Barça face a very tough test tomorrow evening at Real Betis with the intention of maintaining the advantage at the top of La Liga over nearest rivals Atlético and Real Madrid. Leo Messi has been declared fit to travel for the game after training normally with his team mates this morning. Dani Alves, Alexis Sanchez and Marc Bartrá have also received medical clearance and Alves and Alexis have also been included in Tito Vilanova’s 19-man squad for the game.
The scare over Messi after his collision with Benfica’s goalkeeper on Wednesday night demonstrates that there is nothing inevitable in football. When Gerard Piqué sent Messi clean through on goal he seemed set to equal Gerd Müller’s record of 85 goals in a year. However, an injury could come at any time, and when Messi was being stretchered off there was the obvious concern that he might not play again this month, thus missing out on the record. Happily, it seems the football gods have protected him and he will now get another chance to find the net, though we would do well to remember that nothing is done until it’s done, whether we are 3-0 up with five minutes to go or with a ridiculous points advantage at the top of the league. An entire season can be affected by one stroke of fortune which is why it always seems wise just to take each game as it comes without paying too much attention to what are rivals do.
Having won seven away league games out of seven so far this season it is easy to see why that word ‘inevitable’ might again be used with respect to a victory at Betis. However, the Benito Villamarin has been a difficult stadium for us in recent years and we haven’t taken all three points there since September 2005 when Mark Van Bommel, Samuel Eto’o (2) and Santi Ezquerro scored in a 1-4 win.
The games with Betis have always been exciting affairs. Pepe Mel is one of the most attacking-minded coaches in La Liga and I’m sure tomorrow we will see an open, hard-fought and attractive game. This season Betis have risen to fourth place on 25 points though I think it’s fair to say they have had their ups and downs. Three weeks ago they looked awful in the Seville derby when they took a 5-1 caning from Sevilla. Mel reacted by leaving out a couple of defenders and since then they have reacted well, winning their last three games at home to Madrid (1-0) and Valladolid (3-0 in the Copa) and then last week they won 2-3 at Deportivo with two goals from the dangerous Ruben Castro.
During the first few games of the season Vilanova seemed fixed on the idea of playing two true forwards in the two wide attacking positions though recently he seems to have converted to the idea of playing Andres Iniesta on the left wing in order to accommodate Cesc Fabregas in midfield. Tomorrow, I think we will see the same with Iniesta accompanying Pedro and Messi in attack. Messi looks fine to start and as Vilanova said in today’s lunchtime press conference: “if there was the slightest risk with Messi he wouldn’t travel”. This will leave the midfield for Busquets, Xavi and Cesc while in defence I expect Piqué to partner Mascherano, given that Puyol played in the Champions League on Wednesday, while it could be either Alves or Adriano at right back with Jordi Alba on the left. The players are going to have to be completely focused if we are going to beat a very good Betis team. I’m going for a 1-2 scoreline.
Barça’s 19-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Xavi, Thiago, Fabregas, Iniesta, Pedro, Alexis, Messi, Villa, Tello.
Possible starting XIs:
Betis: Adrian; Chica, Amaya, Dorado, Nacho; Beñat, Cañas, Sevilla; Castro, Molina, Campbell.
Barça: Valdés; Adriano, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta.
Prediction: Betis 1 Barça 2
Date: Sunday 9 December 2012. Kick Off: 9 pm (local time)