Buoyed by their impressive 4-3 El Clasico victory over eternal rivals, and former league leaders Real Madrid, FC Barcelona return to the Camp Nou tomorrow to face Luis Enrique’s Celta Vigo knowing that a win would see them temporarily reclaim their place at the top of the table. For Luis Enrique, this represents a return to the club he once captained, indeed it was just a decade ago that Lucho was stepping out on the Camp Nou field to take on clubs such as Celta Vigo. Now, he returns, facing one of the toughest nights of his managerial career.
Despite being rumoured to be one of the leading candidates for the vacant managerial role at Barcelona after Tito Vilanova’s shock resignation, an offer never materialised for Luis Enrique; instead it was Gerardo Martino who got the call and the Argentine tactician hasn’t looked back since. Yes, there remain a few doubts over his long-term future at the club, but Martino has made his mark on this club, succeeding where even Pep Guardiola failed – creating a system that allows Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Cesc Fàbregas to thrive in the same midfield.
It was this very system that caused Real Madrid so many problems at the weekend, it was this system that dismissed free-scoring Manchester City over two legs in the UEFA Champions League, although with Xavi set to watch tomorrow’s clash from the sidelines, Luis Enrique at least knows that he will not have to not have to deal with this seemingly "unbeatable" system. Instead, he will have to contend with the classic Barça 4-3-3, which emphatically smashed seven goals past Osasuna in its most recent appearance.
Even for a talented manager like Lucho, securing a result tomorrow might just prove to be mission impossible.
After an imperious midfield display at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday, Xavi Hernández has been given a well-deserved break; he will tomorrow’s match from the stands alongside club captain Carles Puyol (who continues to miss out through injury) and Martin Montoya, who recently committed his long-term future to the club by signing an extension to his current contract. As always, there’s still plenty of star-power in the Barça squad but the man to watch will undoubtedly be Lionel Messi. With six goals and two assists in his last two appearances, Messi is in incredible form – even by his lofty standards – and given the dominant nature of his performance on Sunday, few would count against him excelling once again.
Victor Valdés will be hoping to string together consecutive home shut-outs for the first time in over a month tomorrow; after playing in his final La Liga Clasico at the weekend, Valdés is likely to be disappointed with his efforts. While it didn’t cost Barcelona, Valdés looked frustrated after allowing Karim Benzema’s equalising header to get the better of him and perhaps in general after conceding three goals in a match for the third time this season.
Likewise, the defense will be hoping for an improvement after a shaky display against Madrid; Gerard Piqué was immense and therefore will be looking to continue his good form, but Javier Mascherano arguably needs to step up or risk losing his place in the line-up. Adriano Correia may deputise for Jordi Alba at left-back, who had a quiet game on Sunday, while Dani Alves should start with Montoya watching on from the stands. The Brazilian had a torrid time against Angel di Maria defensively, but was good from an offensive perspective, rattling the woodwork with a snapshot from long range.
Sergio Busquets will start at pivote, with Cesc Fàbregas and Andrés Iniesta set to partner up in the two advanced midfield roles. Iniesta has been playing like a footballing deity over the past few games, but Cesc Fàbregas has been somewhat muted in the past month or so. Is this the dreaded Fàbregas decline that we have seen in each of his seasons back at the club? Probably not; Fàbregas has still been good, just not as decisive as before – look for him to try and rediscover that form tomorrow.
Offensively, Alexis Sánchez should start for his impressive Camp Nou form alone, while Lionel Messi is a certain choice at false nine. The question is: will Martino stick with Neymar, or opt for Pedro? Remember, Barcelona play at the weekend against Espanyol before hosting Atletico Madrid in a crucial UEFA Champions League quarter-final first-leg; so this decision is an important one. I would have opted for Cristian Tello if not for the schedule, but with that in mind, I’d go for Neymar – hoping Messi and company can give him a confidence boosting goal in front of the home crowd.
Celta enter this match having lost three of their last four matches, including a disappointing 2-0 home defeat against Malaga; loan starlet Rafinha Alcantara – of course on loan from FC Barcelona – will not feature, so Celta have every reason to be fearful. They lost 3-0 at home in the season’s corresponding fixture after all. Yet, in the likes of Nolito, Charles and Alex Lopez, they have talent in their ranks and can play football. A draw or a win may be beyond their reach, but there’s no reason why they can’t lift their own spirits with a positive performance tomorrow.
Celta Vigo: WDLLWL
Celta Vigo 0-3 FC Barcelona – 29th October 2013 – La Liga
Strangely enough, this was another midweek kick-off – and an easy win for the Blaugrana who cruised to victory courtesy of goals from Alexis Sánchez (a rare away goal for the Chilean), an own-goal from Yoel and a Cesc Fàbregas strike, ably assisted by Lionel Messi.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano; Busquets, Fàbregas, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Pedro
Celta (4-3-2-1): Yoel; Mallo, Costas, Fontas, Aurtenetxe; Oubina, Alex, Madinda; Fernandez, Nolito; Charles
No contest. I’m going for a Manita.
- FC Barcelona News: 25 March 2014; Xavi Left Out of Celta Match Squad, Barça Ready for Spending Spree
- Real Madrid vs. Barcelona: A Look at the Controversial Refereeing Moments of El Clasico
- La Liga El Clasico: Real Madrid 3-4 FC Barcelona: Player Ratings
- FC Barcelona News: 24 March 2014; Barça Win El Clasico, Top Three La Liga Teams Now Within One Point
- El Clásico: D10S > CR7: Messi Powers Barça to a 4-3 Win Over Madrid