Isn’t it good to be back? After a fortnight hiatus enforced by an international break, FC Barcelona have an opportunity to pick up where they left off tomorrow and maintain their momentum with a victory over Celta Vigo at the Balaidos. Of course, Barça are riding a wave of confidence at the moment after a hard-fought victory in El Clasico against Real Madrid, but the international break arguably came at the worst possible time, somewhat halting that momentum just as we looked to really pull away from the chasing pack.
For our rivals, for our challengers, the international break provided some respite. A chance to regroup, reassess and address any weaknesses that we had previously exposed. Real Madrid for example have a number of key players one step closer to a return to full fitness; Barcelona on the other hand lost a key defensive cog, Jordi Alba, as the Catalan full-back suffered an injury with the Spanish national team.
Factor in the question marks over Lionel Messi’s fitness and well, would anyone really be surprised if the FIFA Virus made an unwelcome return?
Certainly, Celta Vigo have previous. In the earlier meeting between the two clubs at the Camp Nou, Celta dealt Luis Enrique his first home defeat as Barça coach – all this just months after Enrique’s Celta experience earned him the top job in Catalunya. Celta giveth, and Celta taketh away. A trip to Balaidos is never easy either; Celta boast a winning record at home and while Barcelona’s away form has been impeccable as of late, they haven’t always had great experiences in Vigo.
Just two seasons ago, a late Borja Oubina goal cost us a couple of points and held us to a draw – sure, that would prove inconsequential at the seasons’ end as Barça cruised to the title with a virtually flawless record under the late, great Tito Vilanova – but it’s not exactly the most encouraging sign.
Players like Nolito have the quality to hurt us offensively; Sergi Gomez and Andreu Fontas have the potential to frustrate us defensively and of course, as former Barça players themselves, they’re unlikely to be fazed by our high line of pressure. They know what to expect – the question is: can they go one better than Real Madrid and stop the Blaugrana juggernaut?
Let’s start with the bad news: Javier Mascherano is suspended, which is a bit of a pain given his form in recent matches, and his versatility – but alas, with Sergio Busquets back from injury, there’s not really any impact to speak of on the strength of the team we will field tomorrow. However, Jordi Alba’s injury does throw a spanner into the works as the Catalan full-back is undoubtedly our strongest option on the left-flank – although Adriano Correia is a fine deputy.
The good news is that Thomas Vermaelen is back and training with the squad, probably the first extended period since his arrival from Arsenal in the summer. Tomorrow’s match has come too soon for him to be named to Luis Enrique’s squad, but his debut is on the horizon and it’s now a case of when rather than if he will be seen this season.
Aside from that, there’s not really anything to mention about the squad named by Luis Enrique for the trip to Vigo – Lionel Messi makes the cut, and that’s probably the only other headline we could possibly make.
In goal, Claudio Bravo will start looking to maintain his stranglehold in the race for the Zamora trophy, even if he himself remains focused on the team and helping Barça win titles rather than on individual glory. Logically, one follows the other – at least, ten more clean sheets would surely secure the La Liga title so I don’t see why he shouldn’t be aiming for that, but hey, I guess he just doesn’t want to be seen as being selfish, or indeed as the sole reason behind Barça’s impressive defensive record.
After all, the defense has to take as much of the credit at least for their resurgence. Written off for the past two seasons, we’ve entered this campaign with largely the same backline as before – and now that they’ve found form, well, Barça seem unstoppable once again.
Dani Alves might be running out of contract, but his performances have been more than adequate. Gerard Piqué has been exemplary and without a doubt, the best defender on the planet while both Marc Bartra and Jeremy Mathieu have excelled when called upon. Speaking of which, just how good was Jeremy Mathieu’s header in the Clasico? Evading the Real Madrid markers with an astute run was enough, but following that up with an emphatic headed finish? Pure ecstasy for Mathieu and all Culés watching around the world.
For tomorrow’s match, expect to see Mathieu reprise his role in the centre of defense with Dani Alves and Adriano Correia both in support as the trio missed out on international call-ups. Both Bartra and Piqué travelled with Del Bosque’s side – so we could see either: my money is on Piqué tomorrow and Bartra in midweek.
In midfield, expect to see Sergio Busquets make his first start in over a month. While we fared well without him, it was Busi’s introduction in the second-half of the Clasico that helped us really establish our superiority over Real – a reminder, if one was needed, that we are very much a better side with Busquets anchoring the midfield.
This is exactly the kind of match that we will need his skills as well. Celta are well-disciplined and astute in possession; so we need to be sure that we won’t give the ball away cheaply and that we move it around quickly when we do have it to breakdown their backline. And it’s these qualities that may influence Enrique’s selection in the other, advanced midfield roles. Xavi’s vision and quality in the final third could see him start and captain the side, while Rafinha’s all-round tenacity and individual skill could prove vital.
Then again, Ivan Rakitić and Andrés Iniesta aren’t exactly worse options – and we’ll see all four over the next few days anyway. I’m sticking with my Xavi-Rafinha partnership, but we all know that I’m probably wrong.
I will however be right about the frontline, purely because it’s tough to get wrong: Lionel Messi has been cleared for action, so will start. Luis Suarez is in peak condition and great form, so will start. Neymar looked great in the international break and as an added bonus, didn’t have to travel half the world either – so he’ll start too! They couldn’t break down Celta before, but if anything that’ll serve as added motivation for our deadly trio. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Long-term injury absentees David Costas, Carles Planas, Levy Madinda and Borja Oubina remain sidelined, which means that Celta enter tomorrow’s match without any fresh concerns and a similar squad to the one that dispatched the Blaugrana a few months ago. Andreu Fontas is relatively confident – at least as confident as one can be before a match against Barça – and who knows, he might have good reason. This really is an "unknown" match; the form guide doesn’t mean anything – this is Barça effectively starting from scratch.
FC Barcelona 0-1 Celta Vigo – 1st November 2014 – La Liga
Joaquin Larrivey’s second-half strike was enough to separate the two sides in this tense encounter at the Camp Nou, as Celta shocked and frustrated the Blaugrana en route to this impressive away victory.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mathieu, Adriano; Busquets, Xavi, Rafinha; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Celta (4-3-3): Alvarez; Mallo, Gomez, Cabral, Castro; Fontas, Hernández, Radoja; Orellana, Larrivey, Nolito
This is going to be a tough one, and I don’t think that Messi will be anywhere near 100% -- making this one even tougher. I still we’ll have enough though; a brace from Suarez and another from Neymar en route to a 3-1 win for Barça.
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- Celta Vigo vs Barcelona: Pick the Lineup