Spanish League leaders FC Barcelona return to domestic action after a trip to Rome for their Champions League debut, and the Blaugrana will be looking to maintain their solid position on top when they face relegation candidates Levante UD on Sunday, eager to get a good win against an opponent that usually serves as a punching bag for the current La Liga holders.
Despite the great form in terms of results since the hurtful loss to Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Supercup, Barça has had to deal with terrible news after another. Since the start of preseason, a total of nine (!!!!!!) players have suffered some kind of knock or contusion in only two months, and the latest injury report is terrible: Rafinha Alcântara is likely out for the season with a torn ligament in his knee, which leaves a serious gap in Barça's midfield. How will they cope with such an important absence?
In the short term, there's a tough stretch of 5 games in the next 14 days before the next international break to work with, and every game is important. It seems like a cliche, but with so many injuries, getting good results until January is vital, because things do look brighter with the new signings joining the team once the next window comes around. So will the Blaugrana get a victory in their first game of the stretch?
Four important squad members are definitely out of Sunday's encounter. Goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, center-back Thomas Vermaelen and the aforementioned Rafinha will miss the game due to injuries, and Gerard Piqué will serve the fourth and final game of his domestic suspension. Piqué had a solid match against Roma in European duty, and that performance was important to keep him match fit and get him ready for next week's clashes.
Friday's training session saw three new faces that might join the group: injured right-backs Dani Alves and Douglas Pereira took part in the whole practice period and look set to return to action, pending only medical clearances. And Barça B midfielder Gerard Gumbau, who continues to get plenty of training time with the first team, is likely to feature on this weekend's squad list.
As far as starting lineup goes, we will definitely see Marc-André ter Stegen, set for his third consecutive match between the posts. The German conceded in the two previous matches, and he looks for a clean sheet for the first time since a 3-0 win against Bayern Munich almost five months ago.
In front of him, we could see a very different defense than usual. If Alves is cleared, then he's surely going to start at right-back; alongside him, there's a chance Marc Bartra, who had an awesome game against Levante the last time these two teams played, starts for the first time in the league. On the left side of the center-back pairing, Jérémy Mathieu deserves another start after good, productive minutes in place of Vermaelen against Atlético Madrid and Roma. At left-back, we might see a rest for Jordi Alba, who has had a giant stretch of minutes for both club and country, and he's just back from a hamstring issue suffered not too long ago. Against a weaker opponent, it might be a good idea to give him a day off, with now fully fit Adriano Correia getting a start.
The same thing applies to midfielders Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta. The pivote has played almost every game to the full since the La Liga debut against Athletic, for Barça and the Spanish national team. The Blaugrana captain also saw a lot of minutes recently, and because of his age, he warrants a bigger attention on his pitch count. In place of them, Javier Mascherano, who could move from CB to DM if Bartra starts on defense, and Sergi Roberto, who is likely to come back to his original position at central midfield contingent on Alves' return to his starting spot.
Even if we do see plenty of changes on the defense and midfield, the attacking three should not be touched. Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar are slowly but surely getting back to their usual world-beating form, and their understanding seems to be coming back after a few months of not playing together. The Brazilian, especially, needs as much playing time as possible. Unlike his 'MSN' partners, Neymar did not have any preseason for various reasons, and he's basically getting match fit on the fly, so another start is more than necessary.
The Valéncia side certainly does not relish its trips to the Catalan capital, because every match at Camp Nou in the last several years has resulted in the same depressing result. They have conceded at least four goals in the last four games against the Blaugrana, and they've lost 10 straight matches at Barça's home. Les Granotes are yet to win this season, and have a seven-game streak without victories going back to the last campaign. Levante is also terrible on the road, having not even scored in five of their last seven away games.
And apparently that scoreless run will continue, since the side is expected to field an ultra-conservative lineup even without two important pieces of their defensive system: David Navarro is still recovering from injury, while Simao Mate is out with a suspension. Their only true offensive options, Nabil Ghilas and Deyverson, are likely to work alone to create any scoring chances, which should mean that they won't cause Barça's defense too much trouble.
FC Barcelona 5-0 Levante UD - 15th February 2015 - La Liga
With a Blaugrana team starting to get traction and become an unstoppable force, the Camp Nou saw a masterful performance by Lionel Messi, who got a hat-trick and assisted a Neymar Jr. goal. But the best moment in the game came from Luis Suárez: the Uruguayan scored the most beautiful goal of his Barça career, with a left-footed Chilena that closed out the show. That match also saw some former Blaugranes on the pitch, such as legend Xavi Hernández, full-back Martín Montoya and now Chelsea winger Pedro Rodríguez. With all these injuries, can we call them back real quick?
Barcelona (4-3-3): Ter Stegen; Alves, Bartra, Mathieu, Adriano; Mascherano, Rakitic, Roberto; Messi, Suárez, Neymar
Levante (5-3-2): Martínez; López, Juanfran, Trujillo, Feddal, Toño; Mari, Verza, Camarasa; Deyverson, Ghilas
The history suggests that Barça will take this one, and history will repeat itself: easy, comfortable 3-0 victory.