Barça take on Sporting Gijón tomorrow night (8pm local time) in what would appear to be a relatively comfortable game. Sporting are bottom of La Liga, and after a run of four defeats at the start of the season, they finally managed a goalless draw last weekend at home to Racing to pick up their first point of the season. So it should be easy, right? Well, yes probably, but it all depends on how we play. If we play well and Sporting don’t get any luck with the breaks, we may well see a repeat of Wednesday night’s result against BATE. However, if we play below our best and Sporting play out of their skins we could drop points as we did in last season’s 1-1 draw at El Molinón. David Villa scored our equaliser that day on the ground where he began his career, and Sporting played a very defensive game after taking an early lead. Any lack of concentration tomorrow and we could end up facing a similar tough task. Admittedly, last season’s game came immediately after an international break when we have often found it more difficult to click, and this was in February before the visit to the Emirates to play Arsenal in the Champions League so Guardiola played a slightly weaker team with Milito and Maxwell in defence and with Afellay getting a first start in La Liga.
The team that we could put out tomorrow should be much stronger. I won’t be surprised to see the creative trio of Xavi, Thiago and Cesc which would probably mean “just” Messi and Villa in front of them. Sporting will probably play just David Barral as a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and when it’s a lone forward Pep prefers a back four with the full backs pushing up as much as possible. So we could see a back line of Alves, Piqué, who looks ready for 90 minutes now, Mascherano and Abidal, Busquets in front of them with Xavi close by, Thiago and Cesc in more roaming roles, interchanging with false nine Messi, with Villa (or Pedro) out on the left side of attack, the right flank being left open for Alves to attack. That’s how I’d play it anyway, but trying to guess which way Guardiola’s going to play it should usually begin with Keita so we’ll just have to wait and see.
The squad list for the trip is still not out as I write but there was a doubt over Puyol who got a bruised ribcage on Wednesday. The only surprise perhaps would be to see Isaac Cuenca again on the list due to the injuries to Alexis, Iniesta and Afellay. Cuenca showed he can be a useful player during the preseason, and given the long-term injury to Afellay we can expect to see more of Cuenca who may end up playing a similar role to Nolito last season.
I have to say that Gijón is one of my favourite cities in Spain with some fantastic food and beautiful coastal walks. I also have a great liking for Sporting as a club as their fans have always left a good impression. I’m sure there will be a good atmosphere tomorrow but I don’t think Sporting will be good enough. They do still have our ex-cantera central defender Alberto Botía whose good performances earned him a recent call-up for the Spanish national team, but I’m going to have to go for an away win.
Possible Barça line-up: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Abidal; Xavi, Busquets, Thiago; Fabregas; Messi, Villa.
My Prediction: Sporting 0 Barça 3