Camp Nou, Barcelona
1st Feruary, 2014; 1600 hrs local time
FC Barcelona did not do any major business during the winter transfer window. Martino has the same squad which he had at the beginning of the season and the return from long-term injury of Ibrahim Afellay has given him another option to execute his strategies. However, the Achilles heel still remains – defense. Barcelona enter the most curcial phase of the season with the fragile defense that they have.
Valencia is no longer a club which can boast of players of the calibre of David Villa or Juan Mata or David Silva. They have been a pale shadow of their former self and have won just two of their matches away from home, so far this season. More importantly, Barcelona has not lost at home in La Liga yet and with one of their main goal-scoring threats, Helder Postiga, now gone (on-loan to Lazio), they are not really in a position where any team would want themselves to be in.
Team News and Tactical Brief
Tata Martino has been true to his words and has been rotating the squad very well – in fact, better than Guardiola and Vilanova, perhaps. With the exception of Oier Olazábal, Patric and Isaac Cuenca, everybody else has got some time under their belts. Even the recently declared fit Ibrahim Afellay got some game time. While Gerard Pique, Victor Valdes, Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Busquets are among the top in the most minutes played this season for Barcelona, Alexis Sanchez and Pedro Rodriguez have been the most improved players this season.
An injury to Lionel Messi allowed the young offensive players to flourish and Alexis (12 goals in 1275 Primera Division minutes) and Pedro (12 goals in 1157 Primera Division minutes) have already exceeded their last season’s tally (Pedro – 7 goals in 2066 Primera Division minutes, Alexis – 8 goals in 1709 Primera Division minutes) and look likely to go ahead and make the 2013-14 season their best so far at the Camp Nou.
Martino might be without the controversy-ridden Brazilian wonderkid Neymar, but he surely doesn’t have any dearth of offensive firepower in his arsenal. With the exception of Neymar, Barcelona doesn’t have any serious injury problems and Martino will try to field his best combination to extend the lead at the top of the table, as both the Madrid based competitors have their games on Sunday.
In the midfield, Xavi, Busquets and Fabregas should start. Iniesta, although fit, just returned midweek and Martino may choose to extend his rest. It is proven time and again that without Iniesta, the mobility of the Barcelona midfield is stunted to a certain extent and the coach and fans around the world will want to see Iniesta on song against the crucial Champions League tie against Manchester City.
Up front, it is again Lionel Messi and two others. Martino did not give Leo an opportunity to play against Levante in midweek, and the Argentine wizard will certainly make the starting lineup. Alexis had a brilliant outing and missed out on a well-deserved hattrick. He will start along with Pedro, on either side of Messi.
The defense has Carles Puyol fully fit and the captain also scored after more than a year, for Barcelona. While Bartra and Puyol played in midweek, Martino might go back to the combination of Pique and Mascherano, with Alba and Alves on either side.
Victor Valdes’ time is running out and after this gameweek, he will have one less match to appear for Barcelona.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-3-3): Valdes (GK); Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Messi, Pedro, Alexis.
In the last decade, if there’s any team that has won the domestic league apart from perennial powerhouses like Real Madrid and Barcelona, that is Valencia. Today, Valencia lie 10, 29 points adrift of Barcelona – thanks to the ridiculous TV rights and other sponsorships. The financial situation of the domestic league of Spain is alarming and the other 18 clubs just consider themselves winners even if they just compete with the top two for some time.
Valencia had to let go two of their players – Helder Postiga (on loan to Lazio) and Guardado (on loan to Bayer Leverkusen) and has signed ex-Barcelona player Seydou Keita from Chinese outfit Dalian, until summer. While Postiga will probably replace Hernanes (who is on his way to Inter Milan) at Lazio, Guardado will add impetus to Bayer Leverkusen, who are second in Bundesliga, 13 points adrift of leaders Bayern.
Against Espanyol, Valencia manager and ex-Barcelona forward, Juan Antonio Pizzi, fielded an unusual 4-5-1. Ex-Barcelona youth academy graduate Romeu played left back, while top-scorer Jonas played just behind the striker. Against Barcelona, Pizzi might not have Keita, but his idea will be to flood the midfield, and a 4-5-1 (interchangeably 4-2-3-1), is highly likely.
Ever Banega and Sergio Canales have not been named in the squad and the midfield should comprise Romeu, Parejo, Piatti, Jonas and Feghouli. Up front, Alcacer will assume the role of a lone striker and will have his task cut out. Chances will far and few and the Valencia offense will have to be up to speed if they aspire to salvage anything from the draw.
In defense, Joao Pereira is suspended, ergo Antonio Barragan will start in his place. Apart from Barragan, Mathieu and Costa will be at the heart of defense. Usually Guardado started as the left back, but in his absence, Pizzi might just choose to move Romeu to that position and look to replace him in the midfield with the 21-year old Juan Bernat.
Diego Alves will start and will have to be on his toes to keep the Barca onslaught at bay.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Alves; Barragan, Mathieu, Costa, Romeu; Parejo, Bernat; Feghouli, Jonas, Piatti; Alcacer.
- Barcelona have won their last 25 home matches in La Liga.
- Barcelona have scored at least 2 goals in 25 of their last 27 home matches in La Liga.
- There have been over 2.5 goals scored in 12 of Barcelona’s last 13 home games in La Liga.
- Barcelona have kept a clean sheet in 5 of their last 7 home matches against Valencia in all competitions.
- Barcelona have been winning at both half time and full time in 5 of their last 7 home matches against Valencia in all competitions.
Player To Watch Out For
Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona)
Last time Messi scored for Barcelona in La Liga was on the 28th of September, 2013, against Almeria. 126 days without a goal in La Liga. 4 months and 4 days. The hungrier they are, they scarier they get. Enough said.
FC Barcelona 3-0 Valencia
Expect Lionel Messi to be on the score sheet. Multiple times.