Pep Guardiola has named 20 players for the trip to Bilbao where Barça will try to reach the Quarter Finals of this season’s Copa del Rey. After the 0-0 draw at Camp Nou in the first leg, we know that a score draw will be enough to take us through. Earlier in the season, goals from Seydou Keita, Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets gave us a 1-3 win at San Mames though the result was made easier due to Athletic’s Amorebieta being sent off in the first half. You might also remember that David Villa was also sent off near the end with the score at 0-2, but despite Gabilondo making it 1-2 in the 90th minute, Busquets made sure of the points with his injury time strike.
Tomorrow’s game is especially important as it will determine the physical preparation which is planned to bring the players to peak condition in time for the Champions League game with Arsenal at the Emirates on February 16. If we progress in the Copa then we will be playing twice a week right through January and this will mean we will see a fair amount of rotation. Given that our league games in the coming weeks don’t look too difficult – Depor (a), Malaga (h), Racing (h), Hercules (a), Atletico Madrid (h), Sporting (a) – it will not be too surprising to see some players rested in the league in favour of fielding stronger line-ups in the cup. It is easy to say that the Copa del Rey is irrelevant (especially after we get knocked out), but it is a competition that I have always been proud of when we have won it and I would be delighted to see us win it again this time round. I think we all know enough about Pep Guardiola to be sure that he will be giving tomorrow’s game the utmost importance.
The game is Guardiola’s 150th in charge which I was surprised to learn makes him the sixth coach with most games at Barça after Cruyff (430), Rijkaard (273), Michels (264), Van Gaal (200) and Venables (169). Pep’s win percentage is second to none having clocked up 109 victories with 27 draws and only 13 defeats. The eight trophies won in his two and a half years speak volumes, and of course we could also talk about his 100% record in finals played or the five out of five clasicos (with a 16-2 goal difference) that he has to his name, but it is the quality of the team play that we see week in week out that will be remembered by those lucky enough to witness it. Let’s hope the rumours saying that Guardiola is going to extend his contract turn out to be true.
Team selection for the game will be interesting especially as we have Leo Messi, Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol back in contention as well as a possible first appearance for new signing Ibrahim Afellay. Guardiola will wait until tomorrow to check the fitness levels of Messi after his holidays and Puyol after his injury before deciding if they will start. Piqué should be back in after his suspension while it seems likely that Afellay will start on the bench. With Afellay we now have a first team squad of 20 and of these only Maxwell is missing for tomorrow as he picked up a slight thigh strain in Sunday’s 2-1 win over Levante. Thiago Alcantara is the only B-team player again to be promoted to the squad. For tomorrow’s game I expect us to be close to full strength though we can expect to see both Pinto and Bojan in the starting XI. It will also be interesting to see if Milito gets a start after declaring his desire to leave during the transfer window with the intention of playing more minutes. Milito missed out on last summer’s World Cup but it is understood that he has set his sights on playing in the Copa America which is being held in Argentina next summer.
Athletic on the other hand will be without San Jose, and if Amorebieta doesn’t get over his flu in time then the Basques will be without their first choice pairing of central defenders which means they will probably play Aitor Ocio and Ustaritz. Fernando Llorente will be back in attack after missing the first leg which will mean our defenders will be under more pressure than in the game at Camp Nou. I am again hoping to see 18-year-old Iker Muniain who came on for 35 minutes at Camp Nou and looks to be the latest promising star to come off the San Mames production line.
Games can be pretty tough at San Mames and after the goalless draw at Camp Nou I am sure it will not be easy tomorrow. However, if the first leg was a dull affair, I am hoping that tomorrow’s game will be a cracker. Two teams with a great tradition in the Copa with everything to play for. We have the bonus of seeing Messi back and the chance to get a glimpse of Afellay for the first time as a blaugrana. With Pep in charge I am sure we will give this game everything and so I’m going for a narrow win to us, and I think there will be a few goals.
Barça’s 20-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Milito, Abidal, Adriano, Mascherano, Busquets, Keita, Xavi, Iniesta, Thiago, Afellay, Pedro, Messi, Bojan, Villa, Jeffren.
Possible starting XI: Pinto; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Abidal; Xavi, Mascherano, Keita; Bojan, Messi, Iniesta.
My prediction: Athletic 2 Barça 3