FC Barcelona return to La Liga action tomorrow afternoon when they make the short trip across the city to face Catalan rivals RCD Espanyol at the Power8 Stadium in Saturday’s early afternoon kick-off. With the media focused squarely on today’s UEFA Champions League draw, which pitted the Blaugrana against former manager, Pep Guardiola and soon-to-be Bundesliga champions, Bayern Munich, the build-up to this match has been a little more understated than usual.
Of course, el Derbi Barceloní never commands the same attention as El Clasico, but thanks to the draw with Bayern, this interest in this match has been relegated almost to the level of a match against SD Eibar, or Getafe CF. At least, in the media…at the Camp Nou and in the Barcelona dressing room, they are sure to be focusing on the task at hand and will be eager to put one over on their rivals once again, particularly given the slender nature of our lead at the top of La Liga.
A relatively comfortable victory over Valencia CF last weekend on a beautiful sunny afternoon at the Camp Nou ensured that we maintained our two point lead over Real Madrid at the end of the Jornada, with Los Blancos casually registering a 3-1 win over Malaga CF later that evening. There can be no doubts that this Real Madrid side is far inferior to the one we witnessed earlier in the season, yet here they are, winning matches all the same and keeping pace at the top.
There’s something decidedly ominous about that – that sense that no matter how well we play, we’re perpetually one slip-up, one bad decision, one "normal" match away from losing our lead. Remember, dropping two points with a draw while Real Madrid muster a victory would send Carlo Ancelotti’s side back into first place. Sure, we have better goal difference and probably still would even with the turn of events described previously, but Real win on head-to-head based on their superior goal difference in the two Clasicos this season.
Ergo, we cannot afford a single misstep, not tomorrow, not on Tuesday against Getafe, not next week against Cordoba – not ever. Period.
Well, unless Real Madrid drop points, but hey, let’s cross that bridge if we come to it, right? For now, Barcelona need to continue focusing on the task at hand, which is defeating RCD Espanyol and maintaining our lead at the top. Simple, isn’t it?
I know one thing is for sure, and that is that the previous sentence was easy for me to type on my laptop – in practice however, winning a football match is much more difficult and winning against city rivals is even tougher. Wait, winning against your in-form city rivals in their stadium, in which they boast a tremendous record – that’s even tougher still. It doesn’t seem like too long ago that we were laughing at Espanyol for their poor performances, and now look at them!
They’ve risen the table to reach 10th place and are unbeaten in their last six matches; this after losing six of their prior nine fixtures – Espanyol have bounced back from their spell of poor form quite remarkably and the basis of this has been their home form. Atletico Madrid visited the south of the city, and couldn’t find a way through in a goalless draw. Athletic Bilbao experienced something similar, but they left empty-handed with a 0-1 defeat courtesy of a goal from Sergio Garcia.
The most impressive result of all didn’t come at home, but speak volumes of Espanyol’s talent and the danger that they can pose, as three weeks ago they travelled to El Madrigal and helped themselves to three goals and a clean sheet in a 3-0 win. Underestimate them at your own risk is the clear message, and one that I trust Luis Enrique has heard loud and clear.
While he didn’t take the opportunity to rest many faces in the past few matches, his squad rotation and use of substitutes has been good, while the players themselves have been smart to conserve energy where possible. The end result is hopefully a Barcelona outfit that remains capable of pushing through the gears to secure strong results against difficult opposition; the last thing we need is to see our team looking gassed as they try to break down a disciplined defense for example.
And with that in mind, it makes sense to start with our goalkeeper for tomorrow’s match. Well, actually it’s probably the opposite; but the keeper is a logical place to start nonetheless. Especially given how Claudio Bravo has been just as crucial to securing our victories as any other member of the squad in recent weeks.
Clean sheets, clean sheets and more clean sheets: the shut-out against Valencia last weekend was his third in four matches and he marked it with a fine penalty save to help Barcelona retain their early lead in the face of heavy pressure from the visitors. More than that; his save inspired confidence into the rest of the team and served to calm the nerves of fans who were beginning to worry about the flow of the match.
