Barça begin the second half of the league season with a trip to San Sebastian to face Real Sociedad with a possible record eleventh straight away win at stake. Given the early 6 pm kick off time the team will change the normal habit of travelling on the day of the game, instead catching a flight after this afternoon’s training session. Tito Vilanova has named a squad of 20 players for the trip with no place for David Villa who still hasn’t recovered from his hamstring problems.
Before talking about tomorrow’s game, it is impossible not to mention the bombshell announcement that Victor Valdés will not renew his current contract that finishes in 2014. While there may be some culés who don’t rate Valdés so highly, I can’t stress how difficult I think it will be to find a replacement. Before Valdés the last keeper who managed to make the position his own for a number of seasons was Andoni Zubizaretta. Between Zubi’s departure in 1994 and the rise of Valdés nearly a decade later we tried a number of keepers who nearly all disappointed in one way or another. Julen Lopetegi and Vitor Baia both appeared to be excellent keepers at their previous clubs but both flopped at Camp Nou while Roberto Bonano was as mediocre as so many in the Gaspart-era team, others who filled the position like Sergio’s dad Carles Busquets, Dutruel or Rustu all fell short of the necessary level and even Pepe Reina seemed to find the responsibility too much, in fact only Ruud Hesp had any success after being taken from relative obscurity at Roda. Hesp wasn’t the greatest keeper either but he was pretty consistent. He was also the keeper for the only two leagues we won in the time between Zubizaretta and Valdés.
There may still be some who believe Valdés is just playing a strategy to get a better contract from the club but the manner of his announcement indicates he really means to leave. Whatever his reasons, economic, professional or personal, I imagine it’s a little more than just wanting to “know other cultures”. It will be interesting to see what comes out in the future but my speculation is that there may be a slight disgruntlement at not getting the same deal as Puyol and Xavi. However, in this afternoon’s press conference Tito Vilanova said that he doesn’t believe Valdés has a problem with the club, pointing out that he wasn’t asking to leave now, just saying he wouldn’t continue and that he was showing the club respect by giving such a margin of time for a replacement to be found.
If the motivation for the move is professional then one has to say that it is a very courageous decision. He could easily stay at Barça and probably remain first team keeper for five or six years more, and who knows quite possibly win a couple more Champions Leagues. However, if he moves to another big European club and is successful, he may feel he will win the recognition that he seems to feel he doesn’t always get in Barcelona.
By making the decision now at least Valdés has given the club time to act. And surely now the best move would be to get somebody in this summer rather than waiting until 2014. Some might say the club would do well to sell Valdés this summer and in that way at least make some money but I don’t think that will happen. The news that Valdés is leaving will no doubt encourage any decent keeper to come and challenge Valdés for a year with the prospect of taking over in 2014.
On to tomorrow’s game. Real Sociedad under Phillippe Montanier have completed a very respectable first half of the season and they currently sit ninth in the table on 26 points. Completing the eleven-away-wins record is going to be complicated against a team with the equal best home defensive record in the league. It might also be pointed out that Barça haven’t won at Anoeta since May 2007 when two stunning passes from Ronaldinho set up Iniesta and Eto’o to score the goals in a 0-2 victory. Of course it’s true that Real then spent three seasons in the second division but since then we have played twice in San Sebastian under Pep Guardiola without winning. In May 2011 we lost 2-1 as our advantage at the top of La Liga allowed us to concentrate on knocking Madrid out of the Champions League semi-final. Then in September 2011 we could only draw 2-2 after taking an early 0-2 lead, the team showing the first signs of weakness in last year’s title race.
Before the cup game with Malaga this week Vilanova indicated he would give equal importance to the cup game and tomorrow’s league game, but he then put out, I think it’s fair to say, what was basically of a second-string team against Malaga. The only thing I can read from this is that the changes on Wednesday were due to there only being three days rest. Having played Sunday-Wednesday-Saturday we will have a five day break before the cup return in Malaga next Thursday. With more players rested on Wednesday I see no reason not to play our strongest XI tomorrow and then to do the same again on Thursday.
Barça squad: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Montoya, Piqué, Bartrá, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Xavi, Thiago, Fabregas, Iniesta, Pedro, Tello, Alexis, Messi.
Real Sociedad: (4-2-3-1) Bravo; Carlos Martinez, Mikel Gonzalez, Iñigo Martinez, De La Bella; Pardu, Illaramendi; Carlos Vela, Xavi Prieto, Griezmann; Agirretxe.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta.
Prediction: Real Sociedad 1 Barça 4
Date: Saturday 19 January 2013. Kick off 6 pm (local time)