Tata Martino’s Barça can beat the club’s previous best ever league start with a victory over Almeria tomorrow at the Estadio Mediterráneo (Saturday 6 pm). Barça have managed six out of six wins at the start of the season four times now but on the three previous occasions, in 1997 under Louis van Gaal, in 2009 under Pep Guardiola and in 2012 with Tito Vilanova in charge, the team failed to win the seventh game. The good news is that in each of those seasons Barça went on to be league champions.
The seventh win for Martino’s team might not seem too difficult if we remember Barça’s last game at the Mediterráneo, a 0-8 thrashing thrashing in November 2010 which equalled Barça biggest ever away win in La Liga. However, Barça’s record in Almeria is not flawless, in six matches between the clubs Barça have only managed three wins, while the other three games ended in draws. Just seven months before the 0-8 game, Barça suffered a lot to draw 2-2 in a match that saw Zlatan Ibrahimovic sent off in the 60th minute when Almeria were winning 2-1.
Curiously, the referee for that 0-8 victory was none other than Cesar Muñiz Fernandez who has been very much in the spotlight this week in Spain after awarding an injury time penalty to Real Madrid which allowed a narrow win at Elche. With so many comments on the subject, including Sandro Rosell’s ‘I still can’t believe it’, I’d just like to add my tuppence worth. Muñiz was recently in charge of Barça’s game against Sevilla and he gave two poor decisions. First he failed to show M’bai a second yellow card and later he disallowed a goal from Juan Cala. One mistake favoured Sevilla while the other favoured Barça, my conclusion is that Muñiz may not be the best referee but I don’t believe he is in any way corrupt. If Madrid had been winning 0-3 then nobody would have given a dodgy penalty a second thought, the problem for Muñiz is that he made the wrong decision in the wrong moment. It happens. It was a poor decision and lousy luck for Elche, but it’s time to move on. The standard of refereeing in Spain is not great but this could well be due to pressure they are under, caused by the ridiculous level of press coverage given to judging their performances.
Back to tomorrow’s game. Almeria return to the top flight this season after two seasons in the second division, but after six games they are still without a win. Draws against Getafe, Elche and Levante have earned then three points which sees them positioned perilously just above the relegation zone. Coach Francisco Rodriguez has generally kept faith with the same XI with the only changes being for the full-back positions. Almeria’s six games have seen plenty of goals with the Andalucians scoring ten while conceding fourteen. Their top scorer is striker Rodri Rios Lozano who is currently on loan from Barça. Rodri scored 8 goals in 35 appearances for Barça B in the 2011/12 season and since then he has had disappointing loan spells at Sheffield Wednesday and Zaragoza. His four goals so far this season for Almeria suggest he is fitting in well.
Tata Martino is likely to make rotations again to the Barça XI though his options in defence are beginning to look pretty limited. Javier Mascherano has joined Jordi Alba on the injury list, and from Martino’s comments in today’s press conference it seems likely we will have to wait until after the coming international break to see the return to the team of Carles Puyol. This is a big chance for Marc Bartrá to prove the critics wrong, though even if he does fulfil his potential to become the solid fourth choice central defender that we need, with the injury-prone defenders in our squad we may still find ourselves caught out at the back over the season. There are no such problems going forward. Cesc Fabregas should return to midfield to give either Iniesta or Xavi another rest, while it might be prudent to bench Neymar tomorrow as he hasn’t had a rest for a while, which would give another chance to the Pedro-Messi-Alexis front line that started the season so well against Levante.
In other news this week Iniesta declared his desire to finish his playing career at Barça. Iniesta has still not signed a new contract and there has been some concern that he could follow his friend Victor Valdes’s decision and not renew his contract. Hopefully the conditions of the new contract will be agreed on soon so we can relax in the knowledge of enjoying Don Andres for a good few seasons more. Finally, this morning saw the court appearance of Leo Messi, along with his father Jorge in Gava. Messi gave a statement insisting he knew nothing of tax questions and image rights while his father took full responsibility for these matters. There may be a hefty fine still for the Messis to pay but at least we can be assured that there is no possibility of Messi getting locked up.
Barça’s 19-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Montoya, Piqué, Bartrá, Adriano, Song, Busquets, Xavi, Dos Santos, Sergi Roberto, Iniesta, Fabregas, Pedro, Alexis, Messi, Neymar, Tello.
Almeria; Esteban; Nelson, Pellerano, Trujillo, Dubarbier; Tebar, Verza; Vidal, Fernando Soriano, Suso; Rodri.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Bartrá, Piqué, Adriano; Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Alexis.
Prediction: Almeria 1 Barça 4
Date: Saturday 28/09/2013. Kick off 6 pm local time