While the majority of the squad was away making headlines on the international stage, everything was quietly ticking over back at the Camp Nou. The world's best player was focusing on his recovery from injury, the manager Gerardo Martino was scouting the talent on display at the B team and -- if the rumours are to be believed -- the board have been busy too, reportedly striking deals with a couple of German internationals. However, in contrast to the certainty of the international break, the domestic scene (for FC Barcelona at least) is surrounded by mystery. We know what's been happening behind the scenes but does any of it matter?
Will Lionel Messi really make his long-awaited return from injury tomorrow? Will Martino actually hand some minutes to a member of the B team in the upcoming weeks? Will either Mats Hummels or Marc-Andre ter Stegen join the club in the summer?
For now, it's all irrelevant; inconsequential even -- with the first Clasico of the season on the horizon, Barcelona's focus is very much on the here and now. With or without Lionel Messi, there is pressure on the club to extend their 100% start to the La Liga campaign and enter that clash with Real Madrid as league leaders. The three points are all that matters.
And typically, Barcelona are expected to canter to victory on Saturday; whether an improving Osasuna outfit allow that to happen is another matter altogether. After all, it was only last year that Osasuna upset the odds to defeat Pep Guardiola's Blaugrana...
Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol have all resumed training with the rest of the group and could therefore be in line to make their respective comebacks from injury, although there is a suspicion that Gerardo Martino will take a more cautious approach with two difficult matches in the immediate future. Of course, one of those fixtures is the Clasico and the other is a tough UEFA Champions League encounter with AC Milan. In terms of priority, this clash with Osasuna is certainly at the bottom of everyone's list. So, there is an appeal to playing it safe -- one that I too would favour in Martino's situation.
With the squad in such scintillating form, there really is no need to experiment and risk it all. Just send out the players you know are fit and ready – and the result should take care of itself.
In Victor Valdés, Barcelona have arguably the best goalkeeper in world football – based on current form at least – and their defense is improving, particularly with the introduction of young Marc Bartra. Alongside Gerard Piqué, Bartra has re-established himself as one of Barça’s brightest prospects, despite an underwhelming pre-season and a difficult start to life under Gerardo Martino. However, I suspect that Piqué may be rested having recently picked up a slight knock, allowing Martino to assess Bartra alongside a different partner – likely to be Javier Mascherano.
Martin Montoya may also be assessed in an unfamiliar situation too; rumours are abound that Martino is contemplating resting Adriano in favour of the Catalan full-back. That would mean a start for Dani Alves, but there’d be time for the Brazilian to rest on Tuesday if absolutely necessary.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets is almost a dead-cert to start at pivote, while I have a feeling that Sergi Roberto might get a rare start alongside Andrés Iniesta. Xavi is just as talented as he ever was, but in order for him to display those talents against Los Blancos in a week’s time, he will need to be fully rested.
Moving onto the attack, maybe Lionel Messi will start after all – but it would be surprising to say the least. It’s not like we need the Argentine to defeat Osasuna, especially given Neymar’s recent form. But what if Martino wishes to rest the Brazilian? What then? Cesc Fàbregas as false nine with Alexis Sánchez and Pedro in support? There isn’t much in the way of real depth, so I think we might see Neymar start and possibly play an hour before departing either for Messi, or for Cesc Fàbregas.
Roberto Torres, Jon Echaide and Miguel Flano all received medical clearance to return to action this week and will join the rest of Javi Gracia’s squad – although former Rayo Vallecano loanee, Emiliano Armenteros has been ruled out with a hamstring injury. The Argentine winger will join Raoul Loe and Nino on the sidelines.
FC Barcelona 5-1 CA Osasuna – 27th January 2013 – La Liga
Lionel Messi helped himself to four goals in this landslide win for the Blaugrana on a wintery evening at the Camp Nou against ten-man Osasuna.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Mascherano, Bartra, Montoya; Busquets, Roberto, Iniesta; Sanchez, Neymar, Pedro
Osasuna (4-2-3-1): Andrés; Damia, Loties, Arribas, Oriol; Punal, Silva; de las Cuevas, Sisi, Cejudo; Riera
A trip to Pamplona can be a tough ask – and just after an international break with the UCL and a Clasico on the horizon makes this a potential banana-skin fixture for Barça. Still, they will have Messi in reserve – and as a result, it’s difficult to envisage a situation in which they do not return home with the three points. I’m going for a 3-0 away win.