There is no let up for FC Barcelona. After an emotionally and physically tiring week we face another tough test tomorrow night with a trip to Valencia for the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final. The teams met at the semi-final stage four years ago towards the end of Frank Rijkaard’s spell as first team coach. After a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou we lost 3-2 at Mestalla, and if you think we were bad against Villarreal on Saturday those with good memories will recall we were appalling in that second leg match where despite late goals from Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o giving us a chance towards the end, it will have to go down as one of the worst performances under Rijkaard.
Mestalla is never an easy ground to visit, in September we managed to gain a 2-2 draw in La Liga though we were really struggling in the first half that night. Valencia’s counter attack, especially on their left side gave our three-man defence plenty of problems. Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba took advantage of Dani Alves’s advanced position until Alves moved back to make up a back four in the second half. I’m hoping Alves plays at right back with a winger like Isaac Cuenca in front of him to counter this threat. Valencia also have very quick players on the break like Pablo Hernandez and Jonas Gonçalves, while the main dangerman around the penalty area is of course Roberto Soldado who has scored 20 goals this season which should give him a very good chance of leading Spain’s attack with the absence of David Villa and poor form of Fernando Torres.
Pep Guardiola has just fifteen first team players available (Cuenca today officially signed his new first team contract until 2015) so Sergi Roberto, Johnathan dos Santos and Cristian Tello travel once more with the first team. Tello was excellent in the last 15 minutes at Villarreal but I don’t think he should start tomorrow. We will have to see if Alexis Sanchez is 100% again as he didn’t look completely fit in his half hour on Saturday. If he is fine then I hope to see him start on the left of attack, if not then Adriano should start again with Cuenca and Messi the other forwards. I’m really hoping to see Thiago get a start as he has not been featuring so much recently and he should put some life back into the team. This would mean either Cesc Fabregas or Xavi Hernandez would start as a substitute, but their performances at Villarreal suggested they could maybe do with a rest. I’d also like to see El Jefecito Mascherano back in defence to give either Puyol or Pique a break.
The team was lucklustre at Villarreal but hopefully the players will react positively to the criticism. A defeat tomorrow would be another blow to our morale though of course we will have the second leg at Camp Nou on February 8 to put right any damage. To avoid defeat we will have to match Valencia’s effort tomorrow and I’m sure they will come out at 200 miles per hour. It will not just be a test of our physical strength it will also be a test of our mentality. I think we may go through some nervy moments but I feel confident that these players will again surprise us positively tomorrow and we should come away with at least a draw.
Barça’s squad: Pinto, Valdés, Alves, Mascherano, Piqué, Puyol, Abidal, Adriano, Busquets, Dos Santos, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Thiago, Fabregas, Cuenca, Messi, Alexis, Tello.
Possible Barça starting XI: Pinto; Alves, Mascherano, Puyol, Abidal; Xavi, Busquets, Thiago; Cuenca, Messi, Alexis.
My prediction: Valencia 1 Barça 2