FC Barcelona entertain UEFA Champions League qualifiers Real Sociedad tomorrow at the Camp Nou, as the Blaugrana look to maintain their 100% start to this La Liga campaign. Tomorrow's visitors are without a goal in their last three matches (two draws and one defeat), but regardless of that fact, last season’s fourth place finishers boast too much quality to be underestimated, particularly by a suspect Barça defense.
While Barcelona may have achieved two successive shut-outs, they have relied heavily upon the resurgent Victor Valdés who has saved a penalty kick in each of his last two appearances. Usually dependable characters like Javier Mascherano and Adriano Correia are also making rare mistakes, further contributing to this sense of unease which surrounds the Barça defense.
Fortunately for head coach Gerardo Martino, Barcelona's fabled offense is continuing to produce. With a staggering 14 goals in their last four matches, the Blaugrana boast the most potent strike-force in all of Europe. It's spearheaded by the greatest player of all-time Lionel Messi – who also continues to amaze on a weekly basis – and in Pedro, Neymar and Alexis Sanchez, the Argentine can finally count upon the support of his offensive colleagues.
With club captain Carles Puyol edging ever-closer to his highly-anticipated return, it's a good time to be a Culé...
As mentioned previously, Carles Puyol is nearing a return, but as expected, the veteran centre-half will not play any part in tomorrow's fixture. The same can be said of long-term absentees Isaac Cuenca and Ibrahim Afellay, as well as "exiled" goalkeeper, Oier Olazabal. With Jordi Alba also missing out through injury, Martino has a 20-man squad from which to choose his starting line-up and the Argentine tactician hinted that he would make some changes in his pre-match press conference.
Some of those changes will be obvious and/or expected, although there are one or two potential decisions that may catch some Culés off-guard.
Victor Valdés will continue in goal and it's safe to say that the Catalan shot-stopper is probably in the form of his life right now. Maybe if he'd performed like this for the past two-three seasons, he would have been offered a new contract much earlier – and we wouldn't be worrying about the club finding a new goalkeeper. In other words, let's enjoy Valdés' form while it lasts.
Dani Alves is expected to return to the starting line-up tomorrow, replacing young Catalan full-back Martin Montoya on the right-hand side of defense. The Spanish Under-21 international was granted his first start of the season on Saturday but failed to really capitalise; the only occasion he caught our attention was with that ill-judged back-pass. With Alba sidelined, there is a possibility that Montoya will keep his place in the starting XI, albeit on the left-hand side of defense – but that rests on whether Martino is willing to drop Adriano to the bench.
Barcelona's immediate schedule may be packed, but there is little in the way of a challenge for the reigning champions, meaning that defensive rotation might not be too important in the upcoming weeks.
On a similar note, there are some Culés who are questioning Martino's decision to utilise Javier Mascherano and Gerard Piqué in every match – conveniently forgetting that defensive instability was one of the principal reasons for the late collapses in seasons past. Martino has his preferred first-choice pairing; why should he deviate from that?
Sergio Busquets will replace Alex Song as Barcelona's midfield anchor tomorrow, after Song delivered a mixed performance against Rayo Vallecano on Saturday. There were many who praised his efforts in the centre of the park, but the cold hard facts are that he continues to give the ball away far too often to succeed in this role. 76% pass completion for a player who is supposed to be limited to simple sideways and backwards passes is nothing short of laughable. Committing six fouls is another huge concern too; often pundits and fans confuse a lack of timing for "physicality". Just because Busquets times his challenges to perfection and rarely leaves a mark on the player, does that make him any less physical than Song?
Credit where it's due, Song played an integral part in one of the goals on Saturday, but it's hardly anything new; Busquets' enthusiasm created two goals for Barça just a few weeks ago...
Moving further forward in the Barcelona midfield, logic suggests that Andres Iniesta will also return to the starting line-up tomorrow with Cesc Fàbregas likely to drop down to the bench. Sergi Roberto could challenge for a spot in the squad – although it's far more likely that he's involved in the weekend's clash with Almeria.
In attack, Lionel Messi will continue to lead the line, but he may be without his latest partner-in-crime Neymar, as Martino hinted that the Brazilian forward could be rested for tomorrow's match. Maybe it's mind-games; personally I would wait a few days and leave Neymar out of the Almeria match, or maybe it's legitimate. Neymar has played a lot of minutes recently, and even if he was used to this kind of schedule in Brazil, Martino could still give him a break.
That would leave us with two attacking spots, likely to be filled by Alexis Sánchez and hat-trick hero, Pedro Rodriguez. Despite displaying glimpses of their talent, neither Pedro nor Alexis have truly hit form yet this season; perhaps leaving a door open for Cristian Tello to march into the starting XI. If only the young winger could figure out how to play on the right-hand side of attack...
Real Sociedad have shown signs in recent weeks that while they may still be supremely talented, they are desperately missing the leadership that former coach Philippe Montanier provided them with. While the highly-rated French coach has earned Rennes 11 points out of a possible 18, Sociedad have hit a slump, culminating in this goal drought. After last season's heroics, their current 7th place position looks comparatively woeful.
Missing usual midfield regulars, David Zurutuza and Gorka Elustondo, Real Sociedad’s rookie coach Jagoba Arrasate truly faces an difficult decision tomorrow – does he hand a start to the inexperienced Javi Ros, or opt for fringe player Markel Bergara alongside Ruben Pardo? Either way, I wouldn’t fancy their chances...
Real Sociedad: DWLDLD
Real Sociedad 3-2 FC Barcelona – 19th January 2013 – La Liga
The hosts produced one of the season’s finest comebacks to overturn a two-goal deficit, as a brace from Chori Castro was followed up by a late injury-time winner from centre-forward Imanol Agirretxe.
FC Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Pedro
Real Sociedad (4-2-3-1): Bravo; Martinez, Gonzalez, Inigo, Angel; Pardo, Bergara; Vela, Prieto, Castro; Agirretxe
Barcelona are excellent at home, and Real Sociedad are struggling for form – this one should be quite straight-forward. I’m going for a 4-1 home win.
More from Barca Blaugranes:
- FC Barcelona News: 23 September 2013; Preparations Begin for Real Sociedad Game, Martino's Barça Make Historic Start
- La Liga: FC Barcelona 4-0 Rayo Vallecano: Player Ratings
- FC Barcelona News: 22 September 2013; Barça Lose Possession Battle After 317 Games, Win Against Rayo Vallecano
- La Liga: FC Barcelona 4-0 Rayo Vallecano: Highlights
- From The Mind of Xoel: Rayo 0 - 4 Barça. Tiki-"Tata" Helps Give Barça the Win.