Barcelona begin their two weeks from hell with a trip into Andalusia to play Granada CF. Granada, sitting 14th, are six points off relegation and eager to remain in the safe part of the table. With a Champions League match against Milan awaiting, Barca will likely rotate their squad to keep players fresh.
Granada are a modest club; their biggest honor was finishing runner-up in the cup to Barcelona in in 1959. Let's not forget they were in the third division just three years ago. They were promoted to Segunda for the 2010-11 season, and were promoted again. After returning to Primera last season, it's obvious Granada would love to stay up again.
Their squad is not filled with many stars. Still, they are quite capable of being giant-killers if they are in the mood.
In the last meeting between the two sides, Granada's keeper Toño Martinez had an outstanding performance that Javi Varas would be proud of, parrying shot after shot as Barcelona descended upon him over and over again.
Xavi finally broke the deadlock with a precision strike a few minutes from time, and an own goal provoked by Lionel Messi in injury time sealed the win.
Last year, Granada escaped relegation by a single point. This year, they will do their best to avoid such a drama.
Granada come in good spirits, having achieved two very good results in the league. New coach Lucas Alcaraz couldn't have dreamed up a better start. Against Deportivo in La Coruña, his team was ruthless, sending the home side further into the depths of the relegation zone with a 3-0 victory.
And against Real Madrid, Granada were far from spectacular but still quite effective. Toño was a star again, but Diego Mainz was everywhere for the defense as Real failed to create many clear-cut chances. On offense, Granada couldn't create anything either, failing to register a single shot on goal.
They didn't need to, as Cristiano Ronaldo headed the ball into his own net and Granada protected the lead to record a famous victory.
Before that, Granada were thumped 3-0 away to Sevilla, always dangerous at home. The fans will want to forget that one, and really any bad result prior to the arrival of Alcaraz. Can the manager, born in Granada, make it three for three?
Barcelona fans are acquainted with Toño, who is quietly earning himself quite the reputation. Toño is a keen shot-stopper, and on his best day, he can be a one-man defensive wall, as Barca can attest. If the Valencian is on a good day, it could be a long day yet again for the Catalans.
Diego Mainz has arguably been Granada's best player all season, and his impressive performance against Real Madrid really was just the exclamation point on an outstanding season so far.
Mainz came to Granada when they were in the third division, and he's been a part of the team that has achieved promotion twice and staved off relegation from La Liga last season. A tower in central defense, Mainz also does well at reading the game and plays with a lot of spirit.
Guillherme Siqueira is a typically Brazilian full-back; in the tradition of Roberto Carlos, Dani Alves, Marcelo, and Adriano Correia. Like those Brazilians and many others, he is best-known for his keen attacking sense. Still, it's surprising to know that Siqueira has the most goals (tied with forward Youssef El-Arabi) and most assists on the team playing left-back.
Siqueira loves to take players one-on-one and is known to either cross or shoot. Defensively, he is not quite as strong, but equally, he is not a pushover.
Granada's preferred formation up to this point has been the 4-2-3-1. The Andalusians aren't likely to keep possession that much against most teams, and against Barca, they will probably have very little of the ball.
Though a threat on set pieces, Granada are also paradoxically vulnerable to them. While they have famously withstood Barca and Madrid for long spells, they have also been carved up by some good teams such as Malaga and Sevilla. It will be interesting to see which Granada shows up.
Perhaps sensing the need for more attacking flair, Granada signed former Barcelona player Nolito on loan from Benfica, Carlos Aranda from Zaragoza, and Diego Buonanotte from Malaga in January. The likes of Floro Flores, Jaime Romero, and Fabián Orellana have exited the team.
With the team in relative safety, Alcaraz at the helm, and some new faces, Granada can be cautiously optimistic about the future. Alcaraz has said that as long as the team is in a positive mindset, anything can happen. "Why not?" he asked.
It's likely Granada will again use a 4-2-3-1 that sits deep and awaits Barca, as they did in their previous meeting. It's worth pointing out that Alcaraz has used the same lineup in his two games in charge and has already said there would be few surprises.
With Toño in goal, the back line will likely feature Siqueira at left-back, Mainz and Iñigo López in the middle, and Cameroonian Allan Nyom on the right. Borja Gomez has been used a lot in the center of defense and could be an option. Fullback Juanma Ortiz has been used primarily as a sub.
The two central midfielders are probably going to be Mikel Rico and another new signing, Recio. Of the two, Recio is the more combative while Rico is a better distributor, but really, either one can both pass and tackle. The Brazilian, Iriney, remains an option as he has started a lot of games prior to Recio's arrival.
The attacking options are interesting. With Dani Benitez still injured, Nolito has started on the left wing since both his and Alcaraz's arrival, so the trend should remain. Carlos Aranda should start in the central role, with Romania's Gabriel Torje, on loan from Udinese, taking up the right wing. Yacine Brahim is likely to have to settle for a spot on the bench.
The Nigerian, Odion Ighalo, is a quick player and not a traditional number nine, but he's been Alcaraz's preferred choice in the lone striker role. He has not provided goals by the bucket but he might be preferred for his ability to press the Catalan backline and work in the counterattack.
Could Buonanotte deserve a spot, either on the left wing or in the striker position? He did score a goal for Malaga against Barcelona from a free kick, and has been subbed in both games he has been available so far. The Argentine is so small he makes Messi look tall, but he is also quick as a flash and quite skillful.
El-Arabi also could be pushing to start either as the striker, attacking midfield, or right-wing. The Moroccan is a good finisher, and is tied with Siqueira for most goals on the team, but Alcaraz has not used him yet.
It's likely Alcaraz will remain with the lineup that has given him good results up to this point, and maybe even with the same three subs that he's brought in every time: Ortiz, Iriney, and Buonanotte. Familiarity can be a great thing, but can it become too predictable? Will Alcaraz stray from his plan this early in his tenure?
In the last round, Barcelona received a somewhat weakened Getafe and battered them 6-1 at the Camp Nou. Granada are, on paper, a tougher proposition despite being further back in the league.
First, Granada are at home. This can really make all the difference.
Second, Granada come riding the feeling of some great results and they have a new manager and fresh faces in the lineup.
Third, Barcelona are wary of the upcoming matches and must rotate players. With an eye on the next match, and the likes of Mainz in great form, this could really be a tricky match for the Blaugrana.
Possible XI: Toño; Siqueira, Mainz, Lopez, Nyom; Recio, Rico; Nolito, Aranda, Torje; Ighalo (4-2-3-1)