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La Liga: Real Sociedad vs FC Barcelona: Match Preview

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A preview of Barcelona's latest trip to the Anoeta, where they will hope to end their run of bad form

Real Sociedad de Futbol v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

FC Barcelona will be hoping to break their Anoeta curse tomorrow, as they travel to the Basque Country to take on Eusebio’s Real Sociedad in Sunday’s late kick-off. With the season’s first El Clasico on the horizon, Barcelona simply cannot afford another slip-up before they welcome Real Madrid to the Camp Nou; Zinedine Zidane’s side extended their unbeaten record to 31 matches in all competitions this afternoon with a 2-1 win over Sporting Gijon, a victory that temporarily moves Los Blancos 7 points clear at the top of the table.

In the interim, Sevilla could usurp the Blaugrana and climb into second spot with a home win over Valencia later this evening; but undoubtedly the pressure is now on Barcelona to stop Real Madrid from creating an insurmountable gap at the top of the table. And when the pressure is on, could there be a worse venue to see on the schedule than the Anoeta?

Through 12 matches this season, Real Sociedad find themselves in fifth spot in the table; that’s ahead of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid and that’s down in large part to their form at home. Four wins, one draw and a single defeat gives Sociedad a highly respectable home record thus far this season – but of course, the most impressive statistic is their record at home against Barcelona specifically.

Barcelona have visited the Anoeta in each of the last six La Liga seasons – and they are yet to win a single match in that period. Real Sociedad on the other hand have won five of the six encounters; I’m not one for superstition, but anyone can see that there is a pattern there and from a psychological perspective, this puts the Blaugrana at a distinct disadvantage. Of course, the venue and the playing surface can impact on a match, but to this extent with such regularity?

The Anoeta curse is just that – by definition a curse is supernatural and while your mileage may vary on this, I’d argue that nothing can be supernatural, certainly in the realms of the football world. What this comes down to is just some psychological barrier; when FC Barcelona travel to the Anoeta, they expect the match to go badly – and the question that Luis Enrique will be asking his players in the build-up to this match is why?

Why can’t we defeat Real Sociedad at the Anoeta?

If we can travel to the Santiago Bernabeu and win by four goals, then why is the Anoeta so different?

If we think we will challenge across all fronts again this season, they why can’t this be the year we finally debunk the notion that this side is stricken by an Anoeta curse?

Real Sociedad are in fine form this season and there is no doubt that they sit in fifth place on merit and through hard work. However, lest we forget that we are FC Barcelona – we are the greatest football team in the world, and as such, we don’t need to fear anyone, anything or any place. The next few weeks could well define our season; let’s make sure it’s for all the right reasons.

TEAM NEWS

BARCELONA

Shall we start with the good news, or with the bad news? The bad news is that Gerard Pique missed training yesterday and this understandably lead to speculation that the Catalan centre-half was a doubt for the trip to San Sebastian. However, the good news is that Pique has in fact been included in Luis Enrique’s squad; whether he is 100% or not remains to be seen.

The other key piece of team news is that Arda Turan is a surprise absence from the squad; the Turkish international will not travel with the team as he has been taken sick – potentially with the same bug that sidelined Messi for the match against Malaga (although that’s just wild speculation on my part). With the likes of Andres Iniesta, Samuel Umtiti and Jeremy Mathieu still sidelined, Enrique has once again raided the B team for some reinforcements: Carles Alena and Marlon will both be present on the bench for tomorrow’s fixture.

With the Copa del Rey kicking off in midweek, Luis Enrique will have ample opportunity to rotate his squad prior to the Clasico – which means that he should feel free to select the best team for the task at hand. The importance of claiming all three points is paramount, and as such, it would be a surprise if we saw much deviation from the norm from Lucho.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen will start in goal, and he will likely be shielded by a defense of Sergi Roberto, Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique – assuming of course that Pique is fit to start after missing training on Friday. In all honesty, Enrique doesn’t have many other options anyway; Marlon is inexperienced and Sergio Busquets would be a stop-gap solution at best.

Likewise, Sergio Busquets is needed in midfield at pivote. While Andre Gomes or Ivan Rakitic could fill in if necessary, neither are naturals in this holding midfield role and we’ve seen first-hand that the team simply doesn’t function as well without Busquets on top of his game at the pivote position. Ahead of him, Ivan Rakitic should get the nod in the right interior role; but who will partner him in the midfield?

Denis Suarez stepped up with a phenomenal performance against Sevilla prior to the international break, but he couldn’t quite scale those heady heights last weekend against Malaga. Rafinha Alcantara has been in fine goal-scoring form – but he hasn’t seen a lot of action in that particular space of the field. Andre Gomes slotted in there in midweek against Celtic, and by all accounts, he fared reasonably well.

There is no right or wrong answer in my mind; but there is a huge opportunity here for whoever starts. Andres Iniesta is stepping up his recovery in a bid to return for the Clasico, but someone will need to be ready in case he doesn’t return – or perhaps keep him benched even if he does – and the best way to do that would be by dominating this match.

If you really wanted to get a little abstract, you could consider deploying Messi in a deeper role, and then starting with a trio of either Rafinha, Luis Suarez and Neymar, or with Paco Alcacer taking Rafinha’s place. That would certainly catch Eusebio and his team off-guard…

However, expect the usual MSN trident to lead the line. They didn’t get a chance to start together in 2015 at the Anoeta, and due to a suspension for Luis Suarez, they didn’t get a chance to start together in 2016 either. We’ve been fretting over the Anoeta curse for so long… maybe the solution we’ve been looking for is just three letters long.

REAL SOCIEDAD

Eusebio Sacristan wasn’t the most popular Barcelona B coach in recent memory. Despite serving a four-year stint to establish himself as the longest-serving B team coach in the club’s history, neither the fans nor the board felt particularly enamoured with his coaching style. While Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique used the B team role as a stepping stone to bigger and better things with the club, the chances are that Eusebio will never be handed the chance to take the reins of the senior squad at the Camp Nou – but be that as it may, it hasn’t stopped him from forging a successful career to date at Sociedad.

Being brutally honest, whoever replaced David Moyes was always going to improve the team – but few could have predicted that Eusebio would be able to inspire Sociedad back into contention for a UEFA Champions League qualifying place. With Moyes out of the picture, Eusebio sent the side from San Sebastian storming up the table; from 16th place at the end of Jornada 11, Moyes’ final match in charge, Real Sociedad ended the season in 9th place, just four points removed from a spot in the UEFA Europa League.

This season, the good form has continued, with Willian Jose in particular establishing himself as Sociedad’s leading man in attack. With six goals, Willian is just a few shy of matching his tally from last season at Las Palmas; could he be the man to inspire the hosts to another famous win at the Anoeta?

FORM GUIDE

Barcelona: WWLWDW

Real Sociedad: LLWWWW

LAST MEETING

Real Sociedad 1-0 FC Barcelona – 9th April 2016 – La Liga

Despite experiencing something of an injury crisis in the build-up to the match, Real Sociedad fought and scratched their way to another narrow win over the Blaugrana, as Mikel Oyarzabal’s 5th minute goal was enough to secure all three points.

LIKELY LINE-UPS

Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Gomes; Messi, Suarez, Neymar

Real Sociedad (4-2-3-1): Rulli; Martinez, Inigo, Navas, Yuri; Illarremendi, Zurutuza; Oyarzabal, Xabi Prieto, Vela; Willian

MATCH PREDICTION

The first half will end goalless, but bearded Messi will drag his team to victory once again. 2-0 Barcelona.