On seeing that our semi-final opponent in the Copa del Rey was Almeria I imagine that there were quite a few of us who remembered our 0-8 win at the end of November and thought “this should be easy enough”. The league table shows our rival in the relegation zone on a measly 17 points but there has been a fair bit of improvement recently. Juanma Lillo was sacked as Almeria’s coach after our demolition job and his replacement Jose Luis Oltra is beginning to get results. The first sign was a 1-3 league victory at Sevilla in December and in recent weeks they have knocked Real Sociedad, Mallorca and Deportivo out of the Copa. The cup run has been particularly impressive as they have won all six legs so far, scoring 17 goals. They seem to be improving too; in their last four games (Liga and Copa) they have won three and drawn the other at home to Real Madrid.
The odds are still with Barça but if we judge by our games so far in this season’s cup run it will probably not be so straightforward. Fortunately, we know that Pep Guardiola will give the game the best possible preparation and we can be sure the team will give everything. The big question again comes down to how much rotation he will make. One thing is taking a game seriously but Guardiola has to look at the bigger picture of the season as a whole. After tomorrow night’s game we have a league trip to Hercules on Saturday followed by the return semi final game in Almeria next Wednesday (Feb 2) and then we have the visit to Camp Nou of Atletico Madrid the following weekend (Feb 5/6). Guardiola knows that if he wants to get the best from his players there are some who need to take a break every now and then. Some players just cannot keep to peak performance level if they are asked to play 60 games a year. It’s a complicated business and we have seen how our performance has dropped in the Copa games when we weren’t at full strength. I understand the thing about playing your second choice keeper in the cup, fair enough, but besides that I don’t think we should have more than a couple of changes. For tomorrow’s game Puyol is out with a knee problem and Bojan is a doubt with stomach pains, but on the plus side Alves could be fit enough to return. Marc Bartra, Martin Montoya and Nolito have trained with the first team this week and therefore are in with a chance of being included in the final match squad which has still not been announced. Puyol could be replaced by Milito though he didn’t look too fit against Betis last week, or we could see Eric Abidal continue at centre half. Eric has been shutting mouths quite a while now but his current form is excellent including when he plays in the middle where his speed is so useful for those last ditch interceptions.
Possible starting XIs:
Barça: Pinto; Adriano, Piqué, Abidal, Maxwell; Xavi, Mascherano, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Villa.
Almeria: Esteban; Macedo, Pellerano, Carlos García, Jakobsen; Mbami, Corona, Vargas, Crusat; Piatti, Ulloa.
My prediction: Barça 3 Almeria 0
The game is the first of two legs. Kick off 10pm local Spanish time (9pm GMT)