FC Barcelona will be hoping to kick 2015 off with a bang on Sunday evening when they travel to the Basque Country to take on David Moyes’ Real Sociedad at the Anoeta. Traditionally, a trip to San Sebastian ranks amongst the toughest on the La Liga calendar, especially for the Blaugrana, but after a somewhat shaky start to the campaign there’s a sense that La Real are no longer a side to be feared.
Indeed, even after the dismissal of Jagoba Arrasate and appointment of former Manchester United head coach David Moyes, Sociedad are yet to display many signs of improvement. The transition to Moyes’ archaically British 4-4-2 has been laboured and rarely produced any significant results; arguably their best result since Arrasate’s departure came in their managerless spell – a 2-1 win over the reigning champions, Atletico Madrid.
Since then, Moyes has only been able to register two victories; one relatively comfortable and thoroughly Carlos Vela-driven 3-0 win over lowly Elche CF and another expected 2-0 win in the Copa del Rey against third tier Real Oviedo. Admittedly, Sociedad have only slumped to one defeat this far in the Scottish manager’s seven game reign but it’s a memorable one – a 4-0 mauling at the hands of Villarreal CF.
On that night, La Real were simply outclassed by the individual and collective brilliance of the Yellow Submarine; an Argentine forward ran riot in a Man of the Match display while the midfield dominated possession en route to an emphatic 4-0 victory. We certainly possess a talented Argentine striker...and a midfield capable of dominating possession; so what odds on us, the Blaugrana dismantling Real Sociedad tomorrow evening to hand Moyes his first defeat at the Anoeta?
Given Atletico Madrid’s victory earlier today against Levante UD, and with Real Madrid likely to continue their record-breaking winning streak tomorrow against Valencia CF, we might have to. Falling further behind in the La Liga title race and opening the door to a challenge for second spot to the reigning champions Atleti simply cannot be an option, particularly knowing that Los Colchoneros will visit the Camp Nou next weekend.
The pressure is on; can FC Barcelona deliver?
Luis Enrique is set to name his first matchday squad of 2015 tomorrow morning; of course, Barça Blaugranes will bring you full coverage as and when this is released, but for now we’re going to have to play a bit of a guessing game with tomorrow’s line-up. So, we’re going to take a few factors into consideration such as the late return to training for Lionel Messi, Neymar and Dani Alves, as well as the latter’s continuing ankle discomfort.
Bearing in mind that the midweek Copa del Rey tie against Elche CF comes just before a crucial La Liga clash against the reigning champions, Atletico Madrid, it’s perhaps naive to think that Lucho will take it too slow introducing the likes of Messi back into the team. When all is said and done, facing Real Sociedad at the Anoeta demands a strong selection from the Barça coach – so instead of pondering whether Messi and Neymar will start, it’s perhaps more pertinent to question what kind of impact they will make in the starting line-up.
Will their late return leave them refreshed and invigorated, or will they look a little rusty and out of practice? Interestingly, it seems as though fellow South American international Luis Suarez returned to training with the rest of the squad earlier in the week; will that be evident in his performance? It’s fair to say that we’re still waiting for the best of Luis Suarez since his big money, bigger baggage move from Liverpool FC this summer.
Squaring off against a former Merseyside rival in David Moyes might have an impact, but it’s probably just a narrative that will merely serve as a coincidental distraction to whatever unfolds tomorrow.
In goal, Claudio Bravo will retain his place as Barcelona’s undisputed La Liga number one in spite of continued pressure from a select bunch of Culés who campaign for Marc-André ter Stegen to be given an extended run in the team. Andoni Zubizarreta might be under pressure as Barcelona’s Sporting Director, but the decision to bring in Bravo has been an inspired one, enabling Barça to seamlessly transition to life after Victor Valdés. As they say, a broken clock will always be correct twice a day...
In defense, Douglas will not play, while Thomas Vermaelen is injured, so there goes the theory about Zubi doing good work in the summer window. Equally, comparative big money signing Jeremy Mathieu isn’t exactly setting the world alight. Yes, he has been impressive at times, but no more so than Javier Mascherano who continues to thrive in central defense, and certainly no more so than Marc Bartra.
