In our third La Liga fixture in just 7 days, we host Levante at the Camp Nou at 8 pm local time for round 15 of the season. The situation for tomorrow night is crystal clear: win. Having followed the comments made by players since Rayo Tuesday, there is a very consistent theme: The league is not over, we are totally motivated to play our best, but there is very little margin for error. We really cannot afford to fall further behind Real Madrid with this massively important Clásico now just 8 days away. Pep will put out his best 11 tomorrow with only thought of 3 points in mind. Seeing as midweek the Champions League game is essentially a by-week, there is no need to consider rotation for the key men.
Levante were a bit of an early season story. They in fact led the league over weeks 9 and 10 and were undefeated for the first 9 matchdays. For a team like Levante, it was quite a remarkable run and the team very much enjoyed their 15 minutes. During this undefeated streak there were some truly impressive wins, including a 1-0 win over Real Madrid, 3-0 spanking of moneybags Málaga, and a 3-0 away victory at Villarreal. And despite having now lost 3 games in their last 4, that early run will give them a lot of confidence and still sit in 4th place.
Personnel wise, the team is a real mix of characters. There are a lot of “castaways”, many veterans that in fact make Levante the oldest team on average, but there are also a few younger talents like our very own Xavi Torres and some international flavor in the likes of Ivorian striker Koné. They are led by their mountainous captain Sergio Ballesteros who at the ripe age of 36, stands 1.88 meters of solid muscle. He will very much set the tone of tomorrow’s game I expect, which unfortunately for us is likely to be very defensive. It could very well be a back 5 and supporting 4, something that Barça is very familiar with but nevertheless can prove mentally and physically exhausting to overcome.
The game is however in Barcelona, somewhere we’ve done quite well this season. In our 8 home games, the boys have been near perfect with 7 wins and the 1 draw, scoring 34 goals in the process. More impressively however, we are yet to concede on home soil, 0 goals in 720 minutes of football.
Having done a recovery training session Wednesday, then given Thurdays off, 19 first team and 3 B team players (Cuenca, Rosell, Rodri) came back to training today to at the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper. Injury wise, Fàbregas is back but there are doubts over Adriano’s fitness having tweaked his hamstring injury in those 20 minutes against Rayo.
The big story of the week has been Piqué. Having quite purposefully drawn a yellow card Tuesday to suspend himself tomorrow and be clean for Madrid, the Spanish league made a special inquiry into whether to ban him further, which was something the press in the capital were pushing quite furiously. Personally, that inquiry is a waste of time and money. You will never be able to ban players for this because you cannot prove intention. Frankly, I don’t see the big deal. Yes it’s not wonderfully sportsman like, but it’s not outside the rules of the game either and in any case he is still being punished with a missed game. Whether that game is Levante at home or Real Madrid away is not the business of the league. They have rules in place and that’s that. So Gerard will not be playing tomorrow which means Puyol will almost certainly join Mascherano in the middle.
Another selection issue Pep must decide on is Busquets. He is just 1 yellow card from triggering the automatic suspension. Again, personally, I wouldn’t start with him and let the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, and Fabregas all start together. Levante aren’t going to be doing much attacking so there isn’t as needed the function of Busquets to be sweeping and building play up quickly. Mascherano is more than capable of pushing somewhat higher and cleaning up, with Puyol being behind him to cover.
Tomorrow could be a good evening for the 3-4-3, with Abidal and Puyol responsible for the most defensive duties during the limited Levante attacks, and Mascherano playing the defensive midfield/defender role. As a stated above, I think all midfield maestros Xavi, Inieta, and Cesc will start, and upfront I think Alexis will find himself starting with Messi, and whether it’s Villa or Pedro we will have to see. But as always, one will never be surprised to see Keita walk out that tunnel, and to be fair, he did have a superb game against AC Milan recently.
Usually, Levante at home isn’t much of a draw. But, truthfully, I’m a little nervous about tomorrow. There just isn’t room for slipups. I would like to be clear though that Pep Guardiola and this Barça team have earned the right for the fans to trust and have confidence in them. In the near 3.5 years, when have they really let you down? The loss to Inter in 2010? The game where we played our heart out in the Camp Nou and only an incorrect hand-ball decision disallowed Bojan’s winner? Or the 1-0 Copa defeat where only Saint Iker kept his team alive in that 2nd half blitz? Point is, we’ve been spoilt, plus quite amazingly the players understand this and don’t begrudge us. They don’t feel like they’ve given enough and are due some patience or rest, if anything the boys have been saying things like we understand the pressure and accept it and strive to meet it. “This is Barcelona and we’re obliged to win every game. It’s what people expect. That makes it mandatory for us and we have to deliver”. Cesc Fàbregas just days ago when talking to FIFA.
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