With the first Clasico of the season approaching this coming weekend, FC Barcelona will be looking to regain some momentum tomorrow evening when they travel to Alicante to take on third tier Hercules CF at the Estadio Jose Rico Perez. After dropping points for the fifth time in 13 La Liga matches with a weekend draw at the Anoeta, the Blaugrana enter this match under a huge amount of pressure. The world’s media have been unanimous in declaring the club in crisis and anything less than a convincing win is sure to be scrutinised heavily.
In that sense, this trip couldn’t have come at a worse time. Travelling away is never easy, and the early rounds of the Copa del Rey can cause problems of their own. Typically, Barcelona start slow in this competition, building to a crescendo in the latter stages – and where lower league opposition are concerned, first legs away from home have often been something of a trap game for the Blaugrana.
Consider last season for example; Barcelona travelled to face Villanovense, a tiny team in the third tier of Spanish football. Their stadium only held 4,000 spectators, and Barcelona limped to a goalless draw. Luis Enrique will not need to be reminded of the potential backlash he will face if the team are held tomorrow, even if the weekend’s match against Real Madrid is our biggest priority.
While professionals should look no further ahead than the task at hand, we have a second leg to follow at the Camp Nou against a team that are languishing in mid-table in the same Segunda B division that hosts our table-topping B team. Nothing would be impossible; whether it’s consolidating a first-leg win, or even overturning a deficit – we can trust in ourselves to do whatever is necessary in the second leg, irrespective of what happens in Alicante tomorrow evening.
What’s my point? Well, the Clasico is our one and only priority and we should play up to that tomorrow. It doesn’t matter that we are in a bad run of form and that we are under pressure from the media; there is not a single player from the usual starting XI that should be anywhere near the team tomorrow evening. Even if they’re in contention for a starting place in the Clasico, I wouldn’t let them near the pitch.
Some of our fringe players have been criticised for not delivering to the level expected at FC Barcelona; but tomorrow isn’t even close to that. If these fringe players cannot deliver within the confines of our system against Hercules, then they shouldn’t be at this club. They shouldn’t even be in the first tier of Spanish football come to think of it; some of this is of course down to Luis Enrique and his tactical instructions, but by and large this will be down to player execution.
For the superstars, judgement day will follow this coming Saturday, but as far as tomorrow is concerned for the squad players, it’s time to sink or swim.
Andres Iniesta is back, and that in itself is deserving of an article highlighting the impact his absence has had on the team in recent weeks – as well as a summary of all the problems he is likely to solve when he returns to the starting line-up on Saturday. That being said, he shouldn’t be anywhere near Alicante tomorrow. I could rattle off a whole list of names who should also stay at home, but it’s going to be quicker and more efficient to simply run through the list of players who should be in contention for a starting berth.
Jasper Cillessen will start in goal, as the Dutchman prepares to make his second official appearance for the club. In theory, Cillessen is still in a battle with Jordi Masip to earn the back-up spot outright, so he should feel motivated to put in a strong display and earn a valuable clean sheet. Ahead of him, Aleix Vidal could and should be recalled from the wilderness. While we can question the Catalan’s professionalism and dedication since his move from Sevilla, we shouldn’t have to question whether he can start against Hercules. Of course, if Enrique is intent on making an example out of the full-back, then he has options from the B team, specifically Nili, at his disposal.
In the heart of defense, expect Marlon to start and while Javier Mascherano came into training on his day off, Borja Lopez has been called up from the B team as well, and he seems the more likely option to start given Barcelona’s current central defensive injury crisis. Moises could complete an all B team backline by starting at left-back, although Lucas Digne is a better alternative – and perhaps the only reason the Frenchman may not be risked is if the knock that Jordi Alba picked up is deemed sufficiently serious to rule him out of the Clasico.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets will be given the night off which typically leaves us a little short at pivote – but there are options that could fill in as a stop-gap replacement. Anchoring the midfield isn’t necessarily going to be important in this fixture; Hercules are likely to adopt a defensive approach and as such, creativity may be a more important attribute. If Enrique wishes to mirror the usual 4-3-3, then Gerard Gumbau is probably his best option; if he wishes to be a little more daring, then Carles Alena, or Alex Carbonell would fit in nicely.
I suspect that a couple of first teamers will fill out the midfield; that should mean Denis Suarez and Rafinha Alcantara, particularly as it seems that Andre Gomes is likely to be rested. Arda Turan may, or may not be recovered from the flu – but the Turkish international would be a better offensive option on the left in any case.
In attack, I’m not entirely excited by the prospect of seeing Paco Alcacer lead the line; rather I am far more intrigued by the possibility that we will see Marc Cardona given his first senior start. The talented young forward signed in the summer from Atletico Saluqueno and much like Nolito did many years before him, Cardona caught the attentions of many Spanish clubs with his goalscoring ability.
In pre-season, Cardona was in astonishing form, scoring goals for fun in almost all of Barcelona B’s friendly matches – and he carried that form over into the start of the season, bagging himself a hat-trick on opening night. In the second week of the season he scored and assisted in a 3-1 away win over Hercules; and if that alone isn’t proof that he’s earned his spot for tomorrow’s match, consider that he averages a goal every 98 minutes this season as a whole.
Cardona, Alcacer and Arda – that would be my strikeforce for tomorrow night, although of course Enrique could shake things up and deploy Rafinha further forward if he felt the need.
The die-hard Culés among you may have noticed that Hercules have a familiar face amongst their ranks; former La Masia product, Albert Dalmau. The Catalan typically starts at right-back for Hercules – and in case you were wondering, there’s only one member of the squad remaining from the famous 2-0 victory at the Camp Nou back in 2010.
While the star names like David Trezeguet have since left the club and retired, Paco Pena is still going strong in defense. At the age of 38, he is the oldest member of the squad and he will be relishing this one last chance to test himself up against top division opposition. This is a side that typically struggles for goals; Chechu Flores is the team’s top scorer with five goals from midfield; so expect a defensive approach from head coach Luis Tevenet.
Hercules CF 0-3 FC Barcelona – 29th January 2011 – La Liga
A brace from Lionel Messi inspired the Blaugrana on this winter’s night in Alicante, as his late brace sealed the deal following Pedro’s first-half opener.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Cillesen; Nili, Marlon, Borja, Digne; Alena, Denis, Rafinha; Cardona, Alcacer, Arda
Hercules (5-4-1): Buigues; Dalmau, Fernando, Bueso, Rojas, Pena; Chechu, Minano, Juanma, Gaspar; Berrocal
Barcelona haven’t dropped points in consecutive games this season; so expect them to bounceback again tomorrow. 2-0 to the visitors.