After the magnificent 7-1 Champions League win over Bayer Leverkusen, it is back to La Liga with a trip to Cantabria to play Racing de Santander (Sunday kick off 6pm local time). Pep Guardiola has limited options especially in defence due to injury problems and Gerard Piqué’s suspension following last week’s sending off. The three points are again absolutely essential for Barça to have any chance of overcoming the big gap with leaders Real Madrid.
This weekend Madrid play first, at Betis, so we will know before the kick off in El Sardinero whether a Barça victory will leave the gap at 7, 8 or 10 points. For Guardiola and the team it is pointless to speculate on where Madrid may or may not drop points, in the same way it is pointless for us to go on about referees and penalty decisions, the team simply has to go out and give everything to win each game as it comes.
For tomorrow’s game it seems we will still be without Eric Abidal, Thiago and Alexis while captain Carles Puyol is doubtful. If Puyol isn’t ready to play we have a shortage of first team defenders which could see Sergio Busquets moving to central defence, a start for Marc Bartrá or Marc Muniesa, or even a return to a defence of three, though a defence of Alves, Mascherano and Adriano looks too vulnerable to high balls that I doubt we will see it.
If Busquets moves back we should see another game for Seydou Keita in midfield where we should also see Xavi and Fabregas. In the first half of the season Cesc’s best games were when he played the “false 10” role in the 3-4-3 formation, but he now seems to be fitting better to the midfield when we play 4-3-3, often assisted by Iniesta playing in the left forward position as Don Andrés can cover when Cesc makes his forward runs.
If Iniesta starts on the left of attack, the question will be who starts on the right with the candidates being Pedro, Cuenca and Tello. I feel this may be a game more suited to Cuenca, with Tello and Pedro being used as second half subs. Messi of course will be looking to continue with his remarkable form which has seen him score an amazing 14 goals in his last 6 matches.
There are so many Messi statistics but the most important from Barça’s point of view is that Leo is now just 7 goals short of Cesar’s all time club record of 235 goals. Given Messi’s ability for multiple goal hauls we should now all be on permanent standby as the record could go in any match. We thought it was crazy when he scored 38 goals in Guardiola’s first season, then he got 47 in 2009/10 followed by 53 last season. This season’s tally comes to 48 in 42 games: the way things are going we may well be witnessing a 60-goal season!
Racing has never been a club that I’ve liked very much but this may just be because the horrible Munitis has played there for so many years. This season they are once again in the lower regions of the table (18th with 24 points) and they seem to have been trying to save themselves by scraping draws at home. Their top scorer this season is Cristian Stuani with six goals, though I should point out here that four of these have been from penalties.
This week coach Juan Jose Gonzalez was seemingly overthrown in a dressing room coup which has led to the appointment yesterday (Friday) of Alvaro Cevera as the new coach. Alvaro was until yesterday the coach at Recreativo but it seems he received the phone call from Racing and got off the Recreativo team bus to sign for the club where he started as a player.
Racing’s week may not appear to be the best preparation to receive the World Champions. Apart from the new coach situation they will be without first choice goalkeeper Toño who was sent off in last week’s 4-2 defeat at Rayo Vallecano. Mario Fernandez who has only played two liga games and four in the Copa del Rey will be between the posts. However, nobody should expect Racing to be a push over, they are a team of fighters under the threat of relegation and Barça will need to continue the improved form shown in the last four games to win. If we show the right mentality, which I’m sure we will, I expect another victory to add to Guardiola’s tally of three wins out of three in Santander.
Possible Barça XI: Valdés; Alves, Busquets, Mascherano, Adriano; Xavi, Keita Fabregas; Cuenca, Messi, Iniesta.
My prediction: Racing 1 Barça 4