FC Barcelona will have to put their 1-1 El Clasico draw behind them when they travel to the Mestalla tomorrow where they will take on seventh-place Valencia in La Liga action. With five wins in their last six league matches, Ernesto Valverde’s side are finally fighting their way towards the top four, but as Real Madrid demonstrated a few weeks ago, Valencia are still far from unbeatable. In what was arguably their best performance of the season so far, Los Blancos tore Los Che to shreds en route to an emphatic 5-0 win at the Mestalla. Will Barcelona be able to maintain their eleven-point lead at the top of La Liga with another win tomorrow, or will Valencia be able to continue their recent run of good form with a favourable result?
Barcelona make just one change to the team that travelled to the Santiago Bernabeu as Martin Montoya replaces Marc Bartra in the final 19-man squad. Aside from that, Barcelona are unchanged from Wednesday’s draw with Real Madrid – although we are likely to see a different XI to the one that started in the Copa del Rey. For starters, Jose Manuel Pinto will be replaced in goal by Victor Valdés, who has not kept a clean sheet since announcing his decision to leave the club in 2014. Should we be concerned with Valdes’ form, or is that statistic merely a coincidence?
I would suggest it’s the latter, but one might argue that Valdés’ decision – or more to the point, the timing of his decision – has affected the defense. Even Gerard Piqué has lost his composure in recent weeks; would it be far-fetched to link this (and Barcelona’s other defensive problems) to Valdés decision?
Moving back to tomorrow’s match, Dani Alves should start at right-back following an "eventful" Clasico. Alves was reportedly the target of racial abuse from the Bernabeu crowd, and somewhat depressingly he admitted in a post-match interview that the campaign to eliminate racism is a "lost war". Naturally, neither FIFA nor the RFEF are going to take any action against the chanting, so Alves is supposed to just forget about it and move on...
Alves is likely to be joined in defense by Gerard Piqué, who is likely to return to La Liga action following his one-game suspension and Javier Mascherano who sat out Wednesday’s Clasico. Jordi Alba is also expected to start against his former club, in what will be his first match back at the Mestalla since he made his €14 million move back to the Camp Nou.
In midfield, there are question marks surrounding the fitness of Sergio Busquets, although Jordi Roura dispelled those fears in his pre-match press conference, revealing that Busi trained as normal and will be available to start. I didn’t notice Busquets pick up an injury during the Clasico, but it’s quite possible he sustained a knock thanks to the "enthusiasm" shown by the Real Madrid midfield. Whatever the case, Busquets should start tomorrow regardless, but if he isn’t 100%, then Roura could always hand Alex Song a rare start.
After starting the midweek Clasico, Xavi may start tomorrow’s match on the bench, which could open the door for Thiago Alcântara. However, if Xavi were to start on the bench, I suspect Roura would opt to move Andrés Iniesta back into midfield, where he would have Cesc Fàbregas in support.
The main thinking behind that move is that it would allow David Villa to start on the left-hand side of attack – which would be a universally popular decision following that midweek draw. Villa’s presence allows the Blaugrana to operate out of a more orthodox 4-3-3; and it also takes some of the pressure off of Lionel Messi – who will also start tomorrow, provided Leo isn’t too busy harassing Alvaro Arbeloa. That leaves just one remaining space and call me crazy, but I have a hunch that Alexis Sánchez will start.
Ernesto Valverde has a couple of big decisions to make heading into tomorrow’s game, the most important of which involves Ever Banega. According to reports, Banega turned up to training drunk – and late – so Valverde could leave the Argentine out of the starting line-up as punishment. On the other hand, can he afford to leave Banega out against the Barcelona midfield?
FC Barcelona 1-0 Valencia CF – 2nd September 2012 – La Liga
A stunning long-range effort from Adriano Correia was enough to secure three points for the Blaugrana at the Camp Nou against a resolute performance from Valencia.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Fàbregas, Iniesta; Sánchez, Messi, Villa
Valencia (4-3-3): Alves; Pereira, Rami, Costa, Cissokho; Costa, Banega, Albeda; Piatti, Soldado, Guardado
Usually, Barcelona struggle against Valencia, but with Valverde in charge, I think that might change. His style of play suits Barça right down to the ground, and the Blaugrana should have enough to walk out victorious: I’m going for a 3-1 Barcelona win.