Forget about the UEFA Champions League final, and forget about Neymar; there are still two matches left in this season’s La Liga – including a Catalan derby as Barcelona prepare to take on Espanyol at the Estadi Cornella-El Prat. While the title may be secure, Barcelona still have the 100 point record to play for, and what better way to move one step closer to equalling that feat than defeating city rivals Espanyol in their own backyard? Under the guidance of experienced Mexican coach, Javier Aguirre, Espanyol have steered clear of relegation and even flirted with European qualification at one stage – but the Periquitos have faltered in recent weeks, winning just one of their last six matches. Will they be able to return to winning ways tomorrow, or will Barcelona register their third consecutive El Derbi victory?
Lionel Messi is still sidelined with a thigh injury (although that didn’t stop Argentina from calling him up for their upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Colombia and Ecuador), while both Carles Puyol and Eric Abidal are unlikely to feature again this season – with the latter seemingly headed for the exit at the Camp Nou. However, Adriano and Dani Alves have recovered from their respective injuries and therefore could feature at some stage tomorrow evening.
Victor Valdés should start in what is shaping up to be his final away match for the Blaugrana – after more than a decade of service and countless trophies, Valdés is destined to leave the Camp Nou, possibly as soon as this summer, and possibly to AS Monaco. While it is a shame to see such a loyal servant leave the club, it’s also an opportunity for Barça to create a new "hero" between the sticks (with Marc-Andre Ter Stegen top of most Culés’ wishlists) – and let’s be honest, do we really want to keep a player who clearly isn’t dedicated to the team? Not only that, but do we want to keep a player who seems intent on harming the club, by reportedly insisting that he should be allowed to leave on a free transfer, a year before his contract expires? Of course, we’ll be forever grateful for Valdés’ service, and some of his more memorable, possibly trophy-winning displays, but after the last few weeks, I certainly won’t shed too many tears when Valdés does leave.
There’s a possibility that Dani Alves will start at right-back tomorrow after missing last weekend’s win over Real Valladolid – although many Culés would prefer to see Martin Montoya start after his impressive performance in that 2-1 victory. Jordi Alba is a virtual lock on the other side of defense, while Gerard Piqué is still in line to start, despite missing training this week for a trip to Los Angeles. Javier Mascherano made his triumphant return from injury last weekend, and will probably retain his place in the starting XI – even if would make more sense to see Marc Bartra given a rare chance to shine.
Sergio Busquets is favourite to start at pivote – and has lost just once in his entire career against Espanyol (in 11 meetings), providing two assists in the process. Only against Real Mallorca has Sergio Busquets been more productive in a creative sense – and it’s easy to see why he thrives in these matches, he is a local after all. Just like Xavi, who boasts a similar record against Espanyol, and similar to Busquets, Xavi also raises his game for these derby encounters – he has scored more goals against Espanyol than any other team, with six goals to his name against Barça’s city rivals. Will Xavi start tomorrow? Usually, we would all be in favour of Xavi taking the field – but not now, not with Thiago Alcântara ready to step up in his place, especially if that gives us a better chance of retaining his services for the immediate future. Andrés Iniesta is likely to start in the other midfield position, despite suffering something of a slump recently, having registered just two assists in the past three and a half months of La Liga action. Should we be concerned? Probably not. Should we be playing Thiago more often? Almost certainly...
With Lionel Messi sidelined, Cesc Fàbregas should fill in as Barça’s false nine, and I am very much in favour of Tito starting Cristian Tello on the left – I’m sure Tello would relish an opportunity to start against his former club after being left out of the squad the last time these two sides met, back in January. Alexis Sánchez should, at least in my opinion, fill the other attacking berth, but it seems as though the Chilean is still behind Pedro in the pecking order – and given that Pedro scored last weekend, I can’t see that has changed in the past week.
Espanyol secured the long-term future of talented left-back Victor Alvarez this week, but Alvarez has not made the cut for this weekend’s match against the Blaugrana (and neither has Martin Petrov for that matter). Influential centre-half, Hector Moreno is sidelined with a muscle injury but Victor Sánchez, Juan Forlin and Joan Capdevila are all back after suspension.
FC Barcelona 4-0 RCD Espanyol – 6th January 2013 – La Liga
Barcelona overwhelmed Espanyol at the Camp Nou with a first-half blitz, as four goals in the space of 20 minutes sealed the win for the Blaugrana. Xavi got the ball rolling before a brace from Pedro (!) and a penalty from Lionel Messi condemned Espanyol to their first defeat in five matches.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Thiago; Pedro, Cesc, Tello
Espanyol (4-2-3-1): Casilla; Lopez, Colotto; Rodriguez, Capdevila; Forlin, Baena; Sánchez, Verdu, Simao; Sergio Garcia
Barcelona have won the last two Catalan derby matches by four goals – but I can’t see a repeat of that scoreline tomorrow. Instead, I’m going for another 2-1 Barça win.