FC Barcelona return to La Liga action tomorrow hoping to build on their recent run of good form and secure a win at the Ipurua, when they travel back to the Basque Country to take on SD Eibar. Despite their status as the smallest club from the Basque region (at least in the top two tiers of Spanish football), Eibar proudly sit in the top half of the La Liga table and will surely push the Blaugrana to their limits when they come to town tomorrow.
The Ipurua is something of a fortress for SD Eibar; the small stadium only hosts around 6,500 spectators, but the atmosphere is unlike anything else in La Liga and opposing teams find it a difficult place to go. There are none of the luxuries that our squad might be used to and in that sense, players can find it hard to find their usual rhythm when playing at the Ipurua.
Matches tend to be low-scoring, hard-fought affairs; so the test tomorrow is not necessarily whether Barcelona have the quality, it’s whether they have the steel, grit and determination needed to earn a result. Certainly they demonstrated those traits in midweek with a professional, efficient victory at the Anoeta – there was little from that game that would make it onto a Blaugrana highlight reel, but the result ultimately is all that matters.
As we attempt to chase down league leaders, Real Madrid, style is very much secondary to substance – we just need results to keep up the pressure. In this hectic January schedule, I would be more than happy to witness another 1-0 win tomorrow.
While Barcelona were able to break their jinx with a midweek win at the Anoeta, the victory came with a price as Andres Iniesta picked up a muscular injury that will rule him out of tomorrow’s trip to Eibar. Rafinha Alcantara continues to be sidelined with his hamstring issue, which perhaps helps Luis Enrique with his midfield rotation, as his options are now somewhat limited with those absences. In addition to Iniesta and Rafinha, Barcelona will also be without Javier Mascherano tomorrow; the Argentine picked up his fifth yellow card of the season last weekend and therefore is suspended for the match tomorrow.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen returns to the squad and will start in goal tomorrow evening looking to keep consecutive clean sheets for the first time in two months, since he recorded back-to-back shutouts against Malaga and Celtic in late November. In defense, Aleix Vidal returns to the squad and could theoretically challenge for a starting berth, as could Jeremy Mathieu, but it seems more likely to suggest that Sergi Roberto and Samuel Umtiti will retain their places in the backline.
The Catalan tandem of Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique will complete the backline, and given that Eibar are somewhat shy in front of goal, I would consider this to be a good opportunity for our defense to register another clean sheet. In turn, this would really help to ease the pressure on our midfield (without Iniesta) and on our frontline, some of whom are still struggling to find their best form if we only needed a single goal to win the game.
With Iniesta injured, it would be interesting to see if Busquets is liberated somewhat from the shackles of his usual role to press forward; there was a stretch in the treble-winning season in which he excelled in the final third, even from pivote, and I’d like to see a return to that in the coming weeks and months. There’s no reason why this wouldn’t fit into the system either, particularly if Andre Gomes continues to get a lot of gametime.
The Portuguese midfielder will probably start again tomorrow and I suspect he will have the hard-working role on the right-hand side, while Denis Suarez starts in the left interior role with a little more freedom to venture forward and make things happen so to speak.
In attack, I suspect that Paco Alcacer may get a rare start in place of Luis Suarez; this would be something of a gamble from Luis Enrique, but Suarez was very much on the fringes in midweek at the Anoeta and a brief rest could be what he needs to recapture his very best form. Plus, a lot of the game as a striker comes down to confidence, and Enrique placing his faith in Alcacer in a tough away fixture could also have positive long-term benefits.
The Basque side faltered in midweek, as they fell to a heavy 3-0 defeat at the Vicente Calderon against Atletico Madrid, which realistically means they have little to look forward to with the return this coming Wednesday. As such, expect Jose Luis Mendilibar to emphasise the importance of this match to his players; a good result would give them a good foundation to build upon for the remainder of the season. A heavy defeat on the other hand is hardly a good way to end the first half of the campaign.
Unfortunately, Mendilibar will be without the services of Asier Riesgo, Iván Ramis, Anaitz Arbilla, David Juncà and Kike García, all of whom miss out through injury. Facing Barcelona is difficult enough, but without your first choice goalkeeper and three defenders? That’s much worse. On the plus side, star player and former Real Madrid winger, Pedro Leon, is in good form after scoring in last week’s win over Sporting Gijon and on his day, he could threaten the Barcelona backline.
SD Eibar 0-4 FC Barcelona – 6th March 2016 – La Liga
Munir got the ball rolling, before a brace from Lionel Messi and a goal from Luis Suarez cemented a comfortable win for the visiting team.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Busquets, Gomes, Denis; Messi, Alcacer, Neymar
Eibar (4-2-3-1): Yoel; Capa, Dos Santos, Lejeune, Luna; Escalante, Garcia; Inui, Adrian, Leon; Enrich
Let’s pick up some momentum; 2-0 Barcelona.