FC Barcelona return to La Liga action tomorrow afternoon, as they host newly-promoted Elche CF at the Camp Nou in the Blaugrana’s first competitive match of 2014. Following Atletico Madrid’s narrow 1-0 away win over Malaga CF in Saturday’s early kick-off, Barcelona have temporarily relinquished control at the top of the table and need to win tomorrow if they wish to retain top spot.
Fortunately for Barcelona manager, Gerardo Martino, Elche have lost their last three league matches and are without a win in their last four matches away from home. Certainly, it seems unlikely that the visitors will halt that run against a Barcelona outfit that has earned 23 consecutive La Liga victories on home turf, a streak that extends all the way back to October 2013.
With Victor Valdés returning from injury and with Brazilian superstar Neymar back in contention after serving a one-match suspension, Barça will be confident of their chances; although they must ensure that complacency doesn’t gift Elche a chance at snatching a share of the points, particularly ahead of next week’s crunch encounter with Atletico Madrid.
Lionel Messi returned to training this week following a lengthy absence, and marked his return with a hat-trick in an open training session, but the Argentine magician will not be risked in tomorrow’s match, presumably as Martino bids to keep his compatriot fit, not just for the remainder of the season, but for the foreseeable future – including this summer’s FIFA World Cup. Victor Valdés on the other hand returns to the squad along with Neymar and Xavi, while Dani Alves (one yellow card away from a suspension) and Sergio Busquets (suspended) both drop out of the team.
Therefore, it’s reasonable to expect that Victor Valdés will take his place in goal for tomorrow’s match, with Martin Montoya and Jordi Alba likely to start on either side of defense. Adriano Correia is of course capable of filling in on the right flank, but his services will surely be required at left-back on Wednesday, as Martino will likely rotate ahead of that top-of-the-table clash with Diego Simeone’s Atleti.
Gerard Piqué and Marc Bartra could start together in the centre of the Barcelona defense, although perhaps it’s more likely that Javier Mascherano will partner Piqué; again, Martino will be looking to rotate his squad in midweek. So, Bartra could be "saved" for the Copa del Rey where he could start alongside Carles Puyol.
In the absence of Sergio Busquets, it is expected that Alex Song will act as the anchor in the Barça midfield, which in turn increases the possibility that we will see Xavi return to the line-up, possibly alongside his usual partner-in-crime, Andrés Iniesta. With Messi still "sidelined", Cesc Fàbregas may be pushed into the centre of attack, although if Martino keeps Fàbregas in the midfield, it’s unlikely that Xavi’s services will be required from the starting whistle.
And perhaps that would be the best course of action for the Blaugrana. Neymar could once again start in a central role after thriving against Celtic in the very same position, which opens up a place on the left-wing, which could be filled by Pedro, who thrived in the very same position against Getafe before the winter break. Alexis Sánchez has also been most potent on the right, so a Pedro-Neymar-Alexis frontline would certainly be the best option, in my opinion at least.
On the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice to see Cristian Tello given a rare start on the left after more reports emerged linking the Catalan winger with a move away from the Camp Nou?
Despite their new status as a La Liga, Elche actually possess a bunch of La Liga quality players in their squad. The defense for example features former Barcelona B players, Alberto Botia and David Lomban, the midfield boasts former Real Madrid and Valencia products in former Betis veteran Rivera and unfulfilled talent, Aaron Niguez, not to mention Ruben Perez, who scored an absolute screamer against the Blaugrana last season. Meanwhile, the attack includes the likes of Manu del Moral, and Catalan forward, Coro. However, while they have La Liga talent, they shouldn’t have enough to challenge Barça.
FC Barcelona 2-0 Elche CF -- 12 February 1989 -- La Liga
Barcelona cruised to victory courtesy of goals from Jose Mari Bakero and Guillermo Amor.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Montoya, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Song, Fàbregas, Iniesta; Sánchez, Neymar, Pedro
Elche (4-2-3-1): Manu; Suarez, Lomban, Botia, Edu; Sánchez, Perez; Coro, del Moral, Fidel; Gil
Barcelona typically start the year strong; I’m going for a 4-0 home win.
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