A fortnight ago, Barcelona were rank outsiders for the La Liga title. Slowing drifting away from the Madrid teams and a draw against Getafe last week did nothing to help Barça's title ambitions. But as we stand today, Barcelona's future is in their own hands.
League leaders Atlético Madrid lost to Levante and Real Madrid could only manage a 2-2 draw at Valencia courtesy of a Ronaldo back heel in injury time and a 1-1 draw against Valladolid on Wednesday. As it stands Barcelona are just six points away from the title, a trophy that seemed long gone only a week ago.
By now everyone is fully aware that Barcelona face Atléti on the final day of the season, which well may be the title decider. But Elche comes first and Barça can't afford anymore slip-ups. Although Elche will be looking to cause an upset and confirm their place in the top diversion for next season.
Tata Martino has elected to take all but one player for the trip to the South East of Spain. That one player who is left behind is Victor Valdés, the soon to be ex-Barcelona goalkeeper is still recovering from his Cruciate Ligament Rupture which has kept him out since March. Although he is not the only injured player in Barça's squad.
In defence, Carles Puyol remains injured while Gerard Piqué was back training but is unlikely to be fit for this game. Jordi Alba is also ruled out. Jonathan Dos Santos and Neymar complete the absentees.
With Valdés out, José Manuel Pinto will start in goal and Martino will likely stick with Dani Alves at right back. The Brazilian has come increasing fire from fans and critics, especially with Martín Montoya performing well when given the chance. But Martino still trusts his experienced full-back and will probably start him against Elche. With Piqué and Puyol out, Marc Bartra and Javier Mascherano will start with Adriano completing the back four at left back.
An almost fully fit midfield means Sergio Busquets will start at pivot over Alex Song, who may have played his last game for the club if rumours about his future are true. The combination of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta is also likely to appear, although Martino may elect to give Cesc Fàbregas a starting spot on his 150th match for the first team.
Although Fàbregas may be played as part of the front three. Rumours circulated on Saturday morning that Pedro would be the one losing his place meaning we would see a front three of Cesc, Lionel Messi and Alexis Sánchez. Cristian Tello may also be hoping for a substitute appearance as would Sergi Roberto in midfield.
Manager Fran Escribá is facing a slight selection dilemma as he has four players who are unable to play. Álvaro, who has only made two substitute appearances this season is injured, but more importantly so is Edu Albácar. The Spaniard has played seventeen games so far for Elche and contributed three goals and one assist. He picked up his injury at the start of March and was rumoured to be nearly fully fit but it is likely Domingo Cisma will replace him.
Toño and Alberto Botía are both out suspended. Richmond Boakye will likely start having recovered from his injury.
FC Barcelona 4-0 Elche CF - 5th January 2014 - La Liga
An Alexis Sánchez hat-trick and a goal from Pedro gave Barcelona the victory in their first game of 2014. Barça did miss the opportunity to make it 5-0 though as Xavi missed a penalty just after half time.
FC Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto, Alves, Bartra, Mascherano, Adriano, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fàbregas, Messi, Alexis
Elche CF (4-2-3-1): Herrera, Suárez, Lomban, Pelegrín, Cisma, Pérez, Sánchez, Coro, Márquez, Rodrigues, Boakye
Although Elche is a tough place to win, this is do or die for Barcelona and I expect them to come away with a 3-2 win.
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