There are no surprises in Tata Martino’s 18-man squad that will make the trip to Seville for tomorrow night’s clash between Sevilla and Barça in the 23rd game of La Liga 2013/14 (Sunday 9 pm). Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba both miss the game through suspension, Neymar Jr, Johnathan dos Santos and Oier are still out injured while Martino has again decided to leave Ibrahim Afellay and Isaac Cuenca off the list.
For the first time since May 2012 the top spot in the league is not occupied by Barça and the players face a big test of character now to show they still have a burning desire for more success. In my article last May How can Barça improve next season? I discussed the need to sign an inspirational player who could “bring out the best in those around him”. With Puyol playing rarely, Barça seem to be lacking a player with leadership qualities. There is not a problem with the mentality of anyone in particular from the current group of players, it just seems sometimes that to maintain the highest levels of intensity required by our style of play we would benefit from a player with a special character who could stir up his team-mates in difficult moments.
Given the position at the top of the table a victory for Barça tomorrow is essential, but as Martino said in this lunchtime’s press conference the game is one of the toughest remaining away games of the season. In a total of 69 league meetings between the clubs in Seville Barça have won only 21 times with 19 draws and 29 defeats, however, things have improved in recent seasons with 4 wins and two draws since our last defeat in March 2007 when Ronaldinho scored but then missed a penalty and a 23-year-old right-back called Daniel Alves netted Sevilla’s winner. In the corresponding fixture last season Sevilla led 2-0 before Cesc Fabregas inspired a very late Barça comeback to win 2-3.
Sevilla’s coach Unai Emery still has the record of never beating Barça despite causing us problems with his different teams. Tomorrow he is without the suspended Coke while he still has to make do without Stephane Mbia who was injured against Elche four weeks ago. Without the Cameroonian midfielder Sevilla have taken just one point from the last three games and although they are still in 7th place on 31 points, they are in danger of missing out on a place in Europe next season. Sevilla have few problems scoring, having netted 41 goals in 22 league games with midfielder Ivan Rakitic and striker Carlos Bacca both with 10 goal each, but their defence has been pretty leaky, conceding 37 times in those games. Last week Emery experimented with a defence of five though the plan backfired with a 3-2 loss at Malaga so tomorrow we’ll probably see Sevilla back in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
For Martino, one of the most pressing dilemmas is how to give more minutes to Andrés Iniesta who has found himself relegated to the substitutes bench. With Fabregas, arguably the most in-form player in the team, now employed in midfield since Leo Messi’s return to the team, and Alexis and Pedro also doing plenty to deserve a place in the team, Iniesta, as may happen with Neymar when he recovers from injury, is going to have a fight to get his place back. An alternative would be leave out Xavi and play both Fabregas and Iniesta in midfield; we might lose a bit of balance but Xavi has not been at his best this season and his performance would surely benefit from resting a bit more.
Marc Bartra and Adriano Correia look most likely to come in for the suspended Mascherano and Alba so Martino could go for a starting line-up of Valdés, Alves, Bartra, Piqué, Adriano, Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta, Alexis, Messi and Pedro. The three points are vital to stay firmly in the title race: it’s not going to be easy but I’m backing a narrow win for Barça.
Sevilla’s 18-man squad list: Beto, Javi Varas, Diogo, Fazio, Pareja, Navarro, Alberto Moreno, Carriço, Iborra, Cristoforo, Rakitic, Trochowski, Vitolo, Jairo, Cherichev, Reyes, Gameiro, Bacca.
Barça’s 18-man squad list: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Montoya, Bartra, Piqué, Puyol, Adriano, Busquets, Song, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Iniesta, Fabregas, Alexis, Pedro, Messi, Tello.
Sevilla: Beto; Diogo, Fazio, Pareja, F. Navarro; Iborra, Carriço; Vitolo, Rakitic, Alberto Moreno; Bacca.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Bartra, Piqué, Adriano; Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Pedro.
Prediction: Sevilla 1 Barça 2
Date: Sunday 9 February 2014. Kick-off 9 pm local time.