Dani Alves to start at right-back as Pep looks to keep at least two of the regular four-man defense, although there is a possibility that Martin Montoya will keep his place after his decent performance against Espanyol. At centre-back, Javier Mascherano is the only member of the first team squad who is not injured, and therefore will start, with Marc Bartra the likely option to partner the Argentine. Bartra also played a part in the comfortable win over Espanyol, coming off the bench to replace the injured Puyol (even if we didn’t know at the time) and slotting into central defense rather nicely. At left-back, Adriano remains the only option.

In midfield, Sergio Busquets should start as pivote, especially given Seydou Keita’s slight injury problems over the past week. While the Malian has played well recently, and could be set to leave the club in the summer depending on whether you believe the rumours or not, I think he will have to settle for a place on the bench. Xavi has recovered from the small tear in his calf and must be pushing for a start, but in this situation with only pride left to play for it would be foolish to risk our midfield maestro.

In that case, I would plump for Thiago and Andres Iniesta in midfield, although it could also be a great opportunity to see what Ibrahim Afellay can do from a midfield position from the outset. It’s unlikely that the Dutchman is ready for 90 minutes just yet, but it would be nice to see him get a half, or an hour to showcase his ability. On the other hand, I think a midfield combo of Cesc Fabregas and Iniesta seems the most likely at present.

Offensively, Lionel Messi will start having scored four in his last match, which means a hat-trick tonight would see the Argentine move to a round tally of 75 goals for the season. I would say that’s unlikely given his record away from home against Real Betis, but I would have also said that scoring three consecutive hat-tricks is unlikely, and contributing over 100 goals in a season is unlikely, but Lionel Messi doesn’t seem to operate in the real world. Unless Cristiano Ronaldo pulls something spectacular out of the bag, Messi is guaranteed the Pichichi, it’s merely a question of how high he wants to set the bar for next season.

Alongside Messi, Pedro seems like a nailed-on starter, while Isaac Cuenca may be an option for the remaining place. However, we could equally see Iniesta move further forward or a start for Cristian Tello on the left with Alexis and Villa still injured. Whatever the case, all attention will be on Lionel Messi; maybe it will down to the likes of Pedro to capitalise.

Predicted Line-Up: Valdes; Alves, Mascherano, Bartra, Adriano; Busi, Cesc, Thiago; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta

Match Prediction: Barca to win by a couple, with Messi helping himself to a brace. 3-1 is my bet

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