This week we have seen how much things can change in football in a very short period of time. When Cristiano Ronaldo converted his penalty to put Real Madrid 3-2 in Sunday’s Clásico it looked like Barça would be finishing the weekend seven points behind Madrid and four points behind Atlético. It would probably have been too big a margin to overcome, but Leo Messi’s penalties turned things round at the Bernabéu and now following Madrid’s defeat at Sevilla, Atlético are the top of La Liga on 73 points with Barça a point behind in second place and Madrid third on 70 points.
With eight games remaining in La Liga, Barça are officially favourites again (Barça 4/5, Madrid 12/5, Atlético 10/3) though with little time to rest we now face two enormous games in the space of four days which if we don’t get it right could seriously affect our chances in two competitions. First, it’s the local derby with Espanyol at Cornellà-El Prat (Saturday 4 pm) followed by the Champions League quarter-final first leg with Atlético at Camp Nou on Tuesday night.
Despite the loss of Victor Valdés there is plenty of reason for optimism. Not only do Barça no longer have to rely on others, but now if Barça beat Atlético on the final day of the league season we can afford to draw one game and still guarantee the title. For Valdés of course it is a dreadful time to get injured, no doubt he was dreaming of the World Cup and of ending his Barça career with another Champions League Final in May. However, Valdés’s misfortune now offers Jose Manel Pinto Colorado the opportunity to step in. How’s this for another dream – Barça beat Bayern Munich on penalties in Lisbon with Pinto the hero? Given his expertise in shoot-outs Pinto’s moment arriving now may just turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Of Barça’s remaining league games, besides the final game with Atletico, two stand out as particularly tricky: the game at Villarreal at the end of April and tomorrow’s derby. Espanyol arrive to the game in buoyant mood after their 1-2 victory at Malaga on Tuesday. With forty points relegation is now practically impossible and Javier Aguirre’s men can think about a late push for a place in Europe. Their home form is patchy (7W 3D 5L) but on their day they can be very difficult opponents, as they proved by beating Atlético 1-0 back in October while they are still the only team to beat Athletic Club in La Liga at the new San Mames.
Aguirre has all his main players available now that David Lopez has recovered from an ankle problem, but Espanyol’s man in form is undoubtedly ex-blaugrana Sergio Garcia who scored the first and set up Pizzi for the second in the win at Malaga. Tomorrow’s game is Barça’s fifth league game at the Cornellà-El Prat stadium, the four previous games ended with two Barça wins (1-5 in 10/11, 0-2 in 12/13) and two draws (0-0 in 09/10, 1-1 in 11/12) suggesting that three points tomorrow are by no means guaranteed. Earlier in the season Barça needed to wait until the 68th minute when Espanyol came to Camp Nou before Alexis scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory.
Alex Song misses out tomorrow with a bruised calf but Tata Martino has recalled Xavi Hernandez after resting him for Wednesday’s win over Celta, while Oier Olazábal comes into the squad as Pinto’s cover. Andrés Iniesta has recovered after being taken off as a precaution on Wednesday though Martino might consider reserving the player for the Champions League next Tuesday. Neymar’s improved performance and two goals against Celta came as a welcome boost at this stage of the season. However, if it were down to me I would start with Alexis and Pedro tomorrow, not because I don’t believe the Brazilian can do a good job, but because I think Pedro and Alexis will be more useful if the game is as scrappy as some previous derbies, while I’d also like to keep Neymar fresh and hungry to start on Tuesday. That way we could line up tomorrow with Pinto, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas, Alexis, Messi and Pedro with the planned changes of Neymar and Iniesta coming in for Alexis and Pedro on Tuesday.
Espanyol: Kiko Casilla, Germán, Raúl Rodríguez, Sidnei, Hector Moreno, Javi López, Víctor Álvarez, Fuentes, Colotto, Víctor Sánchez, David López, Simao, Álex, Abraham, Stuani, Sergio García, Pizzi, Córdoba.
Barça: Pinto, Oier Olazábal; Alves, Bartra, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Fabregas, Iniesta, Alexis, Pedro, Messi, Neymar, Tello.
Espanyol: Casilla; Javi Lopez, Colotto, Moreno, Fuentes; Victor Sanchez, David Lopez; Stuani, Pizzi, Simao; Sergio Garcia.
Barça: Pinto; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Alexis, Messi, Pedro.
Prediction: Espanyol 1 Barça 2
Date: Saturday 29 March 2014. Kick-off 4 pm local time.