No rest for the wicked, eh? Less than 72 hours after narrowly defeating Celta Vigo at the Estadio Municipal de Balaidos, FC Barcelona must take to the field again, this time in front of a welcoming crowd at the Camp Nou as they prepare to host UD Almeria in Wednesday’s early evening kick-off. On paper, this should be one of Barcelona’s easiest remaining matches – yet we all know just how unpredictable football can be, and therefore the Blaugrana will have to be at their best to avoid an upset.
Indeed, they might well see this match as an opportunity to make a statement. After Real Madrid utterly obliterated Granada CF 9-1 at the weekend, Barça’s 1-0 win over Celta was viewed negatively by some and a comfortable victory of their own over Almeria may go some way to appease those critics. There’s probably the question of whether we should even consider their opinion, what with our four point leas atop La Liga, but hey, I wouldn’t argue with an emphatic win either way.
And if Levante UD could register a three-goal win over Almeria at the weekend, they why shouldn’t we expect something similar from Barcelona tomorrow?
The fallout from the embarrassing 4-1 defeat has been immediate and predictable; out goes Juan Ignacio Martinez and in comes former Barcelona full-back, Sergi for Almeria’s second managerial change of the season. Perhaps because of the chopping and changing, club chairman Alfonso Garcia is yet to acknowledge the cold, hard facts relating to his team’s situation: they just might not be good enough to survive in La Liga this season.
After all, they barely survived the drop last season, only securing their safety on the final day of the season with a goalless draw against Athletic Bilbao. With their place in La Liga likely to go down to the final Jornada once again, Almeria will not be looking forward to the prospect of squaring off against Barcelona in their current form.
Brace yourselves folks…that’s right, tomorrow’s match could lead to a long overdue debut for Thomas Vermaelen. The Belgian defender has worked his way back to fitness after a multitude of injury problems and while he was not included in the squad that made the trip to Vigo, we have been assured that Vermaelen is indeed ready to make his comeback – and on paper, tomorrow’s match represents the perfect opportunity.
Albeit not from the start though; after such a lengthy spell on the sidelines there is no doubt that the former Arsenal captain is not yet remotely match fit, nor will he be familiar enough with the intricacies of the Barcelona system. All that being said he’s probably ready for a cameo – assuming that Luis Enrique actually wishes to use him. With Gerard Pique, Jeremy Mathieu and Marc Bartra all in fine form, there’s no reason to rush Vermaelen’s return – or force one of the aforementioned trio into the stands.
With a tough match against Sevilla and of course the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals against Paris Saint-Germain on the horizon, we should probably expect some rotation from Luis Enrique tomorrow – although one name we can be certain to see on the teamsheet is Claudio Bravo.
The Chilean shot-stopper wasn’t called upon all too often against Celta Vigo on Sunday, but he performed admirably when Celta did venture forward and his 16th clean sheet of the season helped Barcelona secure their 23rd victory in 29 La Liga matches. Understated, but brutally effective and remarkably consistent; Bravo might not be "numero uno" like Victor Valdes was, but in some ways "numero trece" has been an upgrade.
In defense, Dani Alves may continue at right-back although the temptation for Luis Enrique must be to hand Martin Montoya a start, knowing full well that Alves will be suspended for our crucial tie with PSG next week. It would be best to hand Montoya some match practice before that encounter, and equally, we want him to be well rested – so that probably rules out the weekend’s match with Sevilla. Alongside Montoya, I expect to see a Catalan partnership of Gerard Pique and Marc Bartra, with Adriano Correia spoiling the La Masia party by starting at left-back.
With Sergio Busquets suspended for picking up his fifth yellow card of the season against Celta Vigo, Javier Mascherano is expected to return from his suspension to rotate back in at pivote – and with that, I think Lucho has the freedom to start our club captain Xavi Hernandez. After all, Xavi earned his place once again with a superb performance off the bench against Celta; plus, I’m interested to see him partnered with Ivan Rakitic in the Barça midfield, which seems the most likely scenario tomorrow.
Meanwhile the attack continues to select itself on paper due to the status of the front three, but there is a case to be made for some rotation; whether that means a rare start for Pedro or a welcome back from the wilderness for Munir El Haddadi. Then again, we’ll probably just see Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar again – first world problems, am I right?
There’s no doubt that Almeria don’t have that problem – getting sick of seeing a star-studded attacking triumvirate just isn’t on the agenda for the Almeria fanbase. Instead, they’re sweating over their status in La Liga, more so than ever after that shocking performance against fellow strugglers, Levante. The good news is that Almeria are actually quite good on their travels – they’ve picked up nearly twice as many points on the road versus at home – the bad news is that they’re without a win in their last seven.
Oh, and did I mention that while they are quite good away from home, Almeria struggle to make an impact when they travel to big guns? Villarreal, Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Valencia – the list goes on and on, all four registered victories at home against Almeria. Heck, their last trip to Barcelona ended dismally in a 3-0 defeat and they were only facing RCD Espanyol. Stranger things have happened, but I wouldn’t be placing any faith in an upset tomorrow.
UD Almeria 1-2 FC Barcelona – 8th November 2014 – La Liga
Lowly Almeria actually took the lead in this one courtesy of a breakaway goal from Thievy, but Barcelona finally got their act together late on and secured the comeback victory courtesy of goals from Neymar and Jordi Alba and a sensational performance off the bench from Luis Suarez.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Montoya, Bartra, Pique, Adriano; Mascherano, Xavi, Rakitic; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Almeria (4-2-3-1): Ruben; Ximo, Trujillo, Dos Santos, Casado; Verza, Corona; Edgar, Soriano, Wellington; Hemed
This one should be a little more straight-forward but beware "new manager syndrome" – I’m going for a 4-0 win based on the form book, but wouldn’t be surprised to see something closer, like a 2-0 if Sergi gets his tactics right.