The Catalan centre-half ended 2014 on a high, starring in Barça’s crucial UEFA Champions League group stage victory over Paris Saint-Germain, potentially playing himself into contention for a regular first-team berth. Gerard Piqué seems settled in the other defensive slot, perhaps Bartra would be the most logical partner after their excellent displays together early in the season?
For tomorrow, my money is on Javier Mascherano starting to track the runs and keep tabs on the mobile Carlos Vela while Piqué contends with the more conventional threat posed by either Imanol Agirretxe or the disappointing Alfred Finnbogason. On either side, expect Piqué and Mascherano to be flanked by Jordi Alba, with Dani Alves likely to start – provided that he makes the final cut. If not, a potential start for Adriano Correia or even Martin Montoya might not be out of the question.
At pivote, Sergio Busquets should reprise his role seeking to build on a relatively disappointing 2014, at least by his high standards. Still, with Xavi Hernández slowly being "phased out" at the Camp Nou, Busquets’ importance will only continue to grow and it’s crucial that he begins to raise his game accordingly. Of course, he can’t do it alone and needs tactical help from Lucho in the form of the positioning of the other central midfielders, but he can at least keep up his end of the bargain.
Recycling possession that much quicker, releasing the passes sooner; it’s all about tempo for Sergio Busquets who at times seemed to be performing at half-speed in 2014. With five months of experience in Enrique’s system under his belt, expect better from Busquets in 2015.
Ahead of the Catalan I would predict a start for the combative Ivan Rakitić who would be perfectly complemented by Andrés Iniesta. Recovering from a relatively slow start to his season, Iniesta ended 2014 in sparkling form and will be keen to register his first goal and/or assist of the La Liga campaign at the Anoeta.
Meanwhile, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi will start in attack; it’s simply a question of whether Neymar will slot back into the starting line-up after he ended 2014 still recovering from injury. In the final match of the calendar year, Neymar received medical clearance to return but was kept out of the line-up by an in-form Pedro; could the Spanish winger start 2015 on a similar note tomorrow to keep the talented Brazilian on the sidelines? My guess, perhaps unfortunately for Pedro, is no – expect to see the fabled triumvirate reunited tomorrow. 2015 is a new year, and we’ve got a statement to make.
David Moyes may have announced his desire to strengthen his squad during the winter transfer window this week, but for now he will have to make do with his current crop of players. Summer signing Alfred Finnbogason may have cost the club a princely sum in the region of €10 million, but he is yet to strike in a single one of 11 La Liga appearances, this just a few months after he topped the Eredivisie scoring charts with 29 goals in 32 games for Heerenveen. So, the lesson for David Moyes is that spending money might be the solution to Sociedad’s woes.
Languishing in 14th position, La Real look a shadow of the side that qualified for this season’s UEFA Champions League with little in the way of positives. Sure, Carlos Vela is playing well, but it’s also apparent that he is startlingly less effective without his former partner in crime, Antoine Griezmann. The only upside is that while Moyes’ 4-4-2 has stifled their creativity, it has helped shore up their defense and as a result, Sociedad are proving tough to beat, particularly on home soil.
Real Sociedad: WDLDWD
Real Sociedad 1-1 FC Barcelona – 12th February 2014 – Copa del Rey
Lionel Messi’s 27th minute goal looked to have sent Barcelona cruising to a rare victory at the Anoeta in the second leg of this Copa del Rey clash, only for Antoine Griezmann to grab a late equaliser against the run of play.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Iniesta; Suarez, Messi, Neymar
Real Sociedad (4-4-2): Zubikarai; Martinez, Inigo, Ansotegi, De La Bella; Prieto, Markel, Granero, Castro; Vela, Agirretxe
A match like this is never "easy", but it isn’t as tough as it was last season either. I’m backing the Blaugrana to pick up a strong win, 3-1 the final score.
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