Barça return to action after the Christmas break with the first game of 2014 against Elche at Camp Nou tomorrow (Sunday 4 pm). Leo Messi may have scored a hat-trick in yesterday’s open training session at the Mini Estadi but Tata Martino, with an eye on next week’s top-of-the-table clash at Atlético Madrid, has reserved the Argentine star while Dani Alves misses the match due to a mild fever. Martino is also without the suspended Sergio Busquets but Victor Valdés and Xavi are fit to play again while Carles Puyol is also included in the 18-man squad list after recovering from a stomach bug.
It is impossible not to think about next Saturday’s game at the Calderón given the narrow two-goal advantage in goal difference over Atlético at the top of the league, and the decision not to risk Messi tomorrow makes sense. This week Atlético play at Malaga so Barça must be favourite to maintain top spot for another week, though it is vital we don’t slip up against Elche as allowing Atlético to overtake us in the run up to next week’s match would be an enormous morale boost to Diego Simeone’s men.
Elche returned to the Primera División last summer after 24 years in the lower leagues. Coincidentally, their last game at Camp Nou in February 1989 was my first ever visit to the stadium after recently arriving in Barcelona. I remember getting the cheapest available ticket (I think it cost 1,000 pesetas though I can’t be sure) which meant I watched the game from the top tier of the stadium and I couldn’t believe how tiny the players were down below me. I was keen to see Gary Lineker who Cruyff had controversially moved to the right wing but he was disappointing and was substituted by the 21-year-old Guillermo Amor. Barça won the game 2-0 with goals from Jose Mari Bakero and Amor but what I most remember was being fascinated by the way Barça played a 3-4-3 with a defence of Ricardo Serna, the Brazilian international Aloisio and Lopez Rekarte. For somebody used to English football where nearly every team played 4-4-2 throughout the 1980s it really was very different.
For many people Elche began this season as favourites for relegation. However, they are currently 14th in La Liga on 17 points, so despite a hard fight ahead, coach Fran Escribá can be reasonably happy with his team so far. Their away form is slightly better than at their home, the Martinez Valero stadium, and wins at Betis and Celta and draws at Almeria, Getafe and Athletic Club suggest they will be no pushovers. Barça fans will be familiar with Elche’s centre-backs Alberto Botía and David Lombán who have both played in recent seasons for Barça B. Lombán is returning from injury, so like striker Manu del Moral who is fit again after two months out, his place in the side tomorrow will depend on Escribá. Another familiar face will be ex-Espanyol player Ferran ‘Coro’ Corominas who has started the season well with three goals and three assists, but perhaps the most interesting player to watch out for is the 20-year-old Ghanaian striker Richmond Boakye who is on loan at Elche from Juventus.
Barça also have a Copa del Rey game at home to Getafe on Wednesday so if Martino wants to rest anybody else with an eye on the Atlético game, it would seem to make more sense to use the cup for this purpose. I expect Valdés to return in goal tomorrow while Martino will have to decide between Montoya and Adriano to replace Alves. Piqué seems likely to start in central defence alongside either Marc Bartra or Mascherano with Jordi Alba continuing at left-back. Alex Song will come in for the suspended Busquets while Xavi and Iniesta seem most likely to make up the midfield trio. Up front I suspect Cesc Fabregas will again be employed as a false nine with Neymar on the left and either Pedro or Alexis on the right.
Barça’s 18-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Montoya, Adriano, Piqué, Bartra, Mascherano, Puyol, Alba, Song, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Iniesta, Fabregas, Pedro, Alexis, Neymar, Tello.
Barça: Valdés; Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Alba; Xavi, Song, Iniesta; Pedro, Fabregas, Neymar.
Elche: Toño; Sapunaro, Botía, Lombán, Albácar; Ruben Perez, Carlos Sanchez; Gil, Coro, Fidel; Boakye.
Prediction: Barça 4 Elche 0
Date: Sunday 5 January 2014. Kick-off 4 pm local time.