La Rosaleda, Malaga
13 January, 2013; 21:00 hrs, CET
Undoubtedly, this is Barcelona’s toughest match so far in 2013. Malaga is not an easy opposition by any stretch of imagination. While Vilanova is still recovering, he’s made his presence felt on the sidelines and the players have had spirited displays. Malaga on the other hand have had some scintillating outings including the deserved win against an Iker Casillas-less Real Madrid.
Meanwhile, Lionel Messi got his 4th Ballon d’Or and established his claim as one of the greatest ever. With over 40% of the votes, Leo was a clear winner, followed by Cristiano Ronaldo and then Andres Iniesta. While a faction of the fans debate whether Lionel deserved the award or not, football captains and coaches around the globe have manifested that they think alike – at least the 41% of the group – a considerable number indeed.
While Barcelona have dropped only 2 points this season in the domestic league, and went into the Christmas break with a 11-point lead over their closest rivals and a considerable 16-point over Jose Mourinho’s star-studded Real Madrid, Malaga has been quite distressed at getting a suspension from European competition for at least one season because of unpaid bills. UEFA issued the ban in order to stop clubs from spending beyond their means through Financial Fair Play. They have qualified for the knock-out rounds of UEFA Champions League and are in contention for a top-four finish this season as well. Having been drawn against Portuguese club FC Porto, Malaga will fancy their chances of making it to the quarterfinals.
Team News and Tactical Brief
Malaga will be without Julio Baptista, who continues to be a long-term absentee. Jesús Gámez will miss this match because of suspension. Although 4-2-3-1 is a preferred formation of Pellegrini, in this match against the free-scoring Catalans, the former Real Madrid manager is expected to be a little conservative. With a more compact midfield, Pellegrini will try to contain the space available at the centre of the park.
Malaga has had some tremendous performers over the last few weeks. Isco however has hogged most of the limelight. And quite rightly so. His exceptional outing against Real Madrid and especially in the Champions League has alerted some of the bigger clubs of Europe who are now preparing their chequebooks to sign him. In the match against Valencia, where Malaga ran riot, Isco stood out with his exceptional performance. And in this match, Pellegrini is expected to employ him just behind Saviola, who is expected to don the roll of a lone-striker. This is where Puyol and Pique will need to be at their best to negate the incisiveness of the youngster. In Saviola, Malaga has yet another proven goal-scorer in La Liga.
The midfield might be a little troublesome for the manager as he has to choose between Portillo and Toulalan. With Malaga and Barcelona meeting 3 times in the next 2 weeks, Pellegrini will surely want to experiment in this match, if at all he wants to. The cup matches against Barca will be knock-outs and it’ll be suicidal for him to try anything new. Joaquin, Camacho and Eliseu are expected to line up, keeping one more spot open. Portillo has shown enough promise and might just get the coach’s support going into an all important match.
Sanchez, Welington, Demichelis and Monreal are the personnel who usually guard the Malaga goal and this match isn’t any exception. Martin Demichelis has been excellent this season and along with Welington, forms the most difficult defense in La Liga. They have conceded just 13 – 6 less than FC Barcelona. This will be one difficult defense for Barcelona to break.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-4-1-1): Caballero; Sanchez, Demichelis, Welington, Monreal; Joaquin, Portillo, Camacho, Eliseu; Isco; Saviola
Vilanova travelled to the USA for a second opinion on the cancer that he is suffering from in his parotid gland. He wasn’t there for the team’s midweek match against Cordoba and under Roura, Barcelona played some exceptional football – especially Villa and Alexis. Roura isn’t expected to tinker with the team much. Victor Valdes, who is in the midst of a contract-related issue will start as usual, and the defense is expected to comprise Alves and Alba on either side with Puyol and Pique in the centre. Adriano, who hasn’t been anything short of exceptional this season, has returned to training after recovering from an ankle injury.
Iniesta and Xavi too will return after getting some extra rest and the latter is expected to play in his usual role alongside Busquets and Fabregas. The former Arsenal captain had a great outing against Cordoba and will be high on confidence. He showed some great composure and dribbled with ease. Of course, Cordoba isn’t even remotely close to what Malaga is, but these are the matches which help build confidence and hone skills in real-time scenario. Thiago Alcantara was a joy to watch and more than his goal, his first touch and the exquisite build up to the goal were moments to cherish. The youngster is testament enough that the youth academy is heading in the right direction and the future is in safe hands.
David Villa had a great game and his first goal is reminiscent of his old self – sublime and magical. His second goal too was a testimony of his precision and instinct – qualities which cajoled Barca to pay heavily for his services. In the end, he was substituted with an injury scare, but it turned out to be just a muscle cramp. Alexis too had a great match and got himself a brace. He did enough to take the Cordoba defense out of shape for the team to utilize the freedom. His first goal was a header and did well to get the second. The surprise package was however, Sergi Roberto. His composure and passing proficiency is beyond his years and the young lad surely has a future at the Camp Nou.
While Xavi and Busquets will be doing their respective duties of distributing and covering, Cesc and Iniesta will link with Lionel and Pedro upfront. The offense will operate primarily under the aegis of Messi, but Pedro, who’s again back to scoring goals, will be essential to break the defensive shape of Malaga and Iniesta to slide past the defenders with relative ease. Fabregas should be the key which will provide the necessary balance between the midfield and the offense.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-3-3): Valdes; Alves, Pique, Puyol, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Cesc; Iniesta, Messi, Pedro
1. Malaga has the best defensive record in La Liga this term. And Barcelona the best offensive record.
2. Leo Messi will enter the match as the first ever player to receive four concecutive Ballon d’Ors
3. Malaga have scored at least 3 goals in their last 3 home matches in La Liga. Barcelona have scored at least 3 goals in their last 4 matches against Malaga in all competitions.
Player To Watch Out For
Recently the 20-year-old star was named the Europe’s best U21 player, 2012. He beat Stephan El Shaarawy and Thibaut Courtois to the prestigious trophy. Chelsea has been reported to be ready with a fat cheque to secure the midfielder’s signature. This might just be his chance against yet another big team to prove his worth – after doing so against Real Madrid, recently.
Malaga 1-3 FC Barcelona
At this moment, it looks difficult to predict anything apart from a Barcelona win. The team looks composed and compact. And Malaga might offer some resistence initially, but the tempo will be controlled by Xavi and co.
Blast From The Past