Following Tuesday’s Copa del Rey elimination Barça have a quick chance for revenge over Real Madrid when the two sides meet for another clásico tomorrow afternoon at the Santiago Bernabéu in the 26th week of La Liga season. The game has been brought forward to the unusual kick off time of 4 pm to allow Madrid more time to prepare their crucial Champions League return match with Manchester United on Tuesday. One can’t help wondering why the LFP has never made such favours to Barça before a Champions League match.
A lot has been said since Tuesday about Barça’s problems and the necessary changes we need to make before facing Milan on March 12. I’m not one for making sweeping changes as I have a total belief in the system and footballing philosophy of the club, and unfortunately the change we most need, getting Vilanova back to full health and back to Barcelona, is something we will just have to pray and wait for.
For me the biggest problem against Madrid was that we failed to match their intensity. Our pressing game was below par while individual errors suggest that concentration was not always at the highest level. This may be due to a number of factors such as our usual dip in physical condition around February, a lack of hunger caused by so much success combined with undoubted loss of Pep Guardiola’s methods of motivation, or the fact that we played three games in seven days and failed to rest Messi, Iniesta, Piqué and Alves against Sevilla. Belief suffered a blow in Milan and the players certainly didn’t help themselves psychologically on Tuesday by sharing the not-uncommon belief that Undiano Mallenco is out to get us.
It’s possible, but I don’t think things would have been very different if we had started with a different XI. We’ll never know how things might have developed had David Villa or Cristian Tello started up front to offer more depth and penetration and, given the chance, more decisiveness in front of goal, but let’s be honest, nothing really changed when they did come on. I don’t coincide with those who say Fabregas and Iniesta can’t play together in their current roles, they have usually shown a very good understanding on the left side and their combinations with Jordi Alba have been key to this season’s team. The problem here has more to do with the sudden drop in form of Fabregas but that brings me to another matter.
Over the two big recent games the players who disappointed me most were Puyol, Fabregas and Xavi. In the case of Puyol I put his mistake in Milan’s second goal down to the whack on the head he took from Pazzini ten minutes before, and the lack of a strong enough coach to substitute him off. Yesterday, El Mundo Deportivo reported that both Xavi and Fabregas have been carrying injuries and that both received pain-killing injections before the game against Madrid. In Xavi’s case he has now suffered a relapse and will be out for ten to fifteen days. One has to wonder about the wisdom of playing of player under these conditions. He may not feel any pain but in his head he is conscious that he is not at 100% and unless he is very strong willed this is bound to affect his game. I know there are times when it pays off (you might recall Iniesta’s brilliant display in Rome 2009 as an example, though the player suffered the effects through much of the 2009/10 season) but having seen Xavi and Cesc’s poor performance in Milan surely it would have made more sense to field 100% fit players against Madrid.
This brings me back to: who is making the decisions? Tito? Roura? The players? And how are they being made? One wonders whether Vilanova would have played Xavi, for example, if he had had the close daily contact to see his exact condition. Xavi would not voluntarily want to duck out of the big game so would understandably say to Roura that he was ready to play, and it’s quite possible that Roura doesn’t feel he has the authority to over-rule the player. I’m only guessing at the scenario and we’ll probably never know the exact details of how Roura and Vilanova confer, but it seems to me there is a problem with the decision making process which could only be changed by some sort of declaration giving Roura total authority to make decisions. He may not be the best man for the temporary position but he’s in the position now and the team needs a leader. Vilanova has enough on his hands with his own personal battle and his recovery is far more important than anything else. I don’t know, perhaps the work is good for him, but I can’t help feeling he should be saving all his strength to beat his illness.
For tomorrow’s game Barça have named a 19-man squad with Alexis returning in place of Xavi, and no place for Montoya, Abidal or Dos Santos. There are bound to be some more changes than just Xavi missing out and Valdés returning in place of Pinto, with Mascherano, Adriano, Song, Thiago, Tello, Alexis and Villa all hoping for a chance to fight for a more regular place in the team.
Madrid may be crowing now, it wasn’t 5-0 or 2-6 but it was the first time they have beaten us comfortably since May 2008. However, their joy has been somewhat dampened by the news this week that Karim Benzema will face speeding charges after being caught driving at the dickhead speed of 216 km/h. There are rumours that another Madrid player was driving at 260 km/h but the speed camera didn’t work correctly so the unnamed lunatic cannot be prosecuted. Pressure is being put on Madrid to name the guilty party.
For tomorrow’s game Mourinho will no doubt make several changes to reserve players for Old Trafford. Di Maria is suspended while according to Marca the others most likely to rest are Varane, Alonso, Özil and Higuaín.
Barça’s 19-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Adriano, Bartra, Piqué, Puyol, Mascherano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Thiago, Fabregas, Iniesta, Pedro, Alexis, Messi, Villa, Tello.
Madrid: Diego López; Arbeloa, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Coentrao; Essien, Khedira; Callejón, Kaká, C.Ronaldo; Benzema.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Thiago, Busquets, Iniesta; Tello, Messi, Villa.
Prediction: Madrid 1 Barça 2
Date: Saturday 2 March 2013. Kick off 4 pm local time.