FC Barcelona will make their La Liga debut at the Camp Nou tomorrow, when they host Malaga CF hoping to extend theior winning start to this La Liga title defense. Of course, the Blaugrana emerged victorious, somewhat against the odds, last weekend at San Mames against Athletic Bilbao with a 1-0 victory courtesy of Luis Suarez’ second-half volley and a second win in as many matches would serve as a fine statement of intent to the rest of the division.
In particular, it would also heap more pressure on Real Madrid and their new head coach, Rafa Benitez whose decisions have already been called into question by the media and fans alike. Los Blancos’ surprising goalless draw with Sporting Gijon hardly represented a good start to their campaign and if they fall five points behind the Blaugrana ahead of their evening kick-off at the Santiago Bernabeu, well, who knows what could happen there.
The good news for Barcelona head coach Luis Enrique is that his squad is slowly but surely getting into shape. The players are one week closer to finding the edge that saw them gloriously claim a second treble in six years, while we have a couple of key players back from injury in Sergio Busquets and Neymar. There are question marks as to whether they will feature, but they are available if necessary and that can only be viewed as a positive.
In short, everything is rosy, isn’t it?
Enter Malaga CF, and enter Javi Gracia. The former Osasuna manager has something of a penchant for frustrating the Blaugrana and will be hoping that his magic formula will work wonders once again tomorrow. Rewind to last season, and Barça lost this very fixture by a solitary goal, while in the return at La Rosaleda they were also shut-out.
It could almost be a pub quiz question over in Catalunya in a few years time: who was the only club to shut-out Barcelona in their 2015 treble-winning season...surely we’ll be able to find a way through this time, right?
As mentioned earlier, Neymar is back and so is Sergio Busquets as it turns out that his ankle injury was not as bad as once feared. Dani Alves remains sidelined, although given Sergi Roberto’s impressive performance against Athletic Bilbao, that might not be a bad thing at all. Aside from that, there’s no real change from last match: Gerard Piqué remains suspended after his appeal was turned down, while Douglas is also set to miss out through injury.
I know, devastating news.
And given how things turned out last weekend against Athletic Bilbao, it’s prudent to expect that Luis Enrique will opt for a similar approach tomorrow – at least in terms of his initial team selection.
Claudio Bravo will take the number one spot for La Liga again this season, so the Chilean will start in goal tomorrow and he is likely to be protected by a similar backline to the match against Athletic. Sergi Roberto is my candidate to replace Dani Alves at right-back; although leaving that change aside, I would like to see the rest of the group from that clean sheet against Athletic.
Jordi Alba of course provided the all-important cross for Suarez’ winner and generally added an extra dimension to our attack – a dimension that we were previously lacking in the Supercopa – so he’s a lock. Javier Mascherano doesn’t need to fill in at pivote if Sergio Busquets is fit, so his leadership and experience is needed in the backline. Meanwhile, Thomas Vermaelen looked good against the Basques, so he should be rewarded with another start – as much as it pains me to say it.
Sergio Busquets can anchor the midfield provided that he has indeed shaken off that knock in time for kick-off, and the midfield partnership of Ivan Rakitić and Andrés Iniesta pretty much selects itself. The return of Neymar does open up the opportunity for Rafinha Alcântara to return to a more withdrawn role in the centre of the field, although I wouldn’t expect him to displace our captain, or dear Ivan just yet.
On that note, did someone say..."MSN"?
The hour we got to witness against AS Roma in the Joan Gamper Trophy was enough to whet my appetite, but now I need my fix – and if last season is anything to go by, the Blaugrana need the triumvirate fit and firing if we are to have any hope of breaking down this stubborn defense.
Los Boquerones frustrated us with a disciplined defensive performance (or two) last season; and for the most part, the spine of their team remains unchanged. And then further forward, they have added one of the better forwards outside of the top six in La Liga: Brazilian forward Charles was snapped up from Celta Vigo for the paltry fee of €500,000 and looks set to provide Malaga with some of the firepower they were lacking last year, and indeed have lost with the sale of Juanmi.
Last week, he didn’t get on the scoresheet thanks to an offside call – but be that as it may, Malaga’s defense didn’t concede either so Javi Gracia’s side picked up a point and a clean sheet against Sevilla. That’s the same Sevilla who scored four against us in Tbilisi, just in case you were wondering.
This could be tough.
FC Barcelona 0-1 Malaga CF – 21st February 2015 – La Liga
An early goal from Juanmi was enough to decide this close encounter at the Camp Nou, as Javi Gracia’s tactical masterclass earned Malaga a deserved victory.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Roberto, Mascherano, Vermaelen, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Malaga (4-4-1-1): Kameni; Rosales, Albentosa, Angelieri, Torres; Horta, Tissone, Darder, Amrabat; Cop; Charles
Another close match; I think we could see another 1-0 win, but the home advantage makes me think that a 2-0 is more likely.