Barça begin their defence of the Copa del Rey with a trip to Vitoria in the Basque Country to play Deportivo Alavés in the first leg of the last 32 round. Tito Vilanova has decided to rest Messi, Xavi, Alba, Pedro and Valdés for the game which means Oier Olazábal, Sergi Roberto, and as has become customary, Cristian Tello from Barça B will travel in the 16-man squad for the game.
Alavés have fallen a long way since the days when the ‘Pink Team’ lost a thrilling Uefa Cup Final 5-4 to Liverpool’s golden goal winner in 2001. Their last season in Primera División was in 2005/06 when we drew 0-0 at the Estadio de Mendizorroza while Barça won 2-0 at Camp Nou. Since then they have dropped two divisions but they have begun this season well and are currently top of Segunda División B Grupo II with 24 points from 10 games. Their goal difference of 14-4 suggests that their strengths lie in defence rather than attack. The last time that Alavés played Barça was in the 2006/07 Copa del Rey when Barça won both legs, 0-2 away and 3-2 at home thanks to a hat-trick from Javier Saviola.
In years gone by I don’t mind admitting that I found this first round in the cup to be a bit of a pain. I still believe that the seeded two-leg format of this round should be abandoned in favour of an all-equal-in-the-hat straight draw on a one match basis with home advantage to the first team drawn, as in the cup competitions in Britain. However, at least the quality of the games has improved in recent years and it is a very good sign of how things have improved at the club. I still have horrible memories of games such as the one we lost to Novelda about ten years ago when the likes of Rochemback, Mendieta, Gabri and Geovanni would thrill us with their mediocrity. In recent years Barça have given more chances to youngsters and we have seen an improved attitude in these games which has improved the standard of the matches and also brought a greater success in the competition with two wins and a runners-up in the four seasons under Pep Guardiola.
Tomorrow we should get another chance to see five rising stars who may or may not have long careers at Barça ahead of them. Martin Montoya and Marc Bartrá both appear to have the talent and the necessary temperament to make it at the top but the challenge is great with players such as Dani Alves and Gerard Piqué blocking their way. It was interesting to see Montoya preferred over Alves against Rayo, and given the ongoing murmurs of unrest surrounding Alves it will be very interesting to watch the right back position in the coming weeks. In midfield I hope we get a chance to see Dos Santos and Sergi Roberto who have an even more complicated route to first team success given the wealth of midfield talent in front of them. Dos Santos is reported to be showing a very good attitude in training and this could be the match for him to shine. Tello has had quite a few chances considering he is competing with Pedro, Villa and Alexis for a place. For me he continues to be an excellent option though he still seems most effective coming on against tiring teams that play with an advanced defence. The other interesting thing for tomorrow’s game will be to see who gets the number nine role. Tito could play either Alexis or Villa as an out and out striker but I have a feeling he may want to give Fabregas another run out in the false 9 role. Hopefully we can gain a comfortable victory to be able to play more promising youngsters in the second leg at Camp Nou in four weeks’ time.
Barça’s 16-man squad: Pinto, Oier, Montoya, Alves, Bartrá, Mascherano, Adriano, Busquets, Song, Dos Santos, Sergi Roberto, Iniesta, Fabregas, Tello, Alexis, Villa.
Possible starting XIs:
Alavés: Miguel; Javi Hernandez, Luciano, Manu Garcia, Oscar Rubio, Jaume Delgado, Beobide, Jonan Garcia, Barahona, Guzman, Viguera.
Barça: Pinto; Montoya, Bartrá, Mascherano, Adriano; Dos Santos, Song, Iniesta; Tello, Fabregas, Alexis.
My prediction: Alavés 0 Barça 2
Date: Tuesday 30 October. Kick off: 10 pm