Messi has been granted a mini holiday by Pep Guardiola this afternoon, instructed to take the weekend off and report back on Monday. After picking up his 5th yellow card last weekend, due to a perceived intentional handball, Lionel has to sit out the mandatory 1 match ban. Out of interest, Pepe also serves his 1 match ban this weekend after collecting 5 yellow cards. So basically Messi and Pepe accumulate yellow cards at the same pace. Busquets is also suspended, and thanks to the joys of wonderful international friendlies, Abidal and Thiago limped back with injuries and are also out. Some will be inclined to say, “it’s only Gijon”, and we should handle most the injuries just fine but Messi is enormous to our success, this season even more than others, and we are going to go up against a very defensive outfit.
Despite his strong work seasons past, the powers at Gijon decided to pull the plug on Manuel Preciado a few weeks ago with the club languishing in the relegation zone, and handed over the reigns to a coaching veteran in Javier Clemente. The man from Barakaldo in the Basque country played less than 4 seasons with Bilbao before having his career ended due to injury. He got into coaching straight away, at just 25 he led a local team Getxo and by 1981, only 10 years after his forced retirement he took over Athletic Bilbao. He led them to a Liga crown in 83 and a domestic double the very next season. Great achievements without question, but they were not a product of flair and attacking mindedness, but rather defensive doggedness and a fair share of proper physicality. One of the legends from his time was Andoni Goikoetxea, “the Butcher of Bilbao”, enough said. He’s been a round the block since then, coaching Espanyol (thrice), Atlético Madrid, Bilbao 2 times more, Spain, Betis, Sociedad, Marseille, Tenerife, Serbia, and then less glamorously Murcia and Valladolid. He is fresh off failing to qualify for the 2012 African Cup of Nations with Cameroon.
Now Clemente is pretty much the antithesis of Barcelona, and he doesn’t have many friends there. He was the coach in charge during the famous brawl with Bilbao, in which Maradona got fed up with repeated torturous tackling from Mr. Goikoetxea above and lost it. Not only was he the coach in charge, he always caused it. Maradona missed a fair chunk of the 83/84 season after the worst of bad tackles from the “Butcher”. He returned, scored 2 in a 2-1 win against Bilbao, but then they met again in the Copa final. Clemente called Maradona “stupid” and that “he had no human qualities”. Well, Barça lost 1-0, after another rough game and at the end el Diego just lost it and went at Bilbao players like a bull. But Clemente does have one positive connection, that with Pep, as he was the manager to first select Guardiola with the national team, something Pep today mentioned his lasting appreciation for.
But Clemente is an old dog and there won’t be any new tricks, the game tomorrow will be laborious. Gijon are going to play deep, play tough, even rough, and make our lives very difficult. He hasn’t yet lost with Gijon, but not won either, managing two 1-1 draws thus far against Atlético and Santander.
With limit options, I think it would be safe to bet Cesc, Iniesta, Xavi, and Alexis all start. Pep is likely to go with a 3-4-3 seeing as Gijon will have little to no attacking ambition, allowing him to utilize Masch, Pique, and Puyol. Alves will certainly pay and will be pivotal to our attacking game tomorrow, I also think Pedro will get a start. But I won’t be surprised to see Cuenca or even Keita get into the 11.
I always look forward to Barça but I fear a slow, frustrating game tomorrow that will need patience from the players. At this stage of the game, we need 3 points, and we should be able to grind it out, I just hope we don’t sweat too much for it.