FC Barcelona will make their return to La Liga action tomorrow, when they host Malaga CF at the Camp Nou in their first game back from the final international break of the year. This fixture signals the start of a demanding stretch of fixtures, perhaps not in the calibre of opposition, but certainly in terms of the quantity of matches; Barcelona will play 10 matches in the next 33 days and Luis Enrique’s squad will be pushed to their limit to maintain a consistent level over this tough stretch.
However, as we approach this final stretch of 2016 before the winter break, it’s imperative that the Blaugrana continue to build and maintain momentum; January and February will be no less demanding and of course we cannot afford to fall further behind in the title race either. While El Clasico will provide us with an opportunity to disrupt the current league leaders, it won’t make a lot of difference if we stumble before or after that point.
And so we turn our attentions to the task at hand, defeating Malaga and keeping the pressure on Real Madrid ahead of the highly-anticipated El Derbi Madrileño at the Vicente Calderon. Forgive me for stating the obvious; but the derby will represent the toughest fixture of Real’s season so far and it’s entirely plausible that an early afternoon win for the Blaugrana could send them top of the table for good.
Without wishing to digress too much, this is supposed to be the final Madrid derby to be contested at the Vicente Calderon, and having had the honour and pleasure of visiting the Calderon on a couple of occasions last season, I can almost guarantee you that the support at that stadium will spur Atleti on to a memorable result tomorrow – with or without Antoine Griezmann to lead the attack.
Evidently, this could be the opportunity of the season for FC Barcelona; but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here as Malaga have established themselves as something of a bogey team in recent seasons. Since Luis Enrique took charge in the summer of 2014, his Barcelona has cemented its reputation as a high-powered offensive side; in 139 matches, Enrique’s Barcelona have scored 399 goals at an average of 2.87 goals per game. Against Malaga they have scored just three goals at an average of a 0.75 goals per game.
Or to put those statistics into context, there is not a single team that boasts a better defensive record against Enrique’s Barcelona than Malaga.
Given Barça’s struggles with the FIFA virus, this promises to be a huge test for our squad. Do we have the character to fight through any fatigue we may be feeling after the international break? Do we have the creativity to break down the Malaga defense without Andres Iniesta? Will we be able to convert our chances without Luis Suarez leading the attack?
So many questions… luckily we don’t have long to wait for answers.
Before we get to the usual team news section of the preview, I’d like to take a moment to thank you all for your support in the recent Football Blogging Awards. While Barca Blaugranes couldn’t retain its title on the night (and celebrate in front of Espanyol supporter, Guillem Balague), we appreciate each and every member of the community who supported us throughout the nomination phase and who voted in the finals.
Prior to the international break, Barcelona were struggling with something of an injury crisis. A number of key players were sidelined, particularly in defense – and it was evident in our play. Sevilla dominated us in the first half, wasting a number of chances before succumbing to defeat, while Manchester City of course capitalised to hand us a rather humbling defeat at the Etihad. While I’m oversimplifying in solely attributing this to our defensive injuries, it certainly played a major role and as such, Luis Enrique will be feeling much more confident now that the “crisis” has somewhat subsided.
Gerard Pique is back from injury and looks set to make a triumphant return as the leader of the Barça defense, while Jordi Alba is also set to make his comeback. In that sense we have gained a lot over the past couple of weeks, but it hasn’t been all good news as Samuel Umtiti has picked up an injury and will ultimately take their place on the treatment table for the next couple of weeks. Sergi Roberto also picked up a knock on international duty, although recent reports indicate that he should recover in time to suit up against Malaga.
Jeremy Mathieu has also recovered from his latest injury and could therefore challenge Javier Mascherano for a spot in the backline; if you cast your mind back to last season, this corresponding fixture was settled by a goal from Thomas Vermaelen. Maybe Mathieu could play a similar role as an unlikely hero tomorrow?
In midfield, Sergio Busquets remains the favourite to start at pivote, but after playing the majority of both of Spain’s fixtures over the international break, there is a possibility that he may be rested. Andre Gomes and Ivan Rakitic could each slot in as a makeshift replacement, and so could Javier Mascherano if Mathieu gets the nod in defense. All this however is hypothetical; I would suspect that Busquets will start regardless.
With Busquets dictating the tempo in the holding midfield role, both Roberto and Alba will be liberated to provide width to the attack – which means it’s integral that Barcelona seize control in the middle of the field, and that they possess the required creativity to break down a disciplined Malaga defense. The 3-4-3 must be a tempting option for Luis Enrique – but given Malaga’s strength on the counter, something which Lucho alluded to during his pre-match press conference today, I prefer the balance that a 4-3-3 provides.
Ivan Rakitic is a guaranteed starter in his usual right interior spot; but I think the second spot could easily go to a few players. Denis Suarez would get the nod from me for his superlative display against Sevilla, but Andre Gomes provides a greater threat from long-range, an option that Enrique may like against such a stingy defense. Arda Turan on the other hand hasn’t featured a lot in midfield this season, but he would enable us to overload in attack – again, an option that could have obvious benefits against a tough opponent.
In attack, Luis Enrique put an immediate end to the speculation by confirming that Paco Alcacer would start tomorrow. His inconsistent form had raised question marks, but with Luis Suarez suspended, Enrique chose to show his faith in the summer signing, rather than alter his tactical approach to fill the void.
In some ways, this is good news. Lionel Messi starting as a false nine against this defense probably wouldn’t have led to much success, while Neymar may have also struggled to find space behind or between the lines. We need someone like Suarez or Alcacer to start in matches like this – to occupy the central defenders so that our flair players like Messi, Neymar, Rakitic and whoever occupies the other midfield berth can find space.
The headline headed into this match has to be the return of former Barcelona starlet, Sandro Ramirez. Sandro started last season in Luis Enrique’s first team, but after a frustrating season in which his opportunities were limited, the club granted him his release so that he could progress his career elsewhere. The Catalan striker ended up in Andalusia, and he hasn’t looked back since; the sharp finishing skills that were on display in the B team returned almost immediately and through 11 matches, Sandro ranks as Malaga’s top scorer with five goals.
Much like his former colleague Munir El Haddadi, I’m certain that Sandro will be looking to mark his first game against Barcelona with a goal; not out of spite or malice, but simply to demonstrate that he is a good player in La Liga. Ironically, Sandro is producing the kind of production that we yearn for from Paco Alcacer. It’s funny how the football world works sometimes…
The real headline however should be the selection crisis that Juande Ramos faces ahead of this match. The former Real Madrid coach will be without both of his starting holding midfield players; Recio remains sidelined through injury while Ignacio Camacho picked up his fifth yellow card of the season against Sporting Gijon in Malaga's last fixture. Pablo Fornals will fill in, but he is inexperienced and will be without an orthodox partner in that holding midfield pairing. Juanpi could slot in alongside him, but he’s a stop-gap solution at best – and the loss of Recio and Camacho will surely prove to be too much to overcome for the visitors.
Malaga CF 1-2 FC Barcelona – 23rd January 2016 – La Liga
After a Juanpi equaliser cancelled out Munir El Haddadi’s second minute opener, Lionel Messi stepped up to score the winner and secure an important victory for Luis Enrique’s title chasing Blaugrana at La Rosaleda.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Denis; Messi, Alcacer, Neymar
Malaga (4-2-3-1): Kameni; Rosales, Llorente, Mikel, Ricca; Fornals, Juanpi; Castro, Jony, Juankar; Sandro
It will be a close one, but I think Malaga under Juande Ramos (and without Ignacio Camacho) will lose their discipline – and Barcelona will secure a victory against a side reduced to ten men. 3-1 to the hosts.