FC Barcelona returns to La Liga action tomorrow as they host Granada at the Camp Nou in their fifth league match of the season. Given that Real Madrid do not play until Sunday evening, the Blaugrana have the opportunity to extend their lead over Los Blancos to a staggering eleven points and with Malaga also playing on Sunday, Barcelona could go five points clear in top spot. Despite falling behind to the ultra-defensive Spartak Moscow, Barcelona did fight back on Wednesday to earn a valuable win, further proof that they can win games, even when they are not playing at their best.
It’s one of the typical clichés you hear throughout a season: the team on top spot falters in their match, but still wins and instead of criticising the performance, the emphasis is on how the team in question "grinded out the win like champions". It’s far too early to even suggest anything of the sort about this current Barcelona team, but how many people think that we would have won that game last season? The draw with Real Sociedad, the draw with Valencia, even the loss to Chelsea; the performances were poor and the end results were far from desirable. On the other hand, look at the win against Osasuna and the victory in midweek. The performances weren’t entirely desirable, but we can have no qualms with the final result.
Victor Valdés will start in goal – barring illness – looking for his second clean sheet of the season after coming close last week. The Blaugrana were 3-0 up at the time and coasting towards victory before Pablo Sarabia’s shot took a couple of deflections to wrong-foot Valdés. It was an unfortunate goal to concede, but there was nothing unfortunate about Romulo’s goal on Wednesday. It was poor defending all-round, although I do think that Valdés should have done better with the shot. Whatever the case, a home fixture with Granada is exactly what the doctor ordered, and with any luck, we’ll be celebrating a shut-out tomorrow evening.
Then we get onto the defense. Gerard Piqué is now injured. Carles Puyol is injured. Eric Abidal is still sidelined. As if we didn’t know already, Barcelona are down to the bare bones at the back. Javier Mascherano will start at centre-half; Dani Alves is likely to start at right-back while Adriano should start on the left, despite Jordi Alba recovering from his bout of influenza. However, the question is who will start alongside Mascherano in the centre of defense? We asked this exact question yesterday and the response was clear: we should start Marc Bartra. I totally agree with the community here, Bartra is the best choice for many reasons. He knows the system (unlike Alex Song), he has the height (like Geri) and crucially, he has age on his side. If we start with Bartra now, we may well have a solution to future problems which could save the club tens of millions in player investment. Media reports in Spain suggest that Tito agrees, we will just have to wait and see, praying for the best.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets should start at pivote, especially Barcelona cannot afford an injury to Alex Song. Imagine if Song plays at pivote and picks up a muscle injury, ruling him out of the Clasico? What happens then, especially if the Bartra experiment backfires in some way? I don’t mean to be negative; the odds of both events happening are slim to none, but knowing Barcelona’s track record with injuries, that’s a chance we cannot afford to take.
Completing the midfield, I think Tito will opt to restore Thiago Alcântara to the line-up after the disappointing midweek performance against Spartak. Barcelona did win, but failed to create many chances relative to the time they spent in possession of the ball, and that’s where Thiago could make a huge difference. Thiago can create a chance out of nothing through one mazy dribble, one drop of the shoulder; he could be passing the ball, or trying a shot on goal, it doesn’t really matter – he has that "X-Factor". Getafe couldn’t cope with him last week, chances are that Granada will not fare any better. Alongside Thiago Alcântara, I hope that we see Sergi Roberto make an appearance in the heart of midfield. Over pre-season, Sergi Roberto proved that he can compete at the highest level, but with players like Cesc and Xavi ahead of him, first-team chances were going to be limited. On the other hand, Xavi and Fàbregas both need to rest at some point and with Iniesta out injured, Roberto now has his chance to shine. Will we see him start tomorrow? Probably not, but it would be a nice idea.
Last but not least, we get to the attack which is arguably in the best shape of the season so far. Lionel Messi is scoring goals for fun (four in his last two matches), David Villa is regaining fitness with each passing week and finding the time to contribute goals, while Cristian Tello and Alexis Sanchez maybe inconsistent, but for the time-being, are putting in decent performances. It’s merely a question of who Tito feels is best equipped to do the job tomorrow. Lionel Messi will start, and if I had to put money on it, I would bet that Alexis Sanchez and Cristian Tello will complete the attack. Not for any particular reason, other than that both played well on Wednesday.
Whenever it’s time to face Granada, the first thing that comes to mind is that song by Allan Sherman. However, I understand that won’t suffice for a preview of tomorrow’s match, so here’s the basic team news. Dani Benitez is still banned, Pape Diakhate has been left out of the squad for tactical reasons while Odion Ighalo, Fran Rico and Hassan Yebda all miss out through injury. Youssef El-Arabi has not scored since his summer move, while Antonio Floro Flores has only scored once for his new employers, so perhaps this really is the best time for Geri and Puyol to get injured. Granada are without a win in their opening four games of the season – Barcelona will be keen to make it five tomorrow night.
FC Barcelona 5-3 Granada CF – 20th March 2012 – La Liga
Lionel Messi broke Barcelona’s all-time goal-scoring record with a hat-trick in this midweek La Liga encounter. Tello and Xavi got the other two Barca goals, while Guilherme Siqueira (two penalties) and Mainz got the goals for the visitors.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Bartra, Mascherano, Adriano; Busquets, Fàbregas, Thiago; Tello, Messi, Alexis
Granada (4-2-3-1): Roberto; Siqueira, Nyom, Mainz, Inigo Lopez; Iriney, Mikel Rico; Torje, Orellana, Brahimi; El-Arabi
Barcelona to coast to victory, with a few goals along the way. I do think Granada will get a goal though – 5-1 Barcelona