FC Barcelona return to La Liga action tomorrow, as they play host to city rivals, RCD Espanyol at the Camp Nou in the season’s first official Catalan derby. Of course, avid Culés will remember that the two sides clashed at the end of October in the Supercopa de Catalunya, as Felipe Caicedo scored the only goal to secure the trophy and temporary bragging rights for Quique Sanchez Flores’ side, but with a full strength side at his disposal tomorrow evening and three points to play for, Luis Enrique will be hoping for a different result.
With league leaders and eternal rivals, Real Madrid currently away in the Far East attempting to claim the FIFA Club World Cup in Yokohama against Kashima Antlers (who are currently mid-table in the J League for anyone that is curious), FC Barcelona have a unique opportunity to close the gap at the top of the table. Yes, Real will have games in hand to play upon their return from Asia, but cutting the gap in their absence will at least increase the pressure on them to deliver results throughout their tough schedule.
In recent seasons, Barcelona’s record in the Catalan derby has been exemplary. The Blaugrana are on a run of eight straight wins against Espanyol at the Camp Nou, averaging over three goals per game across the streak. Perhaps more impressively, the Barcelona defense has kept six clean sheets in those eight matches, conceding just two Espanyol goals in the past seven years. That’s dominance – and while Espanyol have made strides under Sanchez Flores, there is no reason why that trend cannot continue.
Since Andres Iniesta’s return from injury, Luis Enrique’s side have not only recovered some form, but they have also recovered some of their swagger. The tempo has increased markedly leading to an increased number of passes – and unlike some periods in recent years, the increased passing is actually leading to a greater number of chances. Borussia Monchengladbach were swept aside with ease, Osasuna could have easily found themselves on the receiving end of a manita and even in a friendly, Barcelona put five past Al-Ahli on Tuesday.
It’s not just Lionel Messi who is finding the back of the net either; Luis Suarez is finding form at just the right time and if midweek is any indication, the suspension may have reinvigorated Neymar as well. Heck, even Paco Alcacer has broken his duck. That innate sense of calmness that Iniesta radiates, it’s contagious and as we continue to improve, our confidence continues to grow.
It may have taken a little longer than usual to break the inertia at the beginning of this season, but we’re starting to build some momentum. Could this be the match in which the Barça juggernaut really takes off?
The headline headed into this match has to be the return of Neymar; the Brazilian superstar hasn’t featured in a competitive match since he was announced to have finished fourth in the voting for the 2016 FIFA Ballon d’Or. A suspension in the UEFA Champions League was followed by a suspension in La Liga, and while he featured in a midweek friendly, it will be good to see Neymar back in competitive action.
This season hasn’t been as explosive as his last, at least from a goalscoring perspective and there are some Culés who have been unhappy with his contributions and his decision-making. Perhaps the frustration is because they too realise Neymar’s talents; he could and perhaps should be the second best player in the world behind Lionel Messi – but some would argue that he hasn’t played at that level with enough consistency to warrant the praise.
However, unlike the likes of Suarez and even Messi himself, we haven’t seen Neymar feature alongside Iniesta from the start of a match since our 4-0 win over Manchester City – a match in which Iniesta assisted two goals, and Neymar scored one. If Culés afford everyone else some slack for performing to a lesser standard during Iniesta’s absence, then why isn’t Neymar given the same luxury, particularly when he is the forward positioned closest to our captain?
Speaking to renowned journalists Marcos Lopez and Ramon Besa, Neymar provided his thoughts on their relationship on the field in Iniesta’s auto-biography, "The Artist, Being Iniesta":
"When the ball reaches his feet, I feel at ease. He always guides me; he tells me what I have to do, he helps me make the right decisions. When the game turns difficult, I tell him ‘Come closer to me please, as close as you can get’."
When you consider that a lot of Neymar’s recent on-field issues are related to how isolated he felt on the left-hand side of attack, these quotes provide us with a lot of insight.
Anyway, getting back to the issue at hand: Luis Enrique has a tough match ahead of him against a motivated, in-form and spirited opposition. We’ll go into more detail about Espanyol later in the preview, but for now all we need to know is that this is no "gimme".
As such, I would expect something close to the Gala XI; and to me in a match of this magnitude that means a backline of Sergi Roberto, Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba. Samuel Umtiti could challenge Mascherano, particularly if Felipe Caicedo is expected to start in attack, but otherwise, the backline is pretty much set in stone.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta will partner up, and the only question is whether Ivan Rakitic keeps his place ahead of Andre Gomes, Rafinha Alcantara and Denis Suarez. The Croatian remains the first choice in my own personal depth chart, but Rafinha is scoring for fun and Enrique seems thrilled with Gomes, so keep an open mind with this one.
And we don’t really need to say any more about the attack than MSN, do we?
Our noisy neighbours enter the match in a rich vein of form; unbeaten in 10, or 11 if you count the Supercopa de Catalunya, Espanyol find themselves in the top half of the table in spite of their shaky start to the season and closing in fast on a European qualification berth. Admittedly, they are drawing a lot of matches, 6 of their past 10 have ended level – but form is form. At the moment, Espanyol are not used to losing and they enter the Camp Nou with a certain confidence.
Quique Sanchez Flores mentioned as much in his pre-match press conference, but also stated that his players remain firmly grounded despite their good run. The inferred meaning is that they know their run is down to hard work, and they must continue to work if they are to challenge the Blaugrana tomorrow.
They enter tomorrow’s match without Hernan Perez, who was taken off in last weekend’s victory over Sporting Gijon, while former Barcelona B utility man, Victor Sanchez, has been left out of the squad along with another starter from last week, Leo Baptistao. In their place, Pablo Piatti, Javi Lopez and Oscar Melendo return to the fold.
FC Barcelona 0-1 RCD Espanyol – 25th October 2016 – Supercopa de Catalunya
Yes, I’m counting it here; a fringe team compiled mainly of B teamers, and a few select players from the senior side travelled to neutral ground, where despite dominating the bulk of proceedings, left empty-handed due to the efficiency of the Espanyol attack.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Espanyol (4-4-2): Diego Lopez; Javi Lopez, Reyes, David Lopez, Aaron; Piatti, Fuego, Jurado, Vazquez; Moreno, Caicedo
A statement win; 3-1 to the hosts.