For FC Barcelona, there will be a sense of déjà vu tomorrow as they travel to Alicante for the second time this month to take on Elche CF at the Estadio Manuel Martinez Valero. It will be the fourth meeting between the two teams this season, and unsurprisingly, Barça’s record in the fixture has been nothing short of immense. 13 goals scored and three clean sheets in three matches represents total domination for the Blaugrana, and while this clash is sandwiched by a tough two-legged Copa del Rey tie with Atletico Madrid, the chances are that Barcelona will continue in a similar vein with a comfortable win tomorrow afternoon.
Of course, while that may be true, this therefore represents a high-pressure situation for Luis Enrique’s side. Anything less than a convincing win will be considered a failure – a regression – and that added pressure might not be the best thing for a side that endured such a physically and mentally tough battle against Atleti on Wednesday. Knowing that an even tougher night awaits them this coming midweek at the Vicente Calderon, could complacency creep into the Blaugrana’s performance and catch them out?
Certainly, Luis Enrique’s squad selection suggests that changes are afoot for this match; there is no Ivan Rakitić for example and the Croatian clearly hasn’t been dropped based on his form. Arguably he has been our best midfielder since the turn of the year and is a key component in our recent "resurgence". Will Lucho take this match as an opportunity to evaluate some of our fringe players, just as he did the last time we played here in the Copa del Rey?
The omission of Ivan Rakitić may have caused a stir, but that’s probably because it doesn’t entirely tie in with the rest of Enrique’s selection. If Rakitić is being rested, then why is he the only first-team regular to drop out of the squad? Therein lies the $64,000 question; just what is Lucho planning for this match? Perhaps more pertinently, does it even matter? Barcelona’s squad is far superior to Elche’s in every aspect of the game, whoever we send out should be good enough to pick up the win and grab a few goals.
Claudio Bravo starting in goal statistically gives us approximately a 63% chance of a clean sheet if his previous form this season is anything to go by, and if we keep a clean sheet, obviously we cannot lose. Given that in La Liga, we’ve scored in nearly 90% of our matches this season that means that we’re over half-way to a victory already!
Well, maybe that’s misleading, but you get the idea: our solid defense is making our life a whole lot easier, and in time, that may prove the old adage that defense ultimately wins championships. Bravo doesn’t manage this alone though; he’s got a supporting cast that’s in great form. While I expect changes and rotations tomorrow, I’m not concerned about our performance dipping as a result. Martin Montoya, Marc Bartra, Javier Mascherano and Adriano Correia – only one of those starts on a regular basis, but you’ll be hard-pressed to notice tomorrow if they start at the back.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets will probably continue at pivote, and after he was substituted in midweek, I suspect that Andrés Iniesta will also continue in midfield. Rakitić’s omission hints at a recall for club captain Xavi Hernández, but it’s worth remembering how impressive Sergi Roberto and Rafinha Alcântara were when they played here a week and a half ago. Would it be a disaster if they started again? Definitely not, although chances are that only one of them will make the starting line-up if they are even favoured by Enrique.
In attack, Pedro will rotate into the line-up, of that much I am certain and I am also sure that Lionel Messi will start as well. The question is: who will join them upfront? Luis Suarez is in desperate need of a goal or two, and what better opportunity than against poor old Elche? On the other hand, Suarez is tactically significant against Atletico Madrid and therefore we will need him to be at 100% on Wednesday. So, do we start Neymar instead and thrust Lionel Messi back into the middle? I imagine we will, with Rafinha potentially replacing his compatriot around the hour mark with one eye on Atleti.
Given their status as Barcelona’s whipping boys this season, Elche probably aren’t looking forward to this weekend’s match, although head coach Fran Escriba can’t let on as much in his dealings with the media. Instead, he has called on the Elche fans to flock to the Martinez Valero in their thousands to support the team, perhaps naively suggesting that fan support alone can help them secure a result against Barça. Probably not, but worth a try eh?
Elche CF 0-4 FC Barcelona – 15th January 2015 – Copa del Rey
A much-changed Barça side were still far too strong for Elche in this Copa del Rey Round of 16 second-leg as goals from Jeremy Mathieu, Pedro, Sergi Roberto and Adriano were enough to wrap up a 9-0 aggregate victory.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Montoya, Bartra, Mascherano, Adriano; Busquets, Xavi, Rafinha; Pedro, Messi, Neymar
Elche (5-4-1): Tyton; Suarez, Lomban, Roco, Pelegrin, Albacar; Rodrigues, Fajr, Pasalic, Mosquera; Jonathas
- FC Barcelona Squad Named for Round 20 of La Liga
- FC Barcelona News: 23 January 2015; Last Training Session Before Elche Game Completed, Rafinha Waiting for New Contract
- Getting To Know: Claudio Bravo
- New Photos of The 2015-16 FC Barcelona Kits
- Can Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Neymar Deliver 2015 Honours?