Following their midweek dismantling of English Premier League leaders, Manchester City, FC Barcelona returns to La Liga action tomorrow when they travel down the coast to take on Valencia CF at the Mestalla. Traditionally, a trip to Valencia ranks amongst the toughest fixtures on the domestic calendar; Los Che are typically fighting it out for a European berth each season, and the Mestalla is a tough venue for away teams to visit.
However, after selling a plethora of key players over the summer, including Barcelona signings Paco Alcacer and Andre Gomes, Valencia have struggled to find their form this season and even at this early stage of the campaign, they have already gone through one managerial change. Pako Ayesteran is gone, and former Italy coach, Cesare Prandelli, has been handed the reigns on a full-time basis in his first job since late 2014.
The early signs under Prandelli have been promising; through one match Valencia can boast a 100% record – and while that doesn’t sound like much to celebrate, it’s worth noting the context: this was only their third win of the season, and one that moved them out of the relegation zone. In that respect, Valencia are a team on the up-and-up; their start to the season was an anomaly, and they are sure to provide the Blaugrana with a stern test tomorrow.
The question is: what kind of test can Luis Enrique expect tomorrow? In Manchester City, Lucho knew exactly what to expect and he tailored his gameplan to near-perfection; Valencia under Prandelli are an unknown, and that in itself is perhaps the biggest test we will face tomorrow.
Will Prandelli setup his team to constrict the field and press high up the pitch in hopes of regaining possession in dangerous areas? Is he going to instruct his players to defend in a disciplined, narrow structure, conceding the flanks to Barcelona in the hope that they will not be able to play through a congested midfield and defense? Will he play two holding midfielders, or perhaps a trivote?
We don’t know what we don’t know, and in that respect this will perhaps be a more fascinating test, tactically, than the midweek battle with Pep Guardiola.
On the plus side, Barcelona can count on the one man who transcends tactics, systems and oppositions – Lionel Messi. We have long since passed the point where the English language has enough superlatives to describe the Argentine forward; what I enjoyed most about his performance in midweek was not the fact that he score yet another hat-trick, nor that he did so in his first full match back from injury.
Rather, what I enjoyed most about the performance was that this is the kind of display we are guaranteed to see from Lionel Messi when he is afforded as much space, time and mistakes from an opposing defense. If you slip over and let him get one-on-one with your goalkeeper, you know with complete certainty that you are going to concede a goal. If you don’t deploy at least two players to mark him and track his runs at all times, he is going to dominate you just like he dominated Manchester City in midweek.
There’s an argument that any side coached by Pep Guardiola represents the ideal opposition for Lionel Messi; Pep tries to play expansive football and stays true to his philosophies, none of which can account for defending such a transcendent and dominant player. Playing with one holding midfielder against Lionel Messi is perhaps the closest football will get to harakiri; and that’s true irrespective of the talent you might have in defense.
If every team approached a match against Barcelona in that fashion, Messi might just score a hat-trick every week – and even if you don’t, even if you respect his abilities, his talents and his supernatural omnipotence on the football field… well he might just score a hat-trick anyway.
And therein lies Barcelona’s trump card; there is no way to definitively gameplan against Lionel Messi – but of course almost every team must still try to do so, and in doing so they must make compromises and those compromises often come at the detriment of that team’s identity. Our squad boasts a litany of world-class talent, but of course we miss that edge that Messi provides us when he’s absent – how could you not?
With Messi now, hopefully, back for the remainder of the season, Barcelona are in an excellent position to truly build momentum and kick-off their title challenge proper. Of course, just as Messi returns we lose two key members of our backline as Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique are both out for the next few matches at least – but having Messi back and in-form more than makes up for that.
Not only that, but our defense remains in a strong position even without Pique and Alba; Roberto could be fully recovered from his injury and his return will be a massive boost – particularly as it will allow Javier Mascherano to move back into the heart of defense, where he can partner the immovable force that is Samuel Umtiti. The Frenchman continues to put in tremendous performances with each passing week; and perhaps his absence partially explains Barcelona’s brief downturn in form.
In midfield, Denis Suarez appears to be somewhat frozen out at the moment – purely because Rafinha Alcantara has relegated him to the back of Luis Enrique’s mind with his headline stealing turns. The Brazilian could well start again tomorrow, with Andres Iniesta likely to start ahead of Andre Gomes, as the Portuguese midfielder challenges for a start in his return to the Mestalla.
Of course, the Barcelona attack picks itself – as the highest scoring team in La Liga, the Blaugrana will be confident of their chances tomorrow; after all, what team can stop them?
Cesare Prandelli’s first act as Valencia manager saw him leave Portuguese international and headline summer signing, Nani, out of the squad for their win over Sporting Gijon. Instead, reported Barcelona target Joao Cancelo was pushed forward as Prandelli experimented with a similar approach to the one that Valencia employed so successfully with Jordi Alba and Jeremy Mathieu in their stints at the club.
The issue was that this change still couldn’t liberate the starting forwards, Santi Mina and Rodrigo, to score the goals that Valencia need them to score across the season – although Mario Suarez grabbed a rare brace from midfield to ensure that it didn’t make a difference.
But that was Gijon, this is Barcelona – and Los Che are going to have to perform a lot better to replicate that result again tomorrow night.
FC Barcelona 1-2 Valencia CF – 17th April 2016 – La Liga
Despite dominating possession and registering more shots on goal, Barcelona slumped to defeat in their last visit to the Mestalla, as an own goal from Ivan Rakitic and a Santi Mina strike condemned the Blaugrana to defeat.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Mascherano, Umtiti, Digne; Busquets, Rafinha, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Valencia (4-2-3-1): Alves; Montoya, Aderllan, Garay, Gaya; Perez, Suarez; Cancelo, Parejo, Mina; Rodrigo
We’re on a roll – Valencia will be tough, but they won’t be able to stop us this time round, not this early into Prandelli’s reign. 3-1 to the visitors.