Having five first team defenders out for the first league match of the season is certainly a way of putting Barça’s short 2011/2012 squad to the test. Adriano, who had been in very good form, joins Piqué, Puyol, Maxwell and Afellay on the injured list for the visit of Villarreal while Dani Alves will miss the game through suspension. However, this team is responding perfectly to any tricky situations that come up. Losing preseason friendlies to Manchester United and Chivas did not matter, when the Super Cups were up for grabs we rose to the challenge overcoming difficult opponents in Real Madrid and Porto.
There are not too many options in defence for Pep Guardiola. Mascherano will probably partner Fontás in central defence with Abidal at left back and either Martin Montoya or Johnathan Dos Santos at right back. I admit to not being a big fan of Dos Santos in this position and so I would go for Montoya, there is also a small chance that Mascherano could play right back which would probably see Busquets move into defence with Keita continuing in the defensive midfield role. It seems likely that Keita will get some games in this position as Mascherano looks likely to feature more as a defender than a midfielder this season. Given the short space of time since our Super Cup victory in Monaco there are bound to be some rotations from Pep, and I expect both Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez to be in the starting line up. Indeed, our thinness at the back is more than compensated for by the extraordinary strength we now have going forward and we could see any five from Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Thiago, Pedro, Alexis, Messi and Villa for creativity and goals, with the remaining three being fantastic substitutes to bring on! It seems Pep is trying to take away the dependence on Xavi and especially Messi as it remains to be seen how we would cope with a lengthy period without Leo if that were to occur. However great the other players are Messi continues to stand head and shoulders above the rest. Despite not having played in any of the preparation games Messi played a vital part in all seven Super Cup goals against Madrid and Porto, scoring four and making the assist for Villa, Iniesta and Fabregas in the other three. Quite remarkable if you think about it and then he scored twice and hit the crossbar to set up Pedro’s goal in half an hour of Gamper magic. Messi is missed whenever he is absent but by bringing in Cesc and Alexis our level will drop less if Leo can’t play and it also gives us more chance to rest him at less urgent moments of the season.
I have nothing but the highest respect for our opponent Villarreal. Since Fernando Roig took over control of the club during the 1997/98 season they have had extraordinary success for such a small team. The town of Vila-Real has only 51,000 inhabitants and the club’s ground El Madrigal holds just 25,000 and yet through shrewd management they have managed to become a regular in Europe in recent seasons even reaching the Champions League Semi-final in 2006 when only Riquelme’s nerve from the penalty spot against Arsenal prevented them from playing us in the final in Paris. Players like Riquelme and Diego Forlan have come and gone but they still maintain a fine squad with players such as Cani, Borja Valera, Marcus Senna, Nilmar and the excellent Giuseppe Rossi in their ranks whilst their excellent youth policy was demonstrated this weekend when Villarreal B beat Barça B 0-2 at the Miniestadi. Last season’s game between the sides was an absolute classic with Villarreal slightly unfortunate to lose 3-1 in the end. Leo Messi scored our second and third that night, and I can’t help feeling that there is a pretty good chance that Messi will prove to be the match-winner again tomorrow.
Possible starting XIs:
Barça: Valdés; Montoya, Mascherano, Fontás, Abidal; Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Villa.
Villarreal: Diego López; Musacchio, Gonzalo, Zapata, Oriol; Cani, Bruno, Senna, Borja Valero; Nilmar, Rossi.
My prediction: Barça 3 Villarreal 1
Kick off 9pm local time