FC Barcelona look to keep pace with league leaders Real Madrid tomorrow, as they prepare to welcome CA Osasuna to the Camp Nou knowing that – realistically – only a win will be enough to keep their La Liga title hopes alive for another week. Lose tomorrow, and not only would confidence take a huge hit, but the Blaugrana would also find themselves seven points behind their eternal rivals headed into next week’s crucial El Clasico match-up at the Santiago Bernabeu. In short, the pressure is on, and Gerardo Martino’s side need to deliver.
However, not all hope is lost. Barcelona haven’t lost to Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid or Manchester City this season – they generally turn up when they need to, and they need to turn up tomorrow. They tried to coast to victory against Real Valladolid last weekend and that plan backfired miserably. When Manchester City rocked up at the Camp Nou, Barça demonstrated that they had learned their lesson cruising to a comfortable 4-1 aggregate win off the back of another strong performance.
Osasuna don’t travel well. Barcelona rarely give up points at home; this one should be straight-forward, but these days, anything is possible. Expect nothing, savour everything. Life would a lot simpler if we all embraced a similar motto.
Carles Puyol is injured in the least surprising news of the season, while Gerard "one yellow card away from a Clasico suspension" Piqué also misses out through "injury". Sergi Roberto doesn’t make the matchday squad, and he will be joined in the stands by Oier Olazábal and Ibrahim Afellay – neither of whom appears to have much of a future at the club. So with that in mind, Martino is left with an 18 man squad from which he can choose his starting XI – but don’t expect many surprises.
Victor Valdés will start in goal searching for his first clean sheet in roughly a month – can you believe the last time we recorded a shut-out was at the Etihad Arena against the statistically most potent attack in Europe? Such is life at current-day Barcelona, and while it’s tough to predict anything with this club at the moment, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to anticipate a clean sheet. We need the three points and Osasuna boast one of the worst offensive records in La Liga. The two should go hand in hand right?
Well, don’t be so sure. Gerard Piqué is out, Carles Puyol was never really "in" to begin with; that leaves us with a makeshift backline that’s likely to feature Marc Bartra and Javier Mascherano, but could in a cruel twist of fate feature Alex Song in central defense. That’s the worst case scenario; expect the safe choice: Bartra, Mascherano with Alves and Alba, or if Martino is feeling adventurous, maybe Alves will start on the bench gifting Martin Montoya a rare start.
Sergio Busquets will start at pivote, with Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández likely to provide the support. Roberto’s omission from the matchday squad certainly suggests that we will not see the same line-up as Wednesday, but it is debatable as to which midfielder will drop to the bench? The veteran Xavi? The magical Andrés Iniesta? The ever-dependable Cesc Fàbregas? I think Martino has a weak spot for the classics, hence a nod for the Xavi-Iniesta combo.
In attack, it’s a relatively simple choice: Lionel Messi will start, as will Neymar, so who joins them in attack? Pedro? Alexis Sánchez? Cristian Tello? Well, maybe not Tello – Pedro or Alexis? Knowing that the latter is pretty much only effective at the Camp Nou, I back the Chilean to get the start, but would like to see Pedro given some extended time on the field ahead of next week’s Clasico.
So, it turns out Barcelona aren’t the only club in turmoil off the field after all. CA Osasuna are undergoing a little turbulence of their own. An extraordinary meeting of the club’s socios has been arranged for the 31st of March, and let’s face it, these things are never scheduled for a positive reason. There’s talk of presidents possibly being forced to resign – it all sounds so familiar...
And only a fool would deny that the off-field shenanigans have not affected Barcelona on the pitch. Uncertainty has surrounded Martino, the future of key players and it’s been evident in the results. Likewise, Osasuna have suffered as well, succumbing to two successive 2-0 defeats after a few positive results.
Osasuna may not drop any places if they lose tomorrow, but they’ll be keen to avoid a humbling if only to keep morale from hitting rock bottom. In that sense, head coach Javi Gracia has stressed the importance of fighting for a share of the points tomorrow, and will undoubtedly be looking towards star goalkeeper Andrés Fernandez for inspiration with regulars Marc Bertran and Miguel de las Cuevas sidelined.
CA Osasuna 0-0 FC Barcelona – 19th October 2013 – La Liga
Not even the late introduction of Lionel Messi could inspire the Blaugrana to victory at El Sadar as a plucky performance from Osasuna saw them end Barcelona’s 100% start to the La Liga campaign.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Montoya, Bartra, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Neymar
Osasuna (4-2-3-1): Fernandez; Oier, Arribas, Loties, Damia; Lolo, Silva; Cejudo, Torres, Armenteros; Riera
Barcelona will win, and win with relative ease – I’m going for a 4-0 home win.