FC Barcelona begin their first major road trip of the season tomorrow, when they travel north to Asturias to take on Sporting Gijon at El Molinon. Following a midweek draw with Atletico Madrid, the Blaugrana missed a chance to close the ground on league leaders, Real Madrid, who dropped their first points of the season earlier on Wednesday evening at home to Villarreal. In that sense, the draw was a very much a missed opportunity, particularly after the dominance displayed in the first half, but let’s not lose faith either.
Atletico Madrid are an exceptionally strong team, and irrespective of how they started this season, you better be sure that they will be there or thereabouts at the end of this campaign, and that’s true across all three major competitions. Drawing with Atleti cannot be seen as a negative – after all, Real’s recent record against them has been far worse, especially in La Liga.
In other words, the season is still young and it would be naïve to place too much emphasis on our points total after these first five matches; as long as we can start putting more points on the board soon. And that’s where tomorrow’s match comes in. El Molinon is one of those historic, and tough venues in Spanish football. Sporting Gijon might not be the greatest team in the division, but they fight hard and they display great passion, particularly in front of their home crowd.
In their two matches at El Molinon thus far this season, Sporting have emerged victorious on both occasions – and sure, you can discard their win over Leganes, but what about their opening weekend win over Athletic Bilbao? Ernesto Valverde’s side entered the match as clear favourites, but they were caught out by a quickfire second-half double, and while Borja Viguera (who later signed for Sporting) grabbed a late consolation, the scoreline somewhat flattered the Basque giants.
Make no mistake, this will be yet another tough game for the Blaugrana, and we will have to be at our best to escape with a win.
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Despite a false alarm on the club’s Facebook page earlier this evening, FC Barcelona enter this match without the services of their star player, as Lionel Messi misses the first game in what’s expected to be a three week layoff with a groin injury. Also missing is Samuel Umtiti, who continues to recover from a knee injury. This means a recall to the squad for Rafinha Alcantara, who scored an excellent goal in last weekend’s thrashing of Leganes, and who must be hopeful of another start this week.
In goal, Marc-Andre ter Stegen will start as he searches for his fifth clean sheet of the season, and he is likely to be joined in defense by Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano, Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba. The quartet performed well in midweek against Atletico, and I see no reason for Enrique to switch things up tomorrow – although Jeremy Mathieu may fancy his chances at displacing Mascherano in the heart of defense.
Normally, I would be in favour of rotating a little more ahead of the UEFA Champions League, but securing a victory tomorrow is of the utmost importance, or at least more so than grabbing all three points against Borussia Monchengladbach on Wednesday.
Depending on Sergio Busquets’ fitness, I would keep Busi at pivote if possible – and rather than substitute Mascherano in his place if he’s not quite 100%, I liked what I saw from Andre Gomes in midweek. The Portuguese midfielder has looked strong in his first few appearances for the club and combined with the right players, he looks like he can perform adequately in that holding role. Of course, he isn’t Busquets, but he’s not bad either.
I think this is the perfect match for his talents as well; Gijon are a strong, combative side and that’s where someone like Gomes could be so valuable. Not only that, but starting Gomes would also allow Andres Iniesta a well-deserved breather, assuming that Busquets starts at pivote. After his goal in midweek and his winner against Athletic Bilbao a few weeks back, Ivan Rakitic has to be virtually untouchable in the line-up at the moment – and I wouldn’t count him out from scoring again tomorrow.
In attack, Lionel Messi’s injury throws something of a spanner into the works; does Luis Enrique opt to start Arda Turan, our fourth-choice forward, out of position in a role that he hasn’t exactly thrived in? Does he start Paco Alcacer, also out of position, because he commanded such a large transfer fee? Or, does he start one of his favourite squad members, Rafinha, who is a much more natural fit for the position? I think my wording implies that I would select Rafinha if I were in charge, but Lucho might have other ideas.
There’s no doubt that the revelation of the season so far for Sporting Gijon has been frontman, Duje Cop. The Croatian striker played a lot of football last season for Malaga, but he only had 7 goals to show for it at the end of the season. Now, through five matches for Sporting he has scored three goals and looks set to recapture some of the form he found for Dinamo Zagreb in 2013 and 2014.
Looking back to last season, Sporting have won their last four home matches, and five of their last six – including wins over Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla; Abelardo isn’t promising anything similar tomorrow, but he is optimistic of his side’s chances.
Sporting Gijon: WDDWLL
Sporting Gijon 1-3 FC Barcelona – 17th February 2016 – La Liga
A brace from Lionel Messi sent the Blaugrana on their way to victory in this one, as Luis Suarez provided the cushion with his second-half strike.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Mathieu, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Gomes; Rafinha, Suarez, Neymar
Sporting (4-2-3-1): Pichu; Lillo, Amorebieta, Babin, Isma; Torres, Alvarez; Castro, Victor, Burgui; Cop
We’ll edge it, Neymar will break out and grab a brace in a 3-1 victory.