Tata Martino has named his 23 available players for tomorrow night’s return game with Manchester City in the last 16 of the Champions League (Wednesday 8.45 pm). Jordi Alba and Andrés Iniesta return after missing the 1-0 defeat at Valladolid at the weekend and José Manuel Pinto has also recovered from his back problems to make the squad. With Barça defending a 0-2 lead from the first leg three weeks ago the only players not on the squad list are the injured Isaac Cuenca and Johnathan dos Santos.
The loss at Valladolid has opened plenty of debate over who or what is to blame and what needs to be done to improve the current situation. Players, coach, sporting director and president have all received criticism and it is probably fair to say they could all have done things better, and now there is undoubtedly an overall feeling that something has to change. The most obvious move would be to call elections which would reinforce Bartomeu’s unstable position if he won while offering the socis the chance to elect somebody else. However, I have no desire to see protests at home games either, as this would surely affect the team and could lead to a disastrous end to the season comparable with Rijkaard’s last few months in charge.
The time for change is the summer and for now we must make do with what we have and support the team. As things stand I can see the season finishing in two ways. Either the players react and continue to perform well in the big games (as they generally have done all season) which might lead to a surprise trophy or even two, or the decline continues and we have to witness a 2007/08-style implosion with results getting progressively worse and worse.
In the current situation a protest could be sparked very easily at a home match and tomorrow’s game with City looks more dangerous than it initially did three weeks ago after Barça’s first leg win. In the present mood if City score first then parts of the Camp Nou public could react badly. Hopefully, this supposition won’t be put to the test and Barça start knocking in the goals at the other end. However, it is a delicate state of affairs which gives City a more realistic chance of making a surprise comeback.
Martino looks likely to use a similar formation to that seen at the Etihad with Iniesta and Fabregas both in the team at the expense of a forward. While this tactic worked well in the first leg with City and in the Copa del Rey game at Anoeta, on both those occasions it was deployed primarily defensively. I’ve never had a problem with Iniesta sometimes being used further forward on the left, but playing at home, despite the two-goal lead, I feel we must look to attack. That means possession football is fine but it must be with a purpose, the ball has to move quickly with the intention of opening the City defence. The danger, in my opinion, is that we play with too much caution and allow the game to linger too long at 0-0.
If Martino does go with the ball-players he will also have a tough choice of deciding between Neymar, Alexis and Pedro for the one remaining forward position. I should say here that I strongly feel that Neymar should not be picked for this game. He has been well below par in the last three games and surely players should be selected on their form rather than their price-tag. If Martino chooses Neymar over the other two tomorrow I believe it will send out a negative message.
Curiously, City are also in the position of seeing a promising season end primarily in failure. Of course, Manuel Pellegrini’s men recently lifted the Capital One Cup but that will not count for much if they fail to win another trophy. They were surprisingly knocked out of the FA Cup by Wigan on Sunday and they are no longer favourites to win the Premier League as Chelsea storm ahead. It may be a long shot for City but the Champions League could still provide a route to glory this season and they will be prepared to give their best effort in the remaining 90 minutes.
The visitors won’t be helped by coach Manuel Pelligrini’s ban as UEFA tend to be far stricter in enforcing these suspensions than the domestic league. However, they will be boosted by the return of Sergio ‘Kun’ Agüero and some might say they will also be better off without the suspended Demichelis. Matija Nastasic looks unlikely to return in time so Joleon Lescott and Javi García are in contention to partner Vincent Kompany at the heart of City’s defence.
Barça’s 23-man squad:
Valdés, Pinto, Oier, Alves, Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Mascherano, Puyol, Adriano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Fabregas, Iniesta, Alexis, Pedro, Messi, Neymar, Tello, Afellay.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Alexis, Messi, Iniesta.
Man City: Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, Kolarov; Touré, Fernandinho; Navas, Nasri, Silva; Agüero.
Referee: Stephane Lannoy (France)
Prediction: Barça 3 Man City 2
Date: Wednesday 12 March 2014. Kick-off 8.45 pm local time.