Valencia pressed forward for the remainder of the match, but clearly couldn’t quite recover from that golden opportunity, while Bravo went from strength to strength, particularly with his distribution of the ball.
On that night, Dani Alves put in a typical all-action performance to lead the team in tackles with a stunning ten successful challenges, while predictably infuriating with his turnovers and somewhat shoddy crossing. Against PSG, Alves was probably more measured, a little quieter – dependable – and it worked a treat. Expect to see Alves continue tomorrow, albeit with Martin Montoya rotating into the side at some stage in the next two fixtures.
In the heart of defense, I’d like to say that Marc Bartra is going to get a chance to represent, but he seems destined to slot in against Getafe and/or Cordoba instead; so I’m suspecting that Enrique will opt to reunite the partnership of Gerard Pique and Jeremy Mathieu, with Jordi Alba providing the natural balance at left-back. Just do me a favour Jordi, and start working on your passing again please?
Moving on from that slight gripe, Sergio Busquets will start at pivote and one suspects that he will paired with Andres Iniesta and Rafinha Alcantara. I don’t think anyone has quite recovered from Iniesta’s sensational dribble on Tuesday; I know that it still hasn’t sunk in for me – I mean, he dribbled half the length of the field, past three or four world-class players who play for one of the top ten teams in the world like it was a walk in the park.
"Nothing to see here, I’m just schooling some international midfielders".
So much for Andres Iniesta being past it, am I right? Like Luis said, he isn’t past it and never was – the only people who thought as much were those who stopped paying attention. Look a little closer, and yep, this is the same old Iniesta after all because when it matters, he’s coming up trumps for this club.
Getting back to the team, I suspect that Rafinha will get the nod for his fresh legs and cutting edge, although don’t be shocked if Xavi starts again given that he is back in the conversation for these automatic places. Just don’t expect to see Ivan Rakitic, at least from the start as the Croatian is overdue a decent rest.
So in truth is Lionel Messi, who looked just a shade off the pace on Tuesday, but when all is said and done, he is Lionel Messi – so he could quite easily score a hat-trick tomorrow. And yes, I do want to see him rested at some stage, but not tomorrow, not against Espanyol. Ahem, Cordoba, ahem.
Luis Suarez and Neymar will occupy the other two offensive positions, probably in the last time we see the "MSN" trio starting together until the first leg against Bayern. That’s my suspicion anyway – so guys, let’s make this one a memorable one, OK?
I saw a headline today, which was "Espanyol keen to kill Barca’s treble hopes", and naturally one might imagine how that made me feel. Angry probably isn’t the right word, but it’s probably close enough – I saw that, and even though I knew it was 1) to be expected and 2) probably twisted by the media, my instinctive reaction was still: "let’s crush them". Really, that’s the only way I can feel when I see something like that – they want to stop us? How cute! Let’s show them just how tough it is to do just that.
They’ve been on a bit of a roll, especially by their standards, so they have every right to feel a little confident. They don’t lose very often at home, or even concede a whole bunch – but they haven’t faced us yet this season, so that’s probably why. Former Barcelona midfielder Victor Sanchez is missing out through suspension, while Brazilian full-back Felipe Mattioni is sidelined with an injury, but Salva Sevilla and Juan Fuentes are back and ready to fill in respectively.
FC Barcelona 5-1 RCD Espanyol – 7th December 2014 – La Liga
Sergio Garcia’s goal gave the visitors an early lead, a lead that lasted right up until half-time, when Lionel Messi provided the Blaugrana with an equaliser. From thereon in, Barca were in complete control and went on to register an emphatic win, as Messi rounded off his hat-trick alongside goals from Gerard Pique and Pedro.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Pique, Mathieu, Alba; Busquets, Rafinha, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Espanyol (4-2-3-1): Casilla; Arbilla, Alvaro, Moreno, Fuentes; Lopez, Canas; Lucas, Sergio, Sevilla; Caicedo
Tougher than you think – 2-1 Barcelona.