It will be a Catalan derby to remember for FC Barcelona tomorrow, as their showdown with city rivals RCD Espanyol at the Camp Nou could well end up deciding the 2015-16 La Liga title race. With just two matches left on the league calendar this season, the margin for error is non-existent – Barcelona simply have to win out if they are to guarantee the title. Anything less than two wins from two, and the Blaugrana would be left reliant upon other results to secure their fate.
On paper, this could be the week that Barcelona win the title. Real Madrid host Valencia CF at the Santiago Bernabeu, in a game that, in theory, could be relatively close. Los Blancos dropped points to Los Che earlier in the campaign when the two sides last met at the Mestalla – and after a midweek UEFA Champions League fixture against Manchester City, Real will be without Gareth Bale and could be without Cristiano Ronaldo, who didn’t quite look himself in the slender win.
Elsewhere, Atletico Madrid travel to the Ciutat de Valencia to take on the already-relegated Levante UD, which, to the unknowing, may seem like an easy fixture for Diego Simeone’s side. However, Atleti haven’t won on their travels to Levante in nine years – the Ciutat de Valencia is their version of the Anoeta, and if that trend continues then maybe, just maybe this title race doesn’t have to go down to the last day after all.
Whatever happens in Madrid, and whatever happens in Valencia, the most important thing for FC Barcelona and Luis Enrique to focus on is what happens at the Camp Nou; Espanyol are safe from the drop for all intents and purposes so this isn’t as important for them as it could have been – but a chance to dent our title hopes? That’s the equivalent of a cup final for them.
Espanyol will be motivated. From a positional standpoint, they will be disciplined – and in every other aspect they’re likely to be the opposite. As much we don’t like to see it, Espanyol have recognised that one of the most effective ways to stop this Barcelona team is just by being aggressive. It’s hard even for a team like the Blaugrana to build up a spell of pressure when the game is stopped every other minute because of another foul.
The pressure is on. Emotions are going to running high. Can we keep our heads and deliver the result we so desperately need?
The big news today was that Jeremy Mathieu has received the medical green light to return to action; the French central defender has been missing since the end of March after picking up a knee injury whilst on international duty and it was initially feared that he would miss the remainder of the season. However, the former Valencia star has progressed well in his rehabilitation and could now play some part in one of our three remaining fixtures, even if tomorrow is likely to come a little too soon for him.
That means that Claudio Bravo, Thomas Vermaelen and Sandro are the only absentees through injury – not that any of this is really going to make an impact. With just one match a week, Luis Enrique has been free to start his strongest starting XI each weekend and it’s highly likely that this continues tomorrow afternoon.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen will start in goal with Claudio Bravo missing with a calf injury; the German shot-stopper has a vocal fanbase, many of whom are happy that he will have a chance to play at least one more La Liga game this season. We will have to hope that he will perform a little better than when he stood in for Bravo earlier in the season; ter Stegen played all of our league matches in September and didn’t keep a single clean sheet.
You won’t need me to tell you that this isn’t an ideal record.
In defense, Dani Alves may start in what could be his final Catalan derby, at least if rumours linking him with a summer move to the Chinese Super League are to be believed. Then again, the Brazilian has been linked with a summer transfer for the last three or four seasons at least – and it’s been clear this season that he remains our best option at right-back. That’s even with Sergi Roberto continuing to evolve into our latest utility player.
Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano will start in the heart of defense and Jordi Alba will complete the backline, as Barcelona head out in search of their fourth successive shut-out and their 17th overall in this La Liga campaign.
Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta will combine in midfield again, barring a major surprise from Luis Enrique – as both Rafinha Alcantara and Sergi Roberto have found themselves unable to break into the starting line-up on a consistent enough basis, particularly for the most important matches. Arda Turan too has been reduced to a supporting role off the bench after so many impressive seasons at Atletico Madrid.
Be that as it may, it serves to provide us with a strong bench – and that could make all the difference as we enter the final stretch of games.
Of course, there’s nothing to be discussed with this frontline; Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar failed to score against Espanyol when they visited the Power8 Stadium earlier in the season, but Neymar and Messi both got on the scoresheet when Espanyol visited the Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey. The visitors were reduced to nine men on that ill-tempered night; will the referee have a similarly busy evening ahead of him tomorrow?
The visitors all but secured their La Liga status last weekend with a home win over Sevilla, but they will want nothing more than to follow that up with a result against their bitter rivals tomorrow. They will however have to contend with the Blaugrana without virtual ever-present Alvaro Gonzalez, who has been a consistent and solid presence in the Espanyol defense this season.
Also missing are Oscar Duarte, Burgui and Mamadou, but in spite of these injuries, Constantin Galca can count upon all of his best offensive talent as Marco Asensio, Felipe Caicedo and Gerard Moreno are all fit and firing, ready for the challenge of taking on the reigning Spanish, European and World champions in their own backyard.
RCD Espanyol 0-2 FC Barcelona – 13th January 2016 – Copa del Rey
A brace from Munir compounded Espanyol’s misery, as the Blaugrana coasted to a thumping 6-1 aggregative victory.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Espanyol (4-5-1): Lopez; Correa, Roco, R. Duarte, Alvarez; Perez, Sanchez, Diop, Canas, Asensio; Caicedo
One step closer to the title: a Manita