Following an impressive 1-0 win at the Anoeta last week, FC Barcelona have one foot in the semi-finals of the 2016-17 Copa del Rey, and they will be hoping to finish the job tomorrow evening when they welcome Real Sociedad to the Camp Nou for the return leg. With Atletico Madrid and Alaves currently confirmed in the final four at the time of writing, Barcelona could face a relatively easy or comparatively tough route to the final, but of course they must first take care of the task at hand.
It is true that Real Sociedad have not won at the Camp Nou in their last 21 visits over the past 25 years, but just as we broke our Anoeta jinx last week, Luis Enrique will be preaching the importance of focus and the dangers of complacency to his squad. Even with an aggregate lead to their advantage, and an away goal in their name, Barça will likely need another goal tomorrow to put this tie to bed, and that's at a minimum.
Eusebio Sacristan refuses to give up hope that his side can engineer a comeback, and we know that his players are not the type to give up easily. Some of their squad still feel aggrieved about the officiating in the defeat, so they have a chip on their shoulders and will be eager to prove that last week's loss was a one-off. The Blaugrana on the other hand have multiple issues on their mind. Not only does the Copa del Rey require a certain level of concentration and effort, but the quest to bridge the gap at the top of La Liga also requires the squad to be at the top of their game from here on in. Playing late on Thursday is far from ideal, and the idea of rotations is sure to be on Enrique's mind.
For instance, does the birthday boy, Luis Suarez sit out his first game of 2017, and if he does, how does this impact our chances of ending this tie early? Contrary to popular belief, the job of a top class football manager is far from simple and no doubt that whatever his decision, there will be some Culés who will criticise Enrique irrespective of his decision at game time tomorrow.
As his side shows signs of returning to their dominant best, does Enrique stick with the “Gala XI” and attempt to maintain that momentum, or does his rotate and keep the whole squad engaged? We’ll soon find out.
The good news is that FC Barcelona can welcome Javier Mascherano back from suspension; the Argentine is expected to slot straight back into the starting line-up alongside Gerard Pique, who was rested for the weekend’s win over Eibar at the Ipurua. There is a chance that Aleix Vidal could also rotate back into the line-up after his cameo appearance on Sunday, but I would suspect that the substitution is more likely to indicate that Sergi Roberto will retain his usual spot at right-back. Meanwhile, Lucas Digne is likely to get the nod at left-back, as Enrique continues to promote the healthy competition brewing on the left-side of defense.
In midfield, the injury to Sergio Busquets may not be as bad as it first seemed, but it does leave the Blaugrana short of options at pivote. Javier Mascherano could move forward to play in the role he typically occupies for Argentina, but whether that is seen as an adequate replacement given the different style employed in Catalunya remains to be seen. I suspect that the pivote spot will instead be reserved in this instance for Andre Gomes. I’d love to see Sergio Roberto given a shot there, but that would perhaps be an experiment best left for the weekend and Real Betis.
In the two interior roles, I would have loved to have seen Rafinha Alcantara back in action, but his continued absence alongside Andres Iniesta on the treatment table instead presents an opportunity either for Ivan Rakitic, in what could easily flex to a 4-2-3-1, or for Denis Suarez who has impressed at times this season. Arda Turan is the obvious replacement for Iniesta in the other interior role, and it’s nice to see the Turkish international get the minutes that his form deserves.
In attack, I will continue to predict a start for Paco Alcacer until I’m correct – so Alcacer, Lionel Messi and Neymar is my predicted frontline, even though I know full well than the MSN will start and rotate out in the second half.
The only new injury concern for Eusebio to contend with concerns his final substitution from last week’s defeat; David Concha is nursing a muscle problem and will not make the trip down to Catalunya tomorrow. On the plus side, Eusebio does welcome back Mikel Gonzalez, who will challenge Raul Navas for the final central defensive starting place.
Real Sociedad: WLDWLW
Real Sociedad 0-1 FC Barcelona – 19th January 2017 – Copa del Rey
Barcelona (4-3-3): Cillessen; Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Digne; Gomes, Rakitic, Turan; Messi, Alcacer, Neymar
Real Sociedad (4-3-3): Rulli; Elustondo, Inigo, Navas, Yuri; Illarra, Zurutuza, Prieto; Mikel, Willian, Vela
Some streaks are meant to end. This one however is not. 3-1 to the hosts.