The first international break of the season is mercifully behind, which can mean only one thing: FC Barcelona are back in La Liga action, welcoming newly-promoted Alaves to the Camp Nou tomorrow evening. With the UEFA Champions League group stage set to kick-off next week, the heavyweights in La Liga are all in action tomorrow and with an unusual heatwave hitting the nation, the Blaugrana will be pleased to have drawn the evening kick-off.
So, while Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid will both start their matches in the height of the late summer sun, Barça get to kick-off at 8.30pm CET, and one can hope that the cooler temperatures will lead to a cool performance from the reigning champions.
Certainly on paper, this one is a clear mismatch. Alaves have experienced success in their history, and even in this millennium they have reached the final of a continental competition, losing the 2001 UEFA Cup to Liverpool in a match for the ages – but they have experienced quite a fall since that historic day, and while this season marks their return to La Liga following a decade-long absence, there are question marks around whether they can maintain that status for more than a season.
Even with a host of players either injured, returning from injury or simply returning from international duty, Barcelona are likely to be far too strong for Alaves to even remotely challenge. Therein lies the beauty of Robert’s excellent debut season as Sporting Director – even with these confirmed and possible absentees taken into account, our starting line-up tomorrow is still likely to comprise of 11 international stars.
Will they be able to live up to the hype and maintain Luis Enrique’s 100% record, or could Alaves channel the spirit of Hercules and upset the reigning champions?
The big news headed into this game has been the fitness of Lionel Messi; the Argentine superstar picked up a bit of a knock against Athletic Bilbao prior to the international break, travelled with Argentina irrespective of this, featured in an important win and ultimately aggravated his injury. He returned to Barcelona soon after and while he also returned to training at the end of this week, Luis Enrique has been clear that he will not risk Messi if he feels there is a chance of a relapse.
The other members of the fabled MSN triumvirate also enter the match with question marks over their head; Neymar has been away for over 100 days, and as such there’s a possibility that he will need time to be embedded back into the team, while Luis Suarez simply returned from international duty a little later than his colleagues – and as such could be in line for a spot on the bench.
Ordinarily, this would have been impossible to fathom and quite literally impossible for Luis Enrique to manage from a selection standpoint. Now? Well, we can leave the MSN on the bench and in the stands, only to field a frontline of Paco Alcacer, Arda Turan and Rafinha Alcantara. That’s a Spanish international, a Turkish international and Brazilian gold medal winner. How about that for squad depth?
I would expect at least one of the MSN trio to start, with another coming off the bench – but I think it would be prudent to expect a debut for Paco Alcacer and another start for Arda Turan, who arguably has been one of our best performers from pre-season into the first couple of weeks of the campaign.
Would that mean Paco starts on the wing, with Suarez or Neymar in attack? Could this mean a start for Arda on the right-flank, with Neymar on the left? At this stage, it’s difficult to predict, so we’ll have to see what Luis Enrique has up his sleeve.
At the other end of the field, everything is a little easier to predict. Marc-Andre ter Stegen has fought off all competition to establish himself as the undisputed number one, so he will start in goal and can essentially be written onto every teamsheet in the two major competitions from here on in. The backline is similarly set in stone; Sergi Roberto is our starting right-back now, and after impressing for Spain in the international break, some would argue that he will continue at full-back tomorrow.
He probably will, but I think it’s clear to see that Enrique takes this opportunity to rotate Roberto and Vidal across the week – and playing the long game, I think he starts Aleix Vidal tomorrow and next weekend, rotating Roberto in for the Champions League and our midweek clash with Atletico Madrid on the 21st. In the heart of defense, Gerard Pique is the one constant, and I think Enrique will rotate in a similar fashion between Javier Mascherano and Samuel Umtiti. Flip a coin, and you might be able to pick a starter more efficiently than me.
At left-back, I again think we will see more rotation; Lucas Digne was a revelation in pre-season and in some respects, he surpassed Jordi Alba at certain tasks during this stint. Jordi Alba then returned to the team in top form, clearly motivated and inspired by the competition – thereby regaining his starting berth in the eyes of the fans. Either way we seem to be winning here – so my bet is on Alba tomorrow, with Digne rotating in against Celtic. Expect the opposite if Roberto starts however.
In midfield, perhaps the only area that we don’t have particularly obvious depth is at pivote. Backing up Sergio Busquets is a tough job, just because of how transcendently brilliant he is – and with playing time likely to come at a premium for anyone in that role, Sergi Samper was correctly loaned out to Granada where he can gain experience in a relatively similar system under Paco Jemez. All this points to us seeing more of Mascherano in midfield, and perhaps tomorrow will be an example of that?
More likely, Busquets will continue and either Mascherano will move there in the second half with Umtiti rotating in off the bench, or perhaps Roberto moving there given his proven track record as the squad’s utility man.
The rest of the midfield pretty much selects itself; Andres Iniesta is still recovering from injury and shouldn’t be risked in a match like this and the same goes for Andre Gomes who picked up a knock on international duty for Portugal. That leaves us with Denis Suarez and Ivan Rakitic, and I don’t know about you, but I’m perfectly content with that partnership.
For the visitors to the Camp Nou this weekend, the blueprint is there; the season may be young but they have already travelled to one of the toughest venues in Spain and escaped with a point. Against all the odds, Alaves frustrated Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon on the opening weekend to grab a point and they followed that up with another draw a week later against Sporting Gijon.
Evidently, this is not a side that rolls over easily – they will fight, they will scrape and most importantly, they will never give up. Even when Kevin Gameiro seemed to doom Alaves to defeat with an injury-time penalty on that fateful opening night, they never gave up and were promptly rewarded with an improbable equaliser.
Who’s to say that they can’t replicate that tomorrow?
Mauricio Pellegrino is an accomplished manager and will fancy his chances at securing another upset, particularly given Barcelona’s record with the "FIFA virus". Marcos Llorente will be motivated to give a good performance in midfield as a former product of La Fabrica, while names like Ibai Gomez, Victor Camarasa, Gaizka Toquero and Deyverson will be familiar to La Liga followers. They might not be pretty, but rest assured that Alaves will be ready for the challenge tomorrow night.
FC Barcelona 3-1 Deportivo Alaves – 28th November 2012 – Copa de Rey
The visitors took an unlikely lead on the night through Borja Viguera, but a strong Barcelona side boasting the likes of Carles Puyol, Thiago Alcantara and David Villa were ultimately too strong. A brace from Villa finished off the plucky challenge after Adriano’s first-half equaliser.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Vidal, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Denis; Rafinha, Alcacer, Arda
Alaves (4-2-3-1): Pacheco; Kiko, Alexis, Laguardia, Hernandez; Garcia, Llorente; Torres, Camarasa, Ibai; Deyverson
Maybe the first half will be a little slow and difficult, but quality shines through eventually. 4-0 to the hosts.