The quest for the 2013/14 Copa del Rey begins for Barça tomorrow night with a first leg game of the last 32 round at Cartagena (Friday 10 pm). Xavi Hernández (calf) and Andrés Iniesta (hamstring) join Leo Messi, Dani Alves and Cristian Tello on the injured list but Jordi Alba returns after nearly three months on the sidelines with two different muscular injuries. Tata Martino has given a rest to Gerard Piqué but has named a strong 17-man squad for the trip made up of 15 first-team players with just forwards Jean-Marie Dongou and Adama Traoré added from Barça B.
Barça will be keen to get back on the winning track after two consecutive defeats at Ajax and Athletic Club. Those defeats have led to a growing debate about the possibility of buying somebody in the winter transfer window with a centre-back as the priority. The news that Carles Puyol needed to have liquid removed from his knee on Monday is an obvious sign that all is not right with our 35-year-old captain. He may be fine to play tomorrow but there is increasing concern that he could get injured again at any time. Marc Bartra has done a fine job when used this season but with only Piqué and Javier Mascherano, who have both been suffering dips in form recently, as the other centre backs, the need for a more cover is fairly obvious.
I am no big fan of signing in winter but this may well be an exception. The number one target seems to be Chelsea’s David Luiz who we already tried to buy in the summer. José Mourinho didn’t want to do business then but he may decide to cash in on the Brazilian who he hasn’t played since Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat at Newcastle on November 2. The 26-year-old Luiz would be the most expensive option and there are doubts over his consistency, however, he would certainly add a bit of character to the team which seems to be lacking at times. Other options include Santiago Vergini, who was already mentioned as one of Martino’s favourites in the summer, and the 20-year-old Columbian Eder Balanta who currently plays for River Plate. I know practically nothing about these last two but obviously Martino knows the Argentine league well and they would both be considerably cheaper than Luiz. It will be interesting to see if Zubizarreta goes with Martino’s preferences or not.
There are arguments in favour of promoting from Barça B but it is a risky business with developing players. The most likely central defender to be called on would probably be Sergi Gomez though it may soon be Frank Bagnack. The fact that Martino has not included either player for tomorrow’s cup game suggests he is thinking of other reinforcements.
There is little I can tell you about Cartagena. They play in Group 4 of the Segunda División B and they are currently in third place in that league. They have a very strong record at their home the Estadio Cartagonova where they have won seven of their eight games this season. Their coach is the ex-Sevilla forward Luis Tevenet and their top scorer is Fernando Rodriguez with nine league goals. Barça will also need to watch out for centre-back Carlos David who scored twice in Cartagena’s 3-1 win over San Fernando last weekend.
Barça haven’t gone out at this stage of the Copa del Rey since 2004 when Gramanet scored an injury-time winner to win 1-0 against a team including the young Leo Messi at a time when the ties at this stage of the tournament were decided over 90 minutes. Now of course the ties are over two games which makes things a lot easier for the big teams. However, let’s not forget it’s only four years ago since Alcorcon knocked out Real Madrid with a humiliating 4-0 scoreline in the first game, and the same thing could happen to us if we don’t approach tomorrow’s game with the correct attitude. Barça failed to match the intensity set by Ajax and Athletic, and while Cartagena may not be in the same league as those two famous clubs, they will surely be up for a battle in front of their home fans and we will need to be up for the challenge.
Barça’s 17-man squad: Pinto, Oier, Montoya, Bartra, Mascherano, Puyol, Adriano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Sergi Roberto, Fabregas, Pedro, Alexis, Dongou, Neymar, Adama.
Possible starting XIs:
Cartagena: Savu; Mariano Sanchez, Astrian, Carlos David, Dani Ruiz; Segura, Marcos Rodriguez; Riau, Antoñito, Megias; Fernando.
Barça: Pinto; Adriano, Bartra, Puyol, Alba; Sergi Roberto, Song, Fabregas; Pedro, Dongou, Alexis.
Prediction: Cartagena 1 Barça 2
Date: Friday 6 December 2013. Kick-off 10 pm.