The Catalan papers have yet to shift their focus from the joyous Valencia victory to tomorrow night’s encounter against Osasuna in Pamplona. Thankfully they don’t manage FC Barcelona. Without question Pep has congratulated his players for Wednesday night but just as quickly redirected his laser focus to another important league match, and without trying to sound like a broken record, it’s a must win game. Pique made a rather interesting comment today, saying that the league will seem very long for Madrid. He is clearly drawing upon the pressures he has felt the last 3 seasons always leading, always being chased. Now FC Barcelona have become the chaser, hoping to make a strong year-end push and if it’s meant to be, will end up with a fourth consecutive title. In a way, we almost have to forget about Madrid and just focus on our games, week in week out, one at a time.
Aside from the usual nothing-is-impossible, we-must-work-very-hard, they-could-suffer-in-our-stadium rhetoric, opponent players always talk about before playing FC Barcelona, there is one interest aspect of tomorrow’s game that will affect our football. The cold. Sure it was below zero at the Camp Nou the other weekend, but one cannot compare the Camp Nou to El Reyno de Navarra. The Camp Nou is a world-class pitch with first class maintenance and undersoil heating, the Reyno de Navarra’s condition is limited by it’s club’s financial power. Pamplona is always one of the coldest parts in Spain, and with this extra cold period, grass has died in patches and the ground is considerably harder. This means a less true ball path on the ground and unpredictable bounces for balls over the top. Yes both teams play on the same field, but both teams don’t play the same way, and one cannot help thinking that Barca will find tomorrow’s pitch more difficult. It’s not an excuse, but something the team will have to adapt to.
Osasuna are having a solid enough year. 9th place, 28 points (just 2 from Europa and 4 from a Champions League 4th), with only 5 defeats in 21 is more than most Osasuna fans would expect midseason. This better than normal standing is moderately a result of turning possible defeats in the past into draws this year, including draws versus Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, Malaga, and Valencia. Personnel wise, nothing glamorous as one would expect. There is the towering center back Sergio, a former Barca boy in Damia, Brazilian defender Roversio, the two Iranian’s Masoud and Nekounam, former Atletico midfielder Raul Garcia, and new striker Ibrahima, who leads the team with 5 league goals. Games in Pamplona have always been tough, irrespective of their teamsheet, and we’ve had to put in some proper gritty and persistent performances over there to earn slim victories. It’s not difficult to see tomorrow being quite similar.
The feeling in Barcelona is quite positive at the moment. Celebrating our 12th final in 42 months under Pep, his 3rd of 4 possible Copa del Rey finals. Before Pep, it took 19 years to make 4 finals, 1990 to 2009. There has also been a lot of focus, rightfully so, on the importance of La Masia and how it is the homegrown players pulling us through in these tough times. That’s not to say players like Alves, Abidal, and Mascherano are not being noted for the monster players they are, but we have seen Puyol come through with crucial goals, surprising new talents like Tello and Cuenca stepping up when given their chance, Xavi leading the team, and Messi doing his “best player of all time” thing in a heavily compressed schedule that no matter how fit they are will take it’s toll. No injury news since midweek, as it seems Pedro and Iniesta are good to go but Busquets did not travel with the squad. 19 players will make the trip tomorrow morning, including Dos Santos, Sergi Roberto, and Tello from the cantera.
Let us hope this positive momentum serves us well tomorrow. Don’t forget, we have the small matter of a Champions League round of 16 away match Tuesday night in Leverkusen. Bayern Leverkusen are not doing particularly well in Germany (6th) but that does not belittle the toughness of the match especially considering that despite not often losing under Pep, the team does not often win either away from home in Europe. Oh yeah, and then next Sunday we play Valencia, again. So there is no way Guardiola isn’t thinking about a few changes here and there. Maybe Xavi and Puyol should rest tomorrow and give Thiago another run out and let Abidal take over in the middle with Adriano coming in. Such tactical rotation is necessary and don’t be surprised with Cuenca or even Tello popping up at some point. Tomorrow will be a tight game where I don’t think we will win by more than a 2 goal margin. Enjoy the game