Barcelona's latest stop on the road to a second straight La Liga trophy is the Annual Trip to Hell to face Real Sociedad at the Anoeta Stadium on Saturday night in the Basque Country. The Blaugrana haven't won in San Sebastián since 2007, and there is no better time to break that streak than right now.
A few reasons? The lead at the top of the table is six points, and that could drop to three if the streak continues and Atlético Madrid win at Espanyol. Speaking of Atlético, the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal is the next game after the trip to Anoeta, and arriving at the Calderón with confidence after breaking the streak would definitely help the Catalans reach the semifinals.
Also, 15 months after the last loss at Anoeta, when the crisis reached its highest point in the beginning of the Luis Enrique Era, getting a victory would be the final sign of how much of a game-changer that defeat was, turning a struggling Barça into the best team on the planet, on its way to another Treble.
Win, and you break the streak. Lose, and your entire season could be affected. Pretty high stakes, wouldn't you say?
A few bad news for coach Luis Enrique: plenty of key starters are exhausted after international duty and two incredibly hard matches against the Madrid giants. Jérémy Mathieu and Aleix Vidal are still injured and out of a match in which they could be necessary. More importantly, Luis Suárez is suspended, undoubtedly a huge blow to the team. After all, 45 goals in 45 games make Suárez a big contender for Barça Player of the Season, which is not easy to accomplish with Lionel Messi on the same team.
But there are good news: Adriano Correia is medically cleared, and while his injury-forced absence wasn't exactly felt by the team, his return opens the door for rotations not only on Saturday but for the rest of the season. Rafinha Alcântara made an impressive comeback against Atlético on Tuesday after seven months recovering from a bad knee injury. He was thrown right into the wolves with very little match fitness but was still important to the team in the minutes he played. He is also a key rotation piece, and his return could not have come in a better moment.
On to the lineup: Claudio Bravo returns to his league duties, and Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba are certain to start. Javier Mascherano is the defender with most minutes so far, and with Atleti's game just four days away, it could be a good time to give him a day off and start Thomas Vermaelen to form the defense.
Sergi Roberto is almost sure to play, and he could start in three different positions: at full-back, giving Dani Alves a deserved rest, at pivote, in place of Sergio Busquets, or as a replacement to either of Andrés Iniesta or Ivan Rakitic in the middle. The most logical and likely change would be Roberto in for Iniesta, with Alves, Rakitic and Busquets starting because of their fitness and experience.
Up front, Enrique will not create controversy like he did in the last Anoeta loss by benching both Neymar and Messi for relationship issues. With Suárez out, there is no alternative other to start the two superstars alongside Munir El-Haddadi. Munir has been great in 2016, scoring in his last two starts, and will need to come up big as 'MSN' backup again.
Tactically, as the second half against Atlético proved, Lucho cannot overthink his instructions, and let his men do what they usually do. If that's the case, and the attitude is the right one, we can finally celebrate an Anoeta victory, something that not even Pep Guardiola was able to do.
The one word that describes La Real this season is inconsistency. The Royals went through the entire month of February without a loss, then went through all of March without a win. But the last match, an impressive 2-1 away win against Sevilla, gives Sociedad a huge confidence boost ahead of a match they usually win, even if the opponent is Barça.
A problem, though, is that plenty of key players will not feature in Saturday's fixture. Defenders Yuri and Iñigo Martínez, key to the side, are unavailable due to suspension and injury, respectively. Striker Imanol Agirretxe, Real's highest scorer, is also out because of injury. But Asier Illarramendi and Carlos Vela, the best players on the squad, will start and deserve plenty of attention. Sociedad has a big aerial game, and could hurt Barça on set pieces.
More importantly, they somehow become the best team in the world at home against Barça, so no matter how many players are injured or suspended, they are going to play well. Period. Weird.
Real Sociedad: DLDLLW
FC Barcelona 4-0 Real Sociedad - 28 November 2015 - La Liga
Since the game was at Camp Nou, Barça obviously dominated and won thanks to a masterful team performance. All 'MSN' members got at least one goal, with man of the match Neymar getting two.
Real Sociedad (4-3-3): Rulli; Zaldúa, Elustondo, Mikel, De La Bella; Reyes, Illarramendi, Xabi Prieto; Vela, Oyarzabal, Zurutuza
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Vermaelen, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Roberto; Messi, Munir, Neymar
I am 100% sure we're going to lose, but I'll take a leap of faith: 3-1 victory and a broken streak. Yeah, I know I'm crazy.