FC Barcelona travel to Andalusia tomorrow looking to leapfrog Atletico Madrid by temporarily reclaiming top spot in La Liga with a win over in-form Malaga CF at La Rosaleda. Los Boquerones boast one of the finest home records in the league, and will be quietly confident about their chances of causing an upset against a Barcelona squad that hasn’t typically performed their best on the road.
Well, if you exclude the Clasico humbling of Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu of course. Or those two wins we’ve got on the road at San Mames this season. And what about that win at the Vicente Calderon against Atletico Madrid and Diego Simeone?
Oh yeah! That’s right – while some media outlets have tried to put a negative spin on Barcelona’s away record ahead of tomorrow’s match with an admittedly dangerous Malaga team who will be capably led by Javi Gracia, the truth is that Luis Enrique’s side have actually been quite good, especially when it really matters. And believe me, tomorrow matters one heck of a lot.
Next weekend, we welcome Aletico Madrid to the Camp Nou, and all things being equal, this will be our first chance to actually usurp them in the standings. Not only that, but it would give us a platform to go on and extend that lead at the top with a win in our game in hand. Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself here but it’s all within touching distance – all we have to do is take it one step at a time, starting with a win at Malaga.
Now, it’s not to going to be easy. We have injuries, suspensions and fixture list congestion to deal with, but you know what, we can do it. Malaga have only conceded five goals at La Rosaleda this season, but we can do it. If this week has proven anything, it’s that Luis Enrique’s greatest achievement is not the treble. His greatest creation is not the "MSN" trident of strikers. Not at all, his greatest achievement and his finest creation is the winning mentality that he has instilled at the Camp Nou.
Never before has a team won as many games across all competitions in a single season as Luis Enrique’s Barcelona. We’re 95 matches into his reign as head coach of the senior squad – guess how many wins?
Luis Enrique has won 75 of his opening 95 matches as Barcelona’s head coach; that’s a 78.9% win percentage for those of you without a calculator handy at home. Pep Guardiola’s win percentage at the Camp Nou was 72.4%. His winning percentage at Bayern Munich in a league where his side routinely coasts to early title wins is 77.9%. I’d be willing to wager that no manager in history can boast such an impressive win percentage at any of the clubs they have coached.
What’s terrifying is that Enrique’s Barcelona can’t stop winning, even when logic dictates that they won’t. At the Bernabeu, we win. Against Diego Simeone, we always win. Even without Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez at San Mames the end result is the same.
We. Still. Win.
So, as Luis Enrique prepares to take an 18 man squad to Andalusia to win in one of the very few venues that he is yet to taste victory, don’t expect him to dwell on Neymar’s absence, or Gerard Pique’s suspension – because he knows that when push comes to shove, his team usually holds up under pressure. And come 6pm CET tomorrow evening, he’ll probably be celebrating win number 76.
After picking up his fifth yellow card of the season last weekend, Gerard Pique will sit out tomorrow’s trip to La Rosaleda through suspension. The loss of the Catalan centre-half could have a profound impact on the Blaugrana defense, although it would be melodramatic to say that we aren’t equipped to deal with his absence. His replacements are both internationals; Thomas Vermaelen starts for Belgium, while Marc Bartra might just get more game time for Spain than he does for our club. Both are perfectly serviceable deputies, even with such large shoes to fill.
A mistake in the midweek win over Athletic Bilbao could relegate Dani Alves down to the bench, much to the benefit of Aleix Vidal who has been very dependable, albeit unspectacular since his debut just over two weeks ago. On the opposite flank one should expect to see Sergi Roberto reprise his latest role as a perfectly adequate and inoffensive left-back. The fact that this is an improvement over Adriano Correia and Jeremy Mathieu is a pretty damning indictment of their abilities and form thus far this season.
Further forward, I suspect that the slight discomfort that is burdening Neymar will lead to a more conservative selection from Luis Enrique. Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta are almost certain to feature in midfield, but will have additional support in the form of Arda Turan, who will able to provide some additional steel to proceedings. Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez will join him in attack, but don’t rule out a switch to the 4-2-3-1, whereby Munir could easily start in place of Iniesta or Rakitic, if appropriate.
Fun fact: Malaga struggle to score goals. I hear what you’re saying, they’re in 12th place, they can’t be that bad – well, put it this way, they’ve scored fewer goals than last place Levante. They’ve scored less than Rayo Vallecano and Granada CF, both of whom find themselves in the relegation zone. Actually, they’ve scored fewer goals than anyone in the league, with the notable exception of Real Madrid’s hosts for the weekend, Real Betis.
Eight of their 15 goals this season have been scored by one man: Charles, who Luis Enrique will know well from his time at Celta Vigo. No-one else has more than one goal to their name, which naturally means that a lot of pressure will be on the defense tomorrow to step up and make a few plays. Think of this as a prelude to the Broncos vs Patriots AFC title showdown – with Luis Suarez probably playing Gronkowski, and certainly with Enrique playing Belichick.
Minus the whole allegations of cheating though.
For the hosts, Artur Boka will miss out through suspension, while livewire forward Nordin Amrabaat also missed the cut. Nor was there a place for teenage sensation Hachim Mastour, who a few fans may recognise as one of the hottest talents to emerge on the European scene in recent years, at least for his dazzling array of tricks and flicks.
FC Barcelona 1-0 Malaga CF – 29th August 2015 – La Liga
Isn’t it ironic that Vermaelen should start tomorrow against the same club he registered his best highlight as a Barcelona player? A late goal from the Belgian centre-half was enough to secure all three points for the goal-shy Blaugrana in this one.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Vidal, Mascherano, Vermaelen, Roberto; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Arda
Malaga (4-4-2): Kameni; Rosales, Albentosa, Weligton, Torres; Castro, Recio, Camacho, Duda; Cop, Charles
Another tough, close encounter but I back Messi and Suarez to tip the scales in our favour. A second consecutive 2-1 win.