FC Barcelona travel away for the first time this La Liga season tomorrow, as they prepare to take on last season’s UEFA Champions League quarter-finalists Malaga at La Rosaleda. After a historic fourth-place finish in 2011-12, Malaga shocked the world with their eventual run to the UEFA Champions League last eight, and were just a few seconds away from a place in the final four – but it’s been all down-hill since then for Los Boquerones.
Influential head coach Manuel Pellegrini has left for pastures new at Manchester City, while three of the club’s top-four goal-scorers from last season have followed him out the door at La Rosaleda; Isco now plies his trade for Real Madrid, Joaquin joined Fiorentina while former-Barcelona star Javier Saviola opted for a move to Greece, and Olympiakos. Once you factor in the loss of star central defender Martin Demichelis, it’s easy to see why Malaga have been tipped for mid-table mediocrity.
An opening night defeat to a relatively toothless Valencia outfit would have hardly pleased new coach Bernd Schuster, who admitted that his club will have to take extreme (defensive) measures to try and salvage a point from tomorrow’s clash with Gerardo Martino’s Barcelona. Even without Lionel Messi, the Blaugrana are still expected to cruise to a victory at La Rosaleda, particularly after Neymar scored his first goal for the side on Wednesday, in a 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid.
His powerful header might make all the difference in a few days time when the two clubs meet again – and even if it doesn’t, it likely demonstrates that Neymar is finally ready to start for his new team. However, with that important second-leg looming it’s worth asking whether Barcelona need to start the Brazilian tomorrow in order to maintain their 100% start to the La Liga season...
Lionel Messi misses out through injury, but Barcelona are able to welcome Adriano back into the fold, after the Brazilian full-back served a one-game suspension in the first leg of the Supercopa de España. Consequently, Martin Montoya has been cut from Martino’s 19-man squad – leaving room for Sergi Roberto to travel with the squad for the first time this season. The Catalan midfielder was one of Barça’s most impressive players throughout pre-season, and will be keen to make an impact if he’s given a chance to make his season debut tomorrow evening.
Victor Valdés will start in goal looking to extend his recent run of good form, which has seen the Catalan shot-stopper keep three clean sheets in his last four competitive appearances for club and country. Notching his fourth in five would be some achievement for Valdés given the recent record of the Barcelona defense, and give him some crucial confidence ahead of that pivotal Supercopa second-leg on Wednesday at the Camp Nou.
After starting the first two matches of the season, Dani Alves could be in line for a rest tomorrow and in the absence of Martin Montoya, that would mean a second successive La Liga start for Adriano – who could then move himself into contention for a starting berth (most probably at left-back) against Atletico Madrid with a solid performance at La Rosaleda. Unfortunately, Barcelona’s lack of depth means that Martino is unlikely to tinker with the centre of defense, and it’s likely that he will grant Alba his first La Liga start of the season, meaning that minimal change from Wednesday’s draw is highly likely.
Lionel Messi’s injury is likely to force Cesc Fàbregas into a more offensive role, allowing Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta to start together in midfield once again – but Martino could equally make a couple of changes, bringing Alex Song and Sergi Roberto into the starting line-up ahead of Busquets and Xavi respectively. The choice is all his, and depends on both the fitness of his usual starters and his confidence in the "fringe" players. Does Martino truly believe that they are good enough to help secure a win against Bernd Schuster’s Malaga?
As mentioned earlier, Cesc Fàbregas is expected to slot into the front-three as Barcelona’s latest false nine, and many anticipate that he will be joined in attack by Pedro and Neymar. Or Neymar and Alexis Sánchez. Or any possible combination that includes Neymar. Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing Neymar "saved" for Wednesday, but I could hardly say no to seeing the Brazilian make his first start for the club.
Malaga will be without last season’s starting central defender (and captain) Weligton, who is recovering from surgery at his home in Malaga, while new signing Flavio (also a central defender) is also sidelined through injury. However, there is some good news as Carlos Kameni and Eliseu have both rejoined training after missing sessions earlier in the week with slight problems.
Not that it really matters, as Willy Caballero is still expected to start in goal, while Duda could retain his place after starting in the 1-0 defeat against Valencia. It’ll be interesting to see whether Schuster continues to rely upon a mixture of youth and experience against the Blaugrana – as talented as Fabrice Olinga may be for instance, it seems unlikely that he will start tomorrow, particularly following Schuster’s pre-match comments which suggested a more "defensive" approach.
FC Barcelona 4-1 Malaga CF – 1st June 2013 – La Liga
It was less than three months ago that Barcelona wrapped up their La Liga campaign in style with an emphatic 4-1 win against Malaga, as goals from David Villa, Cesc Fàbregas, Martin Montoya and Andrés Iniesta helped the Blaugrana reach the 100-point milestone for the first time in their history.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Adriano, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Pedro, Fàbregas, Neymar
Malaga (4-2-3-1): Caballero; Gamez, Chen, Angeleri, Antunes; Camacho, Tissone; Morales, Portillo, Eliseu; Santa Cruz
Even in the absence of their star player, Barcelona should have more than enough to escape La Rosaleda with all three points – I’m going for a hard-fought 2-0 win.