Camp Nou, Barcelona
April 6, 2013; 2200 CET
Just nine more rounds of La Liga football left in the ongoing 2012/13 season, and though FC Barcelona command a respectable 13-point lead over second placed Real Madrid, the Blaugrana are anything but a lock for the Spanish Primera Division title. Relegation battlers Mallorca are going to visit the Camp Nou, yet what should be a relative straightforward affair in favor of Barcelona could actually become an upset for the Catalan giants.
For the second consecutive week, Barcelona are going to play against a side currently engaged in a relegation battle. Albeit this time around there’s a little twist. In addition to the ever-present injury woes that have been plaguing Barcelona’s defensive personnel all season long, the Azulgrana are also missing their only reliable source of goals – Lionel Messi.
The mercurial Argentine saved Barcelona from embarrassment at the Balaidos, scoring one goal and creating another for Cristian Tello in their 2-2 draw against Celta Vigo.
Mallorca’s chances at survival, if not unlikely but not improbable victory at the Camp Nou, are also boosted by injuries to Barcelona centre-backs Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano, who are joining Pedro and Adriano on the sidelines.
It’s a pivotal point in the campaigns of both teams, Barcelona’s and Mallorca’s. If the latter can achieve a victory at one of Europe’s most difficult venues, it could serve as a catalyst for a much needed upturn in form in their quest for survival. Oddly enough, though alive and well in two competitions, Barcelona’s remaining season could be derailed if they fail to secure a victory against Mallorca and register more injuries to key players.
There are still 27 points up for grabs in La Liga. It’s still mathematically possible for either Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid to steal the Spanish title from Barcelona’s clutches. With Lionel Messi accounting for 62 percent of all Barcelona goals in La Liga (43 goals and 13 assists) the Catalan outfit has yet to prove that they are not a one-man team.
If anything, the next couple of days and weeks could vindicate Tito Vilanova’s decision not to buy a specialist defender, and lend some credibility to his preference to work with a small squad. Or, in case Barcelona ends the season empty-handed, undermine his authority as tactician. Any side without its top goalscorer is a weaker team for it, Barcelona sans Lionel Messi is unpredictable at best, impotent at worst.
Without La Pulga’s contributions Barcelona would’ve scored only 2 goals more (34) than Mallorca (32) in La Liga. Though Barcelona stress that the club has maintained an unbeaten record over the last three years whenever Lionel Messi was rested or unavailable, it must be noted that the majority (8) of the 14 games contested without the Argentine were Copa del Rey fixtures against second string opponents.
The absence of Lionel Messi, Carles Puyol and his deputy Javier Mascherano means that, while it’s still very much David vs. Goliath, the former can keep his slingshot while the latter has been robbed off his spear and left with a soft layer of protection.
Team News and Tactical Brief
The Catalan outfit has to manage without centre-backs Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano, full-back Adriano and winger Pedro, but can count on left-back Eric Abidal, who has shown promise playing at central defense prior to his prolonged absence from the team. Given that the Frenchman has yet to feature for Barcelona’s first team this season – his outing for Barcelona B notwithstanding – it’s expected that Alex Song will deputize for the injured Carles Puyol at the heart of defense. However, partnering Gerard Pique with Marc Bartra can’t be ruled out either since the Cameroonian isn’t tactically disciplined enough.
Lionel Messi’s unavailability leaves Tito Vilanova with a selection headache of the worst kind. Out of all remaining forwards at his disposal only David Villa has hit double figures for Barcelona in all competitions (13), while youngster Cristian Tello has accumulated 6 goals thus far.
The most frustrating of all forwards, however, is Alexis Sanchez who only scored an underwhelming 5 goals in 36 games. Unless he shows a massive improvement over the next two months it’s probable that Barcelona will cut their losses and sell the Chilean over the summer. Some suggest that the former Udinese star offers a lot defensively, but Barcelona didn’t pay €26,000,000 (plus add-ons) to acquire the Chilean version of Emile Heskey. Throughout the season Alexis has been firing blanks, mostly due to his rather erratic decision-making. More often than not he overcomplicates simple plays, he passes when he should shoot, shoots when he should pass, and dribbles when it’s not necessary.
Still, Barcelona’s technical staff can’t afford the luxury to bench Alexis (even though he should be); hence he’ll likely find himself in the starting XI alongside David Villa, and Cesc Fabregas who’ll probably occupy the Messi role. Next week’s Champions League fixture against Paris Saint-Germain could prompt Tito Vilanova to rest Xavi or Iniesta plus Dani Alves, and field Thiago and Martin Montoya instead.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-3-3): Pinto, Alba, Pique, Song, Montoya, Busquets, Iniesta, Thiago, Villa, Fabregas, Alexis
The guests only miss midfielder Joao Victor who should return from a long-term injury in the next couple of weeks, if not days, but he’ll still be unavailable for the Barcelona tie. Heading into the game Mallorca haven’t kept a clean sheet in La Liga since their victory over Valencia at the end of September. In their last two fixtures alone the Gregorio Manzano-managed outfit has conceded 8 goals. Granted, one the opponents was Real Madrid, but Los Bermellones have shipped 31 goals in just 11 games since January, all the while employing a modern 4-2-3-1 formation with two holding midfielders.
Mallorca’s strong suit is their attack but also its greatest weakness – it’s just not prolific enough to compensate for their shortcomings in defense. For better or worse, Mallorca almost always engage in an open game which, while quite entertaining for spectators, often times leads to Los Bermellones finding themselves at the wrong end of a battering.
Nonetheless, Mallorca’s Tomer Hemed and Victor Casadeus have more La Liga goals in between (16) them than any variation of Barcelona’s front three sans Lionel Messi.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Aouate, Nsue, Nunes, Geromel, Bigas, Pina, Marquez, Arizmendi, Victor, Pereira, Hemed
Player to Watch Out For
David Villa (Barcelona)
In the absence of Lionel Messi it’s El Guaje who has to step up to the plate and carry on the scoring burden for the Catalan juggernaut. While he may have been somewhat subdued against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, David Villa is one of the most consistent forwards in La Liga over the past 8 years. Prior to his long-term injury in 2011/12, El Guaje has never scored less than 15 goals in La Liga, stretching back to 2001/02. Unlike misfiring Alexis, or the still developing Cristian Tello, David Villa doesn’t need a lot of chances and remains one of Europe’s best marksman, even if nominally plays as left-winger.
Barcelona 4-2 Mallorca
Barcelona may be the unchallenged league leaders but the Catalans have also one of La Liga’s leakiest defenses, in regards to clean sheets. Therefore the encounter between these two sides will probably lead to a slug-fest, with only Barcelona’s superior squad tipping the tie in their favor.
Blast From The Past