FC Barcelona will be looking to close the gap on league leaders Real Madrid tomorrow, when they welcome Valencia CF to the Camp Nou in the final match before the international break. Los Che have been far from their best this season and languish in the bottom half of the table but they have improved since the appointment of Voro as head coach, even defeating Real Madrid at the end of February.
The first fixture between these two clubs this season was a true classic, with the Blaugrana fighting to the very last minute to secure an impressive 3-2 win at the Mestalla, prompting a passionate celebration from the man who scored the match’s winning goal, Lionel Messi. His ice-cool demeanour ensured he got the better of Brazilian penalty-saving specialist, Diego Alves and as we reach the business end of the season, there’s no telling just how important those extra two points could be.
Of course, in order for those two points to take on any additional meaning, Barcelona must come away with the victory tomorrow. With their win over Athletic Bilbao earlier this afternoon, Real Madrid extended their lead at the top of La Liga to five points, and while they will still have a game in hand after the international break, it’s imperative that the Blaugrana pile on the pressure now, particularly given Real’s difficult schedule in April.
Zinedine Zidane’s side not only have to contest El Clasico and El Derbi Madrileno; after Friday’s UEFA Champions League draw they must also play two matches against arguably the finest side in Europe, Bayern Munich. With a total of nine matches for them to look forward to in April, at a minimum, it’s fair to say the fixture list isn’t looking too kind for Los Blancos. Keeping the gap close would only serve to add to the pressure they will be facing; let’s face it, as league leaders and reigning European champions, it’s safe to say that expectations are already at a high for Real.
Over to you Luis Enrique.
The good news is that Barcelona will be able to welcome back both Neymar and Rafinha Alcantara for tomorrow’s showdown. The Brazilian duo missed the loss to Deportivo La Coruna through injury and illness respectively, and their presence was sorely missed in that rather flat performance. Indeed, their return also opens up the possibility of a return for the 3-4-3 that ravaged the Ligue Un champions, Paris Saint-Germain on that famous night under the floodlights just over a week ago.
Overall, Luis Enrique doesn’t really have any injury concerns to deal with; Aleix Vidal is of course a long-term absentee, while Jeremy Mathieu hasn’t exactly been as prominent in the squad this season due to the signing of Samuel Umtiti. As such, with the international break coming up, expect Enrique to start a strong line-up tomorrow.
In goal, Marc-Andre ter Stegen will be searching for his 15th clean sheet of the season, and his 12th of the La Liga campaign. The German probably stands a better chance of getting his wish as well, as Samuel Umtiti is set to rotate back into the line-up after sitting out the loss to Deportivo. The Frenchman remains undefeated in La Liga, and his partnership with Gerard Pique has been everything that a Culé could possibly hope for.
While I wouldn’t mind seeing the 3-4-3 again, I suspect that Lucas Digne and Sergi Roberto will both start in a conventional four-man backline. Javier Mascherano might expect to see some time at pivote over the coming weeks with Sergio Busquets set to miss the first leg of our UEFA Champions League quarter-final with Juventus through suspension, but I would be surprised if any of those minutes came tomorrow.
Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta should then start in the two interior roles, although Luis Enrique perhaps hinted at further rotation for Iniesta as the club plays it safe with their talismanic captain with the final stretch of the campaign on the horizon. Of course, in attack we will see the MSN trident reunited once again, with Neymar’s return perhaps being the most important aspect of the team news ahead of the game.
It’s true that Valencia have been a better side under the guidance of Voro, but one area of concern for the Spanish coach has to be Los Che’s form away from the Mestalla. In his two stints in charge so far this season, Valencia have won just twice away from home under Voro, losing four of the other six matches they’ve played on their travels during his reign.
Most recently, Valencia were humbled at the Vicente Calderon and a repeat of that performance would surely see them on the end of a similar thumping from Spain’s most prolific team. With Nani, Santi Mina and Rodrigo all missing through injury, the visitors are somewhat short of firepower and that’s unlikely to lead to a positive result at the Camp Nou.
Valencia CF 2-3 FC Barcelona – 22nd October 2016 – La Liga
A late penalty from Lionel Messi secured a memorable victory for the visiting Blaugrana who came from behind to stun the Mestalla faithful.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Digne; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Valencia (4-2-3-1): Alves; Montoya, Garay, Mangala, Gaya; Soler, Parejo; Munir, Orellana, Cancelo; Zaza