FC Barcelona return home to Catalunya tomorrow, where they will take on relegation threatened Sporting Gijon at the Camp Nou. For the Blaugrana, a midweek thrashing of Deportivo La Coruna at the Riazor served as a catharsis for their recent troubles, as a sequence of poor results dumped the reigning European champions out of the UEFA Champions League and left their La Liga title defense in a precarious position.
Of course, one single victory wasn’t going to atone for a few disappointing weeks, particularly when that one victory came against a side with very little to play for – but it did bring our slump to a welcome end and with that particular demon somewhat exorcised, we can proceed with salvaging what could still be a highly successful campaign.
Should they manage five more wins this season, Barça will claim the domestic double for the seventh time. Now bear in mind that Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have only managed this feat five times in their combined histories and perhaps we can revisit some of those "hot takes" claiming that Barcelona’s season is now destined to be considered a failure. Sure, the defeats to Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid left us feeling dejected, but we can’t let them define our season and cloud our judgement.
Over the course of the past eight months, Barcelona have already lifted two trophies, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. They’ve embarked on a Spanish record 39 game unbeaten streak and they’ve humiliated their eternal rivals in their own backyard, so excuse me if I ask that we focus on all the positives, rather than dwell on a few disappointments. As we witnessed again in midweek, this is a truly special team and they’ll be keen to prove this to the home crowd tomorrow.
Watch out Sporting Gijon, you have been warned.
For Luis Enrique, tomorrow’s match promises to be a highly emotional affair as he prepares to pit his side up against his childhood friend, Abelardo Fernandez, and his relegation-threatened Sporting Gijon. The two have remained good friends throughout the years, regularly taking the time out to meet up and spend time with one another’s families; certainly it will be difficult for both Lucho and Abelardo to consider that they could each play a direct part in the other’s career.
Anything less than a win for Luis Enrique and the pressure is on. A defeat for Abelardo, and his side will be one match closer to losing their top flight status.
Both men are consummate professionals and will do what’s best for their team – but spare a thought for them both during the match, as it’s not going to be easy for either of them.
For Luis Enrique, he will be pleased to welcome back his star defender, Gerard Pique, who returns to the fold after serving a one match suspension in midweek for yellow card accumulation. There’s also a chance that Enrique will be able to count on Arda Turan once again, although the Turkish international may be rested once again to fully recover after missing the past two matches. All of this, plus the midweek thrashing, combines to give Enrique something of a selection headache.
Does he rotate the squad, or does he stick with the usual with so few games remaining in the season?
We know that Claudio Bravo will start in goal, and the defense largely selects itself. Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano will start at centre-half in spite of another strong showing by Marc Bartra, and with Jeremy Mathieu sidelined through injury, Jordi Alba’s spot at left-back remains uncontested. As per usual, the identity of the team’s right-back tomorrow is unknown and could be one of three names; my money is on Aleix Vidal for what it’s worth.
Sergio Busquets is the obvious and logical choice at pivote, anchoring what could be a somewhat refreshed Barcelona midfield. Andres Iniesta is likely to continue as captain, but Ivan Rakitic may be due a rest and I suspect that Rafinha Alcantara could get the nod in his place as he steps up his return from a lengthy knee injury that has kept him sidelined for most of the campaign. Sergi Roberto is perhaps the more likely choice, but I think Enrique will favour Rafinha’s creativity against what could be a resolute Gijon defense.
The attack obviously selects itself, particularly after they rediscovered their shooting boots in emphatic fashion against Deportivo.
The last time we squared off against Gijon, the Asturian outfit were without the services of their top-scorer and former Barca B starlet, Antonio Sanabria. This time round, the Paraguayan striker is fit and firing, ready to play at the Camp Nou – although his away record has been less than spectacular this season. While he has managed eight goals at home, Sanabria has managed just three all season away from El Molinon, and that lack of firepower has cost Gijon dearly at times this campaign.
With just 11 goals to their name on their travels, Gijon boast the joint-worst away offensive record in the division, which is sure to be a concern against a side as offensively potent as FC Barcelona. Factor in that they will be missing ever-present forward Jony through injury, as well as a few defensive members of the squad, such as Daniel N’Di, Jorge Mere and Bernardo Espinosa and certainly this has the makings of a tough night for Abelardo Fernandez and his squad.
Sporting Gijon 1-3 FC Barcelona – 17th February 2016 – La Liga
A first-half brace from Lionel Messi helped secure victory for the Blaugrana in this tough midweek encounter in Asturia.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Vidal, Mascherano, Pique, Alba; Busquets, Rafinha, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Sporting (4-2-3-1): Cuellar; Lora, Lichnovsky, Hernandez, Isma; Nacho, Alvarez; Castro, Halilovic, Atmane; Sanabria
Sorry Gijon, this won’t be all too close by the time we finish. 4-0 Barcelona.