The race for the 2013/14 Liga continues tomorrow as Barça kick off the 27th round of fixtures with a game at relegation-threatened Valladolid (Saturday 4 pm). Gerard Piqué is available again after injury and Tata Martino has included the defender in his 18-man squad for the match but Andrés Iniesta has had to pull out of the trip at the last minute for personal reasons. Ibi Afellay comes in for Iniesta but there is no place on the list for Jordi Alba, Carles Puyol and Alex Song.
With just twelve league games remaining there is definitely no margin for error tomorrow. In two weeks’ time Barça go to the Bernabéu and we need maximum points from the match at Valladolid and next week’s home game with Osasuna to keep Madrid’s advantage down to one point before the Clásico. I can’t say I’m too optimistic about Barça winning the league this season but I do believe on a good day we can still beat anybody. We may need to beat Madrid on their pitch if we are going to lift our fifth Liga in six years, but it would be sickening if we beat our main rivals home and away this season only to lose the title by dropping points elsewhere.
For this reason I would hope that Martino puts out a very strong team tomorrow. Of course, we have the return Champions League game with Manchester City on Wednesday but I’m sure Martino can also play his strongest team against City and reserve anybody who needs a rest at home to Osasuna next weekend. The main complication for tomorrow’s game is the fact that it arrives after an international week and players such as Neymar and Alves have only had one training session (this morning) with their team-mates.
Picking a defence will be complicated and will depend on how Martino sees the condition of Alves and Piqué. They should both start but if the coach prefers to reserve them he could begin with a back four of Montoya, Bartra, Mascherano and Adriano. With no Song in the squad, Busquets is a cert to start which leaves a battle for the five remaining positions between Xavi, Fabregas, Pedro, Alexis, Messi and Neymar. Last week it was Iniesta and Pedro who were benched, this week it looks likely to be Neymar due to his international duty.
Valladolid are struggling in 18th position in the table with only 23 points. Fifteen of those points have been won at the José Zorrilla stadium through just three victories and six draws in their twelve home games. However, we should take note that our opponents tomorrow suffered the last of their three home defeats (0-1 to Osasuna) back on November 22 which gives them a six-game unbeaten home run in all competitions. Coach Juan Ignacio Martinez has just one player out injured, ex-blaugrana Jeffren Suarez, and he has named an 18-man squad to face Barça, leaving out Omar Ramos and Victor Perez.
History shows Barça have won 20 and drawn 10 out of 41 corresponding fixtures in Valladolid, and you need to go back to 20 October 2002, curiously with Valdés, Puyol and Xavi in Barça’s starting XI, for the last of Valladolid’s eleven victories. Last season the game was played after Tito Vilanova’s first relapse just before Christmas and Barça won the game 1-3 with goals from Xavi, Messi and Tello.
Valladolid: Mariño, Jaime, Rukavina, Peña, Bergdich, Mitrovic, Jesús Rueda, Marc Valiente, Baraja, Sastre, Álvaro Rubio, Rossi, Larsson, Rama, Óscar, Osorio, Manucho, Javi Guerra.
Barça: Valdés, Oier, Alves, Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Mascherano, Adriano, Busquets, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Fabregas, Alexis, Pedro, Messi, Neymar, Tello, Afellay.
Valladolid: Mariño; Rukavina, Marc Valiente, Mitrovic, Peña; Larsson, Alvaro Rubio, Jesús Rueda, Rossi, Rama; Javi Guerra.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Alexis, Messi, Pedro.
Prediction: Valladolid 0 Barça 2
Date: Saturday 8 March 2014. Kick-off 4 pm local time.