Tata Martino has named 18 players for tomorrow’s league match against Betis at the Benito Villamarin (Sunday 9 pm). Gerard Piqué continues to have problems with a groin strain and misses the trip to Seville while Martino has also decided to rest Sergio Busquets for the game.
The comfortable 3-1 over Milan on Wednesday night has not succeeded in reducing the debate about Barça’s style under Martino with Xavi Hernández deeming it necessary to defend the Argentinian coach yesterday by declaring: ‘Our philosophy is clear, to play attractive attacking football and to keep the ball. We must in no case think about changing the style. If we think in another way we’ll be making a mistake. With this style we have achieved many ,many things and we can’t think about changing it. We are very clear about this and we know very well what we are playing at. The philosophy is untouchable and non-negotiable and that is the message Tata gave us on the first day.’ However, Xavi went on to admit that the team is not at its best, ‘We accept the criticism because perhaps we are not at the level of previous years. We understand the expectations and we have set standards of excellence. Our intention is to return to that level but sometimes it is difficult’.
Xavi’s claims about attractive attacking football and possession are fair enough and we have seen some splendid football, particularly against Levante and Real Sociedad, already this season. The problem for some, perhaps, is that this season our football is not quite so gung-ho as before, and it is undeniable that in some moments of some games we have conceded space to the opposition in order to play a more direct counter-attacking game. The defence take fewer risks and it is difficult to imagine Martino’s Barça being involved in a game like last season’s 4-5 win at Deportivo under Tito Vilanova. The results, however, have been positive and we have begun the season with fourteen wins, four draws and no defeats in all competitions. The defence is looking more solid and in the last twelve games we have only conceded five goals while we have scored 29 at the other end in the same period.
This week the club took advantage of the strong position of the first team to announce the renovation of Andoni Zubizarreta as sporting director until 2016. Zubi came under a lot of criticism this summer mainly due to the failure to secure the signing of a central defender and for the manner of the departures of Eric Abidal, Thiago Alcántara and David Villa. I have had my doubts over Zubizarreta but I think he has generally done a good job. My main problem has always been the feeling that Zubi is not totally in charge and that Sandro Rosell is involving himself in sporting decision, as seems to have been the case in the signings of Adriano and Neymar. Having said that, a look at the signings made under Rosell and Zubi suggests they know what they are doing. Adriano, Mascherano, Alexis, Fabregas, Alba and Neymar should all be regarded as positive incorporations to the squad which leaves only the signings of Afellay and Song for possible criticism. Afellay only cost €3 million and has been very unlucky with injuries so perhaps criticism here would be unfair, while Song has provided useful cover for Busquets and this season is giving us another tactical option in midfield, though it was obviously a mistake to try and use him as a centre-back. I have no intention of putting down our previous sporting director, Txiki Begiristain, as he generally did an excellent job in his seven years in the position; however, if we remember that we bought flops such as Hleb, Caceres and Chygrynskiy in that time we might consider that the present regime is doing a very good job.
With Piqué out for tomorrow’s game Martino seems likely to play the Marc Bartra-Carles Puyol pairing again which would also mean a rest for Mascherano. Alex Song will no doubt replace Busquets while it seems very likely that either Xavi or Iniesta will start on the bench to make room for Fabregas. The ex-Arsenal man is in the unenviable position of competing with Xavi, Iniesta and Messi for a place in the team but he has arguably been Barça’s most in-form player this season along with Victor Valdés and Busquets, It’s a tough call for Martino, but surely Xavi and Iniesta would benefit by playing fewer minutes while the addition of Fabregas seems to make us more dynamic going forward. Pedro also looks in line for a start which could see Alexis relegated tomorrow to the role of substitute.
Opponents Betis have started the season dreadfully. Having finished seventh last season Pepe Mel’s men have managed only nine points so far in this campaign which leaves them perilously in 19th place in the table. However, eight of those points came at the Benito Villamarin and Betis have only lost twice and only conceded five goals in eight home games in La Liga and the Europa League this season which suggests things won’t be so easy for Barça. Mel’s teams always play a high press and his valiant tactics against Barça usually make for some great games.
If Barça can control Betis’s initial rush then we could be on for a big win. However, games at Betis usually turn out to be close affairs as was the case last season when Barça narrowly won 1-2. The most important thing tomorrow is another victory which with closest rivals Atlético Madrid playing at 4th-placed Villarreal could give us the chance to increase our one-point lead at the top of La Liga going into the next international break.
Barça’s 18-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Montoya, Bartra, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano, Song, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Fabregas, Iniesta, Pedro, Alexis, Messi, Neymar, Tello.
Betis: Andersen; Chica, Amaya, Perquis, Nacho; Xavi Torres, Nono; Juan Carlos, Verdú, Vadillo; Molina.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Bartra, Puyol, Adriano; Xavi, Song, Fabregas; Pedro, Messi, Neymar.
Prediction: Betis 1 Barça 3
Date: Sunday 10th November 2013. Kick off 9 pm local time.