Barça take on Ajax at the Amsterdam Arena tomorrow evening, needing just one more point to secure top spot in Champions League Group H. Tata Martino has named a 19-man squad for the trip which includes four youngsters from Barça B who have been called up to cover for the large number of unavailable players.
When Barça beat Ajax 4-0 back in September the healthy size of the victory was largely due to the brilliance of Leo Messi who scored a hat-trick and Victor Valdés who made four or five good stops including a penalty save to deny Kolbein Sigthorsson. Barça have to make do without both players until 2014 and Martino’s problems in team selection for tomorrow’s game have been added to by Adriano’s ankle injury and Alexis’s suspension. The good news is that Xavi Hernández returns after missing Saturday’s 4-0 win over Granada but with only fifteen first-team players in condition Martino has called up defenders Patric Gabarrón and Sergi Gomez from Barça B along with forwards Adama Traoré and Jean-Marie Dongou who were both in the squad against Granada with Adama impressing in a ten-minute debut.
Barça’s main weakness at the moment is for the full-back positions with Dani Alves, Jordi Alba and Adriano all out. Martin Montoya will continue to deputise for Alves while it seems likely that Carles Puyol will take the left-back role. Martino also needs to form an attack with no Messi, Alexis or Cristian Tello but with Xavi likely to return to midfield Fabregas will probably get the false nine role with Pedro and Neymar on the wings.
Ajax coach Frank de Boer also has problems with Siem de Jong and Sigthorsson both unlikely to recover for tomorrow’s game after missing Saturday’s 3-0 win over Heracles. However, Ajax have improved since we faced them in September and have moved up to second place in the Eredivisie just two points behind leaders Vitesse. They still have a slim chance of qualifying for the Champions League last 16 and they have an unbeaten home record in the competition this season after drawing 1-1 with AC Milan and beating Celtic 1-0.
Given that we have already qualified for the last 16 and that we have another game against Celtic to secure the point needed for top spot, Martino could decide to use tomorrow’s match to experiment. Alex Song could be used in a more advanced midfield role but personally I’d like to see Sergi Roberto given a start to build on the good performance as substitute on Saturday. Roberto needs minutes to develop and if he doesn’t get enough chances then we could see him going the same way as Thiago Alcántara and taking an offer from a big foreign league. However, with Xavi back it seems likely Martino will play it safe and play our classic Xavi-Busquets-Iniesta midfield.
Since Barça drew 1-1 in Milan five weeks ago we have won six straight victories while scoring seventeen and only conceding three. The unbeaten start to the season could go on and on, but tomorrow’s game will not be easy given the number of absentees.
Barça’s 19-man squad: Pinto, Oier, Montoya, Patric, Sergi Gomez, Bartra, Piqué, Mascherano, Puyol, Busquets, Song, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Iniesta, Fabregas, Pedro, Dongou, Adama, Neymar.
Ajax: Cillessen; Van Rhijn, Veltman, Moisander, Boilesen; Serero, Blind, Duarte; Schone, Hoesen, Fischer.
Barça: Pinto; Montoya, Bartra, Piqué, Puyol; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Fabregas, Neymar.
Prediction: Ajax 1 Barça 3
Date: Tuesday 26 November 2013. Kick-off 8.45 pm local time.