Following the international break Barça are back in action with a trip to Pamplona for a league match with Osasuna at El Sadar tomorrow night (Saturday 8 pm). The big news is that after more than seven months on the sidelines captain Carles Puyol has received medical clearance and he has been included in Tata Martino’s 18-man squad for tomorrow’s game. Leo Messi and Javier Mascherano have also both recovered from their respective injuries while Isaac Cuenca has also been cleared to play though he’s not been included for the trip.
Puyol has missed 27 games since he last appeared in Barça’s 4-0 win over AC Milan on March 12. Since then he has received arthroscopy for articular cleansing of his right knee and surgery to remove a Baker’s cyst. His recuperation has been taken carefully and his return is a little later than initially expected but he has been working hard to regain peak fitness and reportedly looked very good in last week’s training match friendly against Sant Andreu.
Unfortunately, in the same training game, Jordi Alba, who was also on the way back from injury, suffered a new injury to the back of his left thigh which will see him out for another five weeks or so. Adriano is of course the main cover for Alba and there can’t be many complaints about the Brazilian’s performances, however, given Adriano’s past continuous bad luck with injuries it is good to know that, if needed, Puyol can offer another solid option for the left back position.
Tomorrow’s game could very easily be described as un partido trampa, a trap match as the Spanish say for a game with possible pitfalls. It might look simple if we consider that Osasuna are 18th in La Liga and Javi Gracia’s men have already lost three of their four home games this season against Granada, Villarreal and Levante, and they have four players, Cejudo, Nino, Raoul Loe and Armenteros out tomorrow. However, given that Messi, Mascherano and Puyol are just back from injury, many others have been on international duty and, perhaps most importantly, Barça face big games with Milan and Real Madrid next week, it could turn into a complicated fixture. It is difficult to forget the game two seasons ago when just before a Champions League last 16 match at Bayer Leverkusen Pep Guardiola rested Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas to start with a midfield three of Thiago, Mascherano and Sergi Roberto. The pitch was frozen that day and made a dreadful playing surface and Guardiola’s risk did not pay off as Osasuna ran out 3-2 winners.
The desire to have players fresh for Milan and Madrid is obvious, but Martino will have to find the right balance tomorrow. His rotations all season have made sense and this weekend he has given a rest to Piqué, who has a slight groin strain, Dani Alves and Alexis. One senses that Martino will probably be prudent and start Puyol and Messi on the bench and it won’t be too surprising if he also decides to rest Xavi or Busquets. There are plenty of alternatives but we could see a starting XI of Valdes, Montoya, Bartra, Mascherano, Adriano, Fabregas, Song, Iniesta, Pedro, Neymar and Tello. It may not be a full strength line-up but it should be enough to see off Osasuna and extend Barça’s winning streak since the start of La Liga to nine games. A victory will see Barça equal the best ever start to a Spanish league season set by Real Madrid in 1968 and would also set up the delicious prospect of beating that record in next week’s Clásico at Camp Nou. However, we shouldn’t forget that Atlético Madrid are also on course for the record.
Before I sign off, I’d just like to share a thought on Victor Valdés and the Spanish selección. Valdés has played nineteen times for La Roja and fourteen of those games have been in friendlies. Of his five official games, the first was against Scotland when Spain had already qualified for the 2012 Eurocopa, the second and third were when Iker Casillas was out injured in the spring, and the fourth was the third group game of this summer’s Confederations Cup when Spain were practically qualified. Only in the fifth, last Friday’s win over Belarus, was the Barça keeper chosen over Casillas in an important game, giving rise to the possibility that Vicente Del Bosque had finally seen sense and decided Valdés was his number one. Given Valdés’s excellent form and Casillas’s uncertain position at Madrid such a decision would seem perfectly justified, but then on Tuesday against Georgia Del Bosque had Casillas back between the posts. There’s still a long time before next summer’s World Cup in Brazil and it’s understandable that Del Bosque wants to encourage Casillas to get back to his best form by trying to support him now. However, if the World Cup were starting tomorrow then surely – if there’s any justice – Valdés would get the job.
Finally, in case you haven’t already seen it, check out Michael Cox’s excellent analysis at Zonal Marking of Martino’s Barça this season. There are interesting comparisons of possession, pressing and the role of Busquets, and our lack of strength in the air. Probably the only thing I disagree with is Michael’s assessment that ‘Alexis continues to frustrate’, I’d say the Chilean has been improving throughout the year and although it’s a very fine line between him and Pedro I’d say Alexis just has the edge at the moment.
Barça’s 18-man squad vs Osasuna: Valdés, Pinto, Montoya, Bartra, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano, Busquets, Song, Dos Santos, Sergi Roberto, Xavi, Fabregas, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Neymar, Tello.
Osasuna: Andrés Fernández; Marc Bertrán, Loties, Arribas, Damiá; Lolo, Silva, Sisi, Roberto Torres, De las Cuevas; Oriol Riera.
Barça: Valdés; Montoya, Bartra, Mascherano, Adriano; Fabregas, Song, Iniesta; Pedro, Neymar, Tello.
Prediction: Osasuna 1 Barça 3.
Date: Saturday 19 October 2013. Kick off 8 pm local time.