Week 22 could turn out to be crucial in the battle for the 2013/14 Liga with just one point separating the top three teams. Barça take on Valencia at Camp Nou on Saturday afternoon (4 pm) while on Sunday Atlético Madrid play host to Real Sociedad at 7 pm followed two hours later by Real Madrid’s tough game against Athletic Club at the new San Mames.
Tata Martino has recalled Dani Alves, Xavi Hernández and Sergio Busquets for his 18-man list but there is no place for Carles Puyol, Martin Montoya, Ibrahim Afellay or Isaac Cuenca while Neymar Jr, Johnathan dos Santos and Oier Olazábal continue on the injured list. For tomorrow’s game Martino could decide to rest Cesc Fabregas who after Gerard Pique is the player with has played most this season with 2301 minutes accumulated. This could mean we see a starting XI of Valdés, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Alexis, Messi and Pedro though Martino may also choose to play Tello in place of Alexis as the Chilean has also played more minutes than most (2110) and he appeared for 78 minutes in the 5-1 win over Levante in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday.
After 35 games in all competitions the balance so far is very good for Martino’s Barça. With 27 victories the percentage of games won (77.14%) is an improvement on last season’s figure of 71.66%, and this season Barça have lost only twice compared to the total of eight defeats from 60 games in 2012/13. The team is averaging 2.74 goals a game compared to 2.63 under Tito Vilanova while the defence has only conceded 22 in 35 games (0.63 a game) compared to 70 conceded in 60 (1.17 a game) last season. It is also positive to see the goalscoring being shared more though 71 of the 96 goals scored have come from five players, Messi 18, Pedro 16, Alexis 14, Fabregas 12 and Neymar 11.
Tomorrow’s opponents Valencia are having a disappointing season by their standards. Coach Miroslav Djukic was sacked in mid-December to be replaced by ex-Barça striker Juan Antonio Pizzi. However, following a 2-0 win over Levante in Pizzi’s first game in charge Valencia have only managed three draws and two defeats since. The Argentinian coach has reacted with a dressing-room clear-out with Guardado and summer signings Pabon and Postiga loaned out this week with Canales and Banega reportedly next in line to be shipped out. Pizzi has brought in Seydou Keita, back in Spain after a year and a half with Dalian Aerbin in China, but unfortunately the Malian midfielder will not be in condition for a return to Camp Nou tomorrow.
Valencia are currently only in 10th position in La Liga on 25 points and their away form is poor with just two wins and two draws from ten games. Earlier in the season Barça won a close game (2-3) at Mestalla and on Valencia’s last visit to Camp Nou in September 2012 a strike from Adriano Correia earned Barça a narrow 1-0 win.
Barça’s 18-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Piqué, Bartra, Mascherano, Adriano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Iniesta, Fabregas, Alexis, Pedro, Messi, Tello.
Valencia’s 19-man squad: Diego Alves, Guaita, Barragán, Ricardo Costa, Vezo, Mathieu, Bernat, Oriol Romeu, Javi Fuego, Portu, Parejo, Míchel, Ibáñez, Fede, Piatti, Feghouli, Vargas, Jonas, Alcácer.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Pedro.
Valencia: Diego Alves; Barragán, Ricardo Costa, Mathieu, Bernat; Parejo, Oriol Romeu; Javi Fuego, Feghouli, Piatti; Alcácer.
Prediction: Barça 3 Valencia 1
Date: Saturday 1 February 2014. Kick-off 4 pm local time.