There is no letting up. Four days after securing an excellent 0-2 first leg win over Manchester City in the Champions League, Barça travel to San Sebastian for an extremely tough game against Real Sociedad in round 25 of La Liga (Saturday 8 pm). Tata Martino’s men recently secured a place in the 2014 Copa del Rey final after a 3-1 semi-final aggregate win over the Basques, but the second leg 1-1 draw at Anoeta left Barça without a win in San Sebastian since 2007.
While on the subject of the Copa del Rey final I should mention that after yesterday’s meeting between Barça, Madrid and the Federación Española de Fútbol the game will be played at Mestalla on Wednesday 16 April at 9.30 pm. The decision will give the clubs more time to prepare for the Champions League semi-final should they qualify but unfortunately gives little thought to supporters who once again face a late midweek kick-off the night before a work day. Athletic Club’s visit to Camp Nou in round 34 of La Liga, which was originally scheduled for the weekend of 19/20 April, has now been moved to Wednesday 7 May. Don’t make too many plans though, the way things are run in Spanish football they could easily switch the date again if Barça are knocked out of Europe.
The other big news this week is the ongoing saga of Neymar’s transfer. If previously the case was focused on a personal action against Sandro Rosell, Judge Pablo Ruz has now decided to open a case against Barça as an entity for a possible tax fraud of €9.1 million. Josep Maria Bartomeu stated again yesterday that Barça have done nothing illegal and there is a strong feeling in Barcelona that this is all part of a Florentino-inspired anti-Barça campaign. Personally, I admit I have little idea if Barça are guilty or not, it seems there was certainly some creative accountancy going on in the deal, but we’ll just have to wait and see whether a court decides it was legal or not.
Events off the field should not be allowed to influence the team’s progression. For tomorrow’s trip Martino is without Jordi Alba with a slight hamstring problem and the Argentinian coach has also decided to leave Puyol, Oier, Sergi Roberto, Cuenca and Afellay off the list for the match. With the top three teams tied on 60 points and just 14 games to play any dropped points could now prove impossible to recover and Barça will not want to be behind Real Madrid in the table when the two rivals meet at the Bernabéu on March 23.
Besides the direct clashes of the Bernabéu Clásico and the final game of the season at home to Atlético, tomorrow’s meeting at Anoeta could be classed as Barça’s most difficult remaining league game, though the team still needs to play at Espanyol and Villarreal. La Real haven’t lost at home in La Liga since a 1-2 reverse against Atlético on September 1 which leaves them with an impressive league home record of seven wins, three draws and just the one defeat with 27 goals scored and just seven conceded.
With no midweek game next week and given the difficulty of the task, Martino will want to play his strongest team tomorrow though there will most likely be two or three changes to the side that won at City. Adriano will almost certainly replace the injured Alba while there’s a good chance that Pedro or Neymar could get a start at the expense of Alexis or one of the midfielders.
Real’s coach Jagoba Arrasate is without the injured Imanol Agirretxe but recent signing Sergio Canales could keep his place in the team after a showing a good understanding with Antoine Griezmann and Carlos Vela in the 0-1 win at Malaga last weekend.
Barça’s 18-man squad: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Montoya, Bartra, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano, Song, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Alexis, Pedro, Messi, Neymar, Tello.
Real Sociedad: Bravo; Zaldua, Iñigo Martínez, Ansotegi, José Ángel; Bergara, Zurutuza; Xabi Prieto, Canales; Griezmann; Vela.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Neymar.
Prediction: Real Sociedad 1 Barça 2
Date: Saturday 22 February 2014. Kick-off 8 pm local time.