FC Barcelona prepare to host Real Valladolid in the penultimate home match of their 2012-13 La Liga campaign tomorrow, as the Blaugrana set their sights on matching the 100 point record set by Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid just a season ago. Valladolid have performed admirably in their first season back in the Spanish top flight and are guaranteed a comfortable mid-table finish under the guidance of Serbian manager Miroslav Ðukić – who looks set to mastermind one of Real Valladolid’s most successful seasons in recent memory (Valladolid have not finished in the top half of La Liga since 1999/2000, when Gregorio Manzano was at the helm). Will Ðukić be able to steer Valladolid to a famous victory over Tito Vilanova’s record-breakers, or will Barça move one step closer to their 100 point target?
Javier Mascherano has finally received the medical green light to return to action, roughly six weeks since he suffered a knee injury in a 2-2 UEFA Champions League draw with Ligue Un champions, Paris Saint-Germain. Also returning to the fold is Victor Valdés, who has missed the past two La Liga fixtures with a foot injury, although it’s not all good news for Tito Vilanova, as Lionel Messi misses out with yet another thigh injury. There are also question marks over the fitness of Eric Abidal, who has struggled in recent weeks with a niggling calf complaint, and of course, it wouldn’t quite be right if Adriano wasn’t carrying some sort of knock. Dani Alves has missed training this week with a back complaint – which forced the Brazilian off in last week’s win over Copa del Rey winners, Atletico Madrid – and Carles Puyol continues to recover from knee surgery. With that in mind, will we finally see some of the promising La Masia youngsters given a shot in the first team?
After shaking off his foot injury, Victor Valdés should reclaim his place in the Barcelona goal – although if the rumours are to be believed, this may be one of the last times we see Valdés between the sticks in a Blaugrana shirt. With just three matches remaining this season, and a year left on his contract, there is a very real possibility that Valdés will leave for pastures new in the summer – wouldn’t it be nice if Valdés could say goodbye to the club with three consecutive clean sheets? Hopeful to say the least, but hey, a kid can dream right?
As both Dani Alves and Adriano are doubtful for tomorrow’s match, Martin Montoya should start his tenth La Liga match of the season – which isn’t a bad total, considering the relatively unnecessary criticism that Tito has faced in recent weeks – and Montoya may be joined in defense by Marc Bartra, who looks set to benefit from Adriano’s latest injury with a place in tomorrow’s starting XI. Rather surprisingly, it will only be his fourth La Liga start of the season (provided he does start of course), which probably demonstrates why Barcelona are prioritising the signing of an elite centre-half this summer. Bartra might have potential, and is a decent stop-gap at the moment, but ultimately no-one at the club quite believes he is ready for a place in the starting line-up. Regardless of whether Bartra starts or not, Gerard Piqué is certain to fill the other centre-back role, with Jordi Alba manning the left-flank.
Sergio Busquets has had another week to recover match fitness and I believe that Busi will return at pivote tomorrow, to make his first La Liga start in over two months. Ideally, Busquets will be accompanied by Thiago and one other in midfield – despite reports of interest from abroad, I’d be surprised if Thiago did leave the Camp Nou this summer, particularly as Barcelona’s brightest prospects – and that one other will probably be Andrés Iniesta, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see Iniesta and Xavi start together in midfield with Lionel Messi sidelined.
Speaking of Lionel Messi, with the Argentine out of the picture for what should be the rest of the season, this could be an opportunity for another Barcelona attacker to lead the frontline. Perhaps not literally – that job will almost certainly fall to Cesc Fàbregas – I’m talking about leading the team with goals, and impressive all-round appearances. Alexis Sánchez appears to be our guy in that respect; with three goals and an assist in his last three La Liga appearances, the Chilean is finally living up to his price-tag – but it could equally be Cristian Tello or even Pedro who steps up in the next three matches to fire Barcelona to a century of points. As for tomorrow, I expect to see Sánchez, Cesc and Tello in attack, although I would quite like the opportunity to see if Alexis can work in tandem with Pedro – possibly with Pedro or Alexis as the "9" in our usual 4-3-3.
Ðukić will be without his compatriot and starting right-back for the visit to the Camp Nou tomorrow, as Antonio Rukavina picked up his fifth yellow card of the season last weekend against Deportivo La Coruna. Perhaps more worrying though is the news that Patrick Ebert (who assisted Javi Guerra’s 48th minute winner in last weekend’s win over Depor) also misses out with the flu. The German midfielder has been influential in Valladolid’s season, and will be sorely missed.
Real Valladolid: LWDDLW
Real Valladolid 1-3 FC Barcelona – 22nd December 2012 – La Liga
Barcelona secured a valuable three points away from home as goals from Xavi, Lionel Messi and Cristian Tello were enough to see off the threat of Real Valladolid, who nearly made a contest of the match with Javi Guerra’s goal in the 89th minute.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Montoya, Bartra, Piqué, Alba; Busquets, Thiago, Iniesta; Sánchez, Fàbregas, Tello
Real Valladolid (4-2-3-1): Hernández; Baraja, Valiente, Rueda, Balenziaga; Sastre, Rubio; Bueno, Oscar, Omar; Guerra
Without Lionel Messi, Barcelona do lose a lot of firepower, and creativity, but they should still have enough to dispatch Valladolid – I’m going for a 3-0 home win.