The inclusion of Jean Marie Dongou and Adama Traoré in Tata Martino’s 18-man squad has added some spice to tomorrow’s return to league action against Granada at Camp Nou (Saturday 4 pm). Martino has called up the youngsters due to the growing injury list with Leo Messi, Victor Valdés, Jordi Alba, Dani Alves, Xavi Hernández and Cristian Tello all unavailable.
The 18-year-old Dongou is already well known to fans after appearing regularly for Barça B last season and then scoring three goals with the first team during the preseason. He has already scored seven goals for the B-team this season and his reappearance after injury was crucial to Eusebio’s team’s return to winning ways in last week’s 1-2 win at Girona. Adama’s inclusion comes as more of a surprise. The 17-year-was very impressive last season with the Juvenil A team but he has only made four appearances for Barça B this season. However, he was said to give Carles Puyol a lot of problems when training with the first team last month and Tata Martino obviously sees him as the next in line after Tello to give us some pace on the wing.
While it is exciting to see these youngsters getting an opportunity, Martino’s decision could be seen as an indication to Isaac Cuenca that he is not included the coach’s plans. Martino claims that it is still premature to bring Cuenca back but it seems unlikely he will get much of a chance once Tello and then Messi are fit again. It’s a shame as Cuenca looked an excellent prospect when he got his first-team chance in Pep Guardiola’s final season but his poor luck with injuries seems to have left him out of the picture. A loan move is very much on the cards this winter with Valencia, Osasuna and Elche reported to have shown interest.
Barça’s current injury problems with such important players as Valdés and Messi out until the new year will undoubtedly put a strain on the squad. However, if we have to lose these players for six weeks then surely it is better now than in the spring. With the classification for the Champions League last 16 assured and a three-point advantage over Atlético and a six-point advantage over Madrid in La Liga, a draw here or there might not prove too costly in the long run.
Nevertheless, the threat from Atlético and Madrid should not be underestimated and we should still be looking for full points in our remaining league games before Christmas. A quick look at the games that Messi and Valdés will miss might suggest this won’t be too difficult but all the teams we have to play are currently in the top eight in La Liga. The trips to play Athletic Club and Getafe could be very complicated while Villarreal have often given us headaches at Camp Nou.
First we have tomorrow’s game with Granada in the knowledge that the only points we have lost this season were after the previous international break when we drew 0-0 at Osasuna. Last season Granada proved to be more difficult opponents than expected, holding out until the 87th minute when Xavi broke the deadlock and then an injury-time own goal gave Barça a nervous 2-0 win.
It is likely to be difficult again to break Granada down. The Andalusians have conceded only five goals in their six away games this season and their record of three wins, two draws and only one defeat is the fourth best away record in La Liga. Coach Lucas Alcaraz has done a good job since taking over at Granada in January and after surviving the relegation battle last season he has taken the team to 8th place this season. The player to watch will be the dangerous French striker Youssef El-Arabi who notched a hat-trick before the international break in Granada’s 3-1 win over Malaga.
Despite Barça’s injuries, Martino will still be able to put out a strong team. The main problems are at the back with both first-choice full-backs and Victor Valdés out. I used to worry more about the effects of an injury to Valdés but Pinto has improved with time and now offers a pretty solid option. The fact that Pinto is now 38 could at some point prove a problem as agility eventually goes and reflexes slow down, though as past masters such as Pat Jennings and Dino Zoff have demonstrated, goalkeepers can still perform at the top level at 40 so Pinto may still have a couple more seasons left in him. His performances in the coming weeks could be determining in Barça’s decision to buy one or two keepers next summer.
Gerard Piqué has recovered from his groin strain but he may be reserved which would mean a central defensive partnership made up of two from Marc Bartra, Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano, while Martin Montoya and Adriano Correia will replace the injured Dani Alves and Jordi Alba as full-backs. The midfield will probably be formed by Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas and Andrés Iniesta though there could be a chance for Alex Song or even Sergi Roberto, while up front we look likely to start with Alexis, Neymar and Pedro.
Given the unusual 4 pm kick off time it will be interesting to see the type of crowd that attends, with the likelihood that a lot of younger fans will turn up. However, the relatively low temperatures in Barcelona aren’t likely to help the attendance figures. Hopefully, the team won’t notice the absences of key players and will put on a good show to warm the public. And who knows? We could well get a chance to see Dongou or Adama become the first cantera player to debut with the first team under Tata Martino.
Barça’s 18-man squad: Pinto, Oier, Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano, Busquets, Song, Sergi Roberto, Fabregas, Iniesta, Alexis, Dongou, Neymar, Pedro, Adama.
Possible starting XIs:
Barça: Pinto; Montoya, Bartra, Mascherano, Adriano; Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Neymar, Pedro.
Granada: Roberto; Nyom, Diakhaté, Murillo, Angulo; Recio, Iturra, Francisco Rico; Buonanotte, El-Arabi, Pereira.
Prediction: Barça 2 Granada 1
Date: Saturday 23 November 2013. Kick off 4 pm local time.