After an embarrasing loss in El Clásico in the Spanish Super Cup Final in Saudi Arabia, Barcelona are back home preparing for the Copa del Rey Round of 16 match away to third tier Unionistas de Salamanca on Thursday evening.
Barça are in desperate need of some good news after a very difficult start to 2024 with poor performances culminating in their worst defeat of the season against their biggest rivals. It has been a difficult season and Xavi Hernández’s job is in more and more jeopardy with each disappointing showing.
A Cup game against the lowest-ranked team left in the field of 16 seems like a good opportunity for a bounce back, but Barça struggled to beat a fourth tier team in their Cup debut less than two weeks ago and are in such bad form that Unionistas genuinely believe they can pull off an upset for the ages.
Here’s how we think Xavi will line up his troops for Thursday’s battle.
The nature of the defeat to Madrid and the busy schedule will force Xavi to make some changes to the team looking for a spark while also trying to rest his biggest players against what should be a lesser opponent.
The many injuries don’t offer that many options for rotation, but there could be at least one change at the back. Even with João Cancelo not likely to return to the lineup for this one we could see a more attacking setup with two natural full-backs, and young Héctor Fort has played well enough in his recent outings to earn a spot in the team for this one.
Ronald Araujo is suspended due to his red card in El Clásico, so Jules Kounde will likely retain his spot despite a poor display last Sunday. Andreas Christensen and Alejandro Balde will complete the back four, though the Dane might move further forward to midfield if Xavi decides to try something different for this game.
We are still expecting the coach to hold off on the Christensen pivot experiment until Iñigo Martínez returns from injury, so we should have a more classic look to the midfield for this one. Frenkie de Jong and Ilkay Gündogan could use at least 45-60 minutes of rest against a lesser side, so that opens the door for Oriol Romeu to have a rare start in midfield.
Fermín López also deserves a spot after one of the very few highlight individual performances in the first Copa match against Barbastro, and Sergi Roberto would complete the midfield trio if De Jong and Gündogan are indeed rested.
This would be a great opportunity to give Vitor Roque his first start, but after playing 45 minutes off the bench in his first two games the Brazilian has missed the last two with a mysterious injury that hasn’t yet been adressed by the club, and it would be a surprise if we see the youngster playing from the start in this one.
Raphinha is injured and Lamine Yamal is suspended, so only three forwards remain if Roque can’t go: Ferran Torres and João Félix would play on the wings with Robert Lewandowski leading the line. The Pole has scored in three straight games and finally looks a bit like himself again despite the struggles of the team as a whole, and a match against a lesser opponent is a good opportunity for Lewy to find the net more than once and continue to build his confidence ahead of a big game away to Real Betis at the weekend.
Possible XI: Peña; Fort, Kounde, Christensen, Balde; Roberto, Romeu, Fermín; Ferran, Lewandowski, Félix (4-3-3)
How do you think Barcelona should line up against Unionistas? Let us know your thoughts, predictions and teams in the comments below!