La Liga resumes for Barça tomorrow night with the visit of Espanyol to Camp Nou. After the Christmas break there could be few better ways to begin 2013 than with a local derby, and Jordi Roura confirmed in today’s lunchtime press conference that Tito Vilanova feels strong enough to be able to direct the team from the bench. Cesc Fabregas, Adriano Correira and Alex Song have all received medical clearance to play after their respective injuries while Victor Valdés has recovered from his foot problem that caused him to miss Catalunya’s 1-1 draw with Nigeria on Wednesday while Carles Puyol and Marc Bartrá have got over the knocks taken in that game.
With a lead of nine points over second placed Atlético and sixteen points over third placed Madrid, Barça are in a commanding position to start the year. With the way the team has been knocking out victories it is easy to say that the league is already over. It remains to be seen whether Atlético can continue their impressive start to the season or whether Madrid can overcome the internal division and put in a run of wins. However, with 63 points still in play it is important that the players don’t get over-confident. As things stand today we still need 55 of those points to be mathematically sure of the title.
It is worth remembering that in Pep Guardiola’s first season as coach Espanyol were bottom of the table when they came to Camp Nou and Ivan de La Peña scored twice in a 1-2 win for our rivals. This defeat came a week after a 2-2 draw at Betis and a week before we lost 4-3 in a crazy match at Atlético. In just three games we saw a lead of twelve points at the top of the table reduced to four, which while we went on to lift the title that season, demonstrates how easily things can change if we don’t remain focused.
We will have to be very careful against Espanyol tomorrow. Since Javier Aguirre took over from Mauricio Pochettino at the end of November our rivals have recovered somewhat from the poor start to the season with a four-game unbeaten run including a 2-2 draw at the Bernabéu, moving them up from bottom of the table to 18th place. Aguirre has recovered less-favoured players under Pochettino such as ex-blaugrana Simao Sabrosa and the team spirit seems to have improved.
Simao was signed by Barça after traidor numero uno Luís F*go was lured by Florentino’s gold, and like Geovanni and Quaresma who came after, he struggled to fill the role. Perhaps we should keep this in mind with the current rumours of possible offers for David Villa and question marks over Alexis’s capabilities. When things aren’t going well for a player it is easy to look for a quick solution: sell the player and buy the latest rising star. We shouldn’t forget that fitting in at Barça is no simple matter. Personally, I wouldn’t sell Villa even if the supposed offer of €15 million were considerably improved. The situation would be different of course if Villa were to put in a transfer request but there seems little chance of this while his wife is due to give birth to their third child in February.
With Adriano and Fabregas returning from injury it may be prudent to start them both on the bench for tomorrow’s game. This would give Alves and Alexis another chance after they both did reasonably well in the 1-3 win at Valladolid before Christmas. The only changes to the team that won at the José Zorrilla stadium are likely to be the return of Puyol in place of Mascherano at the back while Iniesta should replace Thiago in midfield. It is difficult to know how the players may be affected by the Christmas break, our first league game of 2012 was also against Espanyol and we only managed a 1-1 draw, though the game was at Espanyol’s Cornellá-El Prat stadium. Tomorrow I’m hoping for something more like the 4-0 victory in the last home game of the 2011/12 season when Leo Messi scored twice to reach 50 league goals for the season. Messi’s goalscoring achievements in 2012 demolished previous expectations: how will he begin 2013?
Possible starting lineups:
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Alexis.
Espanyol: Casilla; Javi Lopez, Colotto, Hector Moreno, Capdevila; Forlin, Victor Sanchez; Simao, Verdu, Cristian Alfonso; Sergio Garcia.
Prediction: Barça 3 Espanyol 0
Date: Sunday 6 January 2013. Kick off: 7 pm local time.