FC Barcelona return to La Liga action tomorrow, as they make the tough trip to Galicia to take on Celta Vigo at the Estadio Balaidos. For Luis Enrique, this venue holds a rather unique place in his heart; Celta were the ones who really let him showcase his managerial talents after a tough stint at AS Roma, and Celta have also been the ones to provide him with some of the toughest moments of his career as Barça manager.
For the Blaugrana, this fixture very much represents a return to the scene of the crime; last season we visited Balaidos and suffered immensely. Inspired by a superb performance from Nolito, Celta taught us a footballing lesson at the start of last season. The final score on the night was 4-1, but in many respects that flattered Barcelona – all this in spite of Enrique fielding a strong starting line-up.
Of course, many will point to that match being the first after an international break – and it’s obvious that the travel played it’s part in that scoreline, but so did the quality of the opposition and so did the venue – neither of which have changed all that much year on year.
Nolito may have left to pastures new to reunite with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, but Iago Aspas, who scored a brace on that fateful night, is still in attack and he has been joined by Giuseppe Rossi. The Italian is a familiar face to fans of La Liga and at one stage he was tipped for a move to the Blaugrana – such was his ability at the height of his powers. A few injuries may have curtailed his development somewhat, but just like Nolito, Rossi is a player capable of taking over a game.
While they started the season slowly, Celta have rebounded magnificently in recent weeks, stringing together an unbeaten run of five matches across domestic and European competition. Can Eduardo Berizzo make it six tomorrow by masterminding another shock result against the reigning champions, or will Luis Enrique claim a second victory in three matches back at Balaidos?
With their narrow 2-1 win over Deportivo Alaves, Sevilla temporarily climbed ahead of the Blaugrana into second spot today and it’s possible that by the time we kick off tomorrow, Barcelona could be as low as sixth in the table. Obviously, the English Premier League is the only league in the world with a registered trademark for being competitive, so perhaps we should chalk that up to Barcelona’s failings?
Actually, I don’t mind if the folks in the marketing department over at Sky and BT Sports take offense at this part of the preview; La Liga is not only streets ahead in terms of technical quality and star power, it’s also far more competitive and difficult to win. Considering how the punditry teams over at Sky Sports often claim that flying to and from matches causes fatigue for the British sides in Europe, imagine how teams in England could cope with 2 hour plane trips for each round of the domestic season too?
You only need to look at how tight the table is through the first six matches to get a sense of how evenly-matched most La Liga teams are – or at least can be on any given day. Every team has dropped points at least twice which means that even at this early stage, it’s likely that Tito Vilanova’s record of 100 points in a single La Liga campaign will survive for another season at least.
And all this with FC Barcelona boasting perhaps their deepest squad in recent memory.
Before the season started we were commending Robert for his excellent work in the transfer market – but perhaps the truth is that he merely did what he had to – Barcelona need a squad this stacked with talent to compete across all fronts this season. Every match is difficult, every match requires a slightly different gameplan and every opponent will be chomping at the bit for their chance to make a name for themselves – to defeat the great Barcelona.
In that respect, Celta are the perfect example – and one of our toughest foes. They know how to play against us and have the players to execute that gameplan. The atmosphere and the venue lends itself to a shock result; it’s down to Luis Enrique and his squad to spoil the party so to speak. The question is: how can he do it?
As counter intuitive as this may sound given what happened last season, our best chance may be make the game as open as possible. The 3-4-3 that we deployed against Leganes enabled the hosts to create more chances than they probably would have otherwise generated on their own – but it also created a bunch more for the Blaugrana and we had the quality to make them count.
Celta, through six matches, have scored just five goals. If we turn this into a shoot-out, there’s every chance that we will emerge victorious – and I imagine there’s at least a small part of Luis Enrique that this gameplan would appeal to. Whether he opts for it, well that’s an entirely different question.
I imagine that he will opt to play it safe in the first instance, and field something as close to the "Gala XI" as he possibly can. Marc-André ter Stegen will start in goal, and ahead of him we will likely see a defense of Sergi Roberto, Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba. Perhaps Jeremy Mathieu challenges for a place, but I see him starting the Deportivo match instead and that would throw the rotation off if he started tomorrow night as well.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets hasn’t quite been himself as of late – which might influence the 3-4-3 selection – but I would keep the faith and start him at pivote tomorrow anyway. With Ivan Rakitić and Andrés Iniesta ahead of him, Busquets is the best option there, even if he is at less than 100%.
In attack, Arda Turan grabbed yet another goal in midweek as his cameo appearance off the substitute bench turned the game for Barcelona – but I think Enrique will start one of his other subs from that match, Rafinha Alcântara. The Brazilian is a more natural fit on the right-wing and that’s what we’re going to need tomorrow.
Berizzo has no further injury concerns ahead of tomorrow’s match; while Carles Planas and Fabian Orellana both continue to recover from broken legs, the rest of the squad is largely in good health. John Guidetti will be campaigning for a start after his late goal against Panathinaikos in midweek, while much the same can be said of Daniel Wass, who scored and assisted Guidetti. Former Barça starlets, Sergi Gomez and Andreu Fontas could both be in line to make an appearance against their former club – but otherwise it’s broadly similar to the squad that defeated us last season.
FC Barcelona 6-1 Celta Vigo – 14th February 2016 – La Liga
Luis Suarez was the undoubted star of the night on this mild February evening, as the Uruguayan bagged himself a hat-trick and selflessly laid on two more goals for his colleagues in a superlative second-half performance.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Iniesta; Rafinha, Suarez, Neymar
Celta (4-2-3-1): Alvarez; Mallo, Gomez, Cabral, Castro; Hernández, Fontas; Wass, Rossi, Sisto; Aspas
A tight first-half will be settled in the second period by the quality of the Barça frontline – 2-0 to the visitors.