Momentary blip or full-blown crisis? For the best part of a week, the Catalan press have been asking that very question of FC Barcelona – the answer? Well, that’s likely to become clear over the next few games, but fears of Barcelona’s decline and in particular, fear that the La Liga title may be edging closer to a return to Madrid is becoming more common place in the Spanish media. After all, Los Blancos took control at the top of the table for the first-time in one and half years last week with a 3-0 victory over Elche CF – their 15th in their last 16 matches in all competition. It has become increasingly apparent that Carlo Ancelotti’s side are getting into a groove – a fact they emphatically hammered home in midweek.
The short trip to Germany has typically proven difficult for Real Madrid; despite their wealth of talent and an abundance of resources, Los Merengues have often been out-run, out-worked and out-classed on German soil.
Not this time.
Real Madrid cruised to an eyebrow-raising 6-1 win over FC Schalke 04 in their own backyard, causing the rest of Europe’s elite to finally stand up and take note. Despite emerging as the winners in the previous meeting between the two sides, FC Barcelona find themselves three points behind Real Madrid, and barring a shock Atletico Madrid win in tomorrow’s Madrid derby, the Blaugrana will remain behind Ancelotti’s side irrespective of the result of tomorrow’s clash with Almeria.
But in terms of keeping pace, saving face and possibly capitalising on any Real slip-up, Barça need a win. The good news? We’re back in familiar surroundings, Almeria lie perilously close to the relegation zone and typically struggle on their travels. The bad news? Well, we’re a team in crisis aren’t we?
Last weekend’s loss to Real Sociedad was disappointing. It was a below-par showing, and the problems were only exasperated by the dismissal of Barça coach, Gerardo Martino, who was sent to the stands for an uncharacteristic outburst. Fortunately, even with Martino suspended for tonight’s match, there is no reason to expect a repeat performance. On the contrary, some Culés have been all too quick to dismiss the good results that led up to last Saturday’s defeat – a 2-0 away win over Manchester City and a 6-0 mauling of Rayo Vallecano. How about the 4-1 win over Sevilla at the Ramon Sánchez Pizjuan?
Certainly recent form hints that the Sociedad result was nothing more than a blip and Barcelona will be keen to prove that tomorrow night.
Victor Valdés had a rare off-night against Real Sociedad, but has been in great form back at the Camp Nou. Barcelona have kept clean sheets in half of their home La Liga fixtures thus far this season anyway and will fancy their chances at improving that record against a far-from potent Almeria offense. However, they will have to contend with that "threat" without the services of Gerard Piqué, who injured himself in last week’s defeat. The Catalan centre-half is expected to return to action just in time for the return leg of Barcelona’s UEFA Champions League clash with Manchester City, but tomorrow’s match will certainly come too soon for Piqué.
In that sense, maybe this is an opportunity? Carles Puyol could stake his claim for another season at the highest level, while Marc Bartra could put forward his case for an improved role in Martino’s rotation. Every cloud has a silver lining and what not.
The remainder of the defense pretty much picks itself, particularly after last week’s loss; Dani Alves, Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba should be guaranteed a starting spot, while Sergio Busquets is likely to return to his usual position at pivote. Whatever the logic behind fielding Alex Song and Sergi Busquets was, it needed a little more thought to say the least. Were both playing as pivote? Was neither?
The only thing anyone knows for certain is that we should never mention it again, let alone repeat it under any circumstances. Barcelona lacked creativity and as a result, were worryingly sterile whilst in possession – but thankfully that shouldn’t be an issue tomorrow. Xavi can return to the starting line-up, with ample support in a fully-rested Cesc Fàbregas and Andrés Iniesta – that should provide more than enough creativity to break through any Almeria resistance.
And if it isn’t? Well, let’s throw some world-class forwards into the mix. Lionel Messi? Neymar? And as if that wasn’t daunting enough for Almeria, let’s throw Alexis Sánchez into the mix as well. 13 of the Chilean’s La Liga goals this season have been scored at the Camp Nou. That’s a worry, unless we take tomorrow’s match in isolation, where it becomes quite encouraging for our chances.
Fernando Soriano may have featured in 24 of Almeria’s 25 La Liga matches thus far this season, but he will miss tomorrow’s trip to the Camp Nou with a muscle injury. Given that Almeria slumped to a 2-0 home defeat in this season’s corresponding fixture between the two clubs, his absence doesn’t bode well, particularly with head coach Francisco coming under increasing pressure. Since defeating Atletico Madrid, Almeria have fallen to a defeat against Levante and drawn at home to fellow strugglers, Malaga. It’s that inconsistency that leaves them dangerously close to the drop zone, even if it also gives them hope that anything may be possible.
UD Almeria 0-2 FC Barcelona – 28th September 2013 – La Liga
Goals from Lionel Messi and Adriano Correia were enough to see off the threat of a plucky Almeria side, who tried to compete with a Barcelona side that lost Lionel Messi through injury before the half-hour mark.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas; Alexis, Messi, Neymar
Almeria (4-3-2-1): Esteban; Rafita, Trujillo, Torsiglieri, Dubarbier; Tebar, Verza, Azeez; Suso, Vidal; Rodri
Barcelona shouldn’t need to be at their best to beat Almeria tomorrow, but I wouldn’t bet against them putting on a show anyway. I’m going for an overly optimistic 6-0 win.