Barça face an important week with two tough matches at Camp Nou. Next Wednesday the battle for top spot in Champions League Group F will be decided when Paris Saint Germain come to town, but first Barça take on Espanyol in the Catalan derby (Sunday 5 pm) with the need to gain three more points to maintain the challenge at the top of La Liga.
Luis Enrique will be pleased his players have bounced back after the defeats to Real Madrid and Celta with a run of six straight wins over Ajax, Almeria, Sevilla, Apoel, Valencia and Huesca. The are reasons for optimism with the team regaining the no-nonsense attitude seen in the early games of the season. Ivan Rakitic gave an improved performance at Huesca after a few below-par games and I am still confident he will become a very important player for us. Luis Suarez has impressed despite only scoring once, and the early signs are that he can form a highly successful trio with Messi and Neymar, though I would still have doubts about playing the three together in the really big away games.
The other doubts continue to be focused on the defence. Thomas Vermaelen underwent a successful operation on his hamstring injury this week which limits the centre-back options while the right-back position looks vulnerable despite the number of candidates to play there. Douglas gave his second worrying performance against Huesca while Montoya seems to be on his way out this winter. In the end we it seems we will have to rely on the unreliable Alves and on Adriano which means we are likely to have problems against big teams. I wonder if Luis Enrique has considered the possibility of playing Mascherano or Marc Bartra in this position if he needs a more solid defensive option.
As is customary for league games Luis Enrique will name his squad list on the morning of the game. Munir El-Haddadi continues training with the first team but Sandro, Samper and Edgar Ié return to Barça B after playing at Huesca. There are no fresh injuries so it’s only Vermaelen who is unavailable. With the crucial game with PSG on Wednesday it is possible that the Barça coach reserves a couple of key players, though with Madrid holding a two-point advantage at the top of the league he cannot afford to take Espanyol lightly.
Claudio Bravo seems sure to return in goal while the back four could be formed by Alves, Piqué, Mascherano and Alba. Iniesta may be reserved for Wednesday as he is just back from injury which would leave the midfield for Busquets, Xavi and Rakitic. Unless there is a surprise the line-up will be completed by Suarez, Messi and Neymar up front.
Espanyol have been having a pretty poor season but victories in their last two games, over Levante in La Liga and Alaves in La Copa, means they arrive at Camp Nou with renewed confidence. Even so, their away form this season has been dire, having only taken two points, from draws at Almeria and Cordoba, from six games. There are five ex-blaugranas in Espanyol’s ranks, Sergio Garcia, Victor Sanchez, Abraham Gonzalez, Manuel Lanzarote and Paco Montañes, of these, Sergio Garcia, Victor Sanchez and possibly Abraham will be in the starting XI tomorrow.
Espanyol have won only once in the last 32 years at Camp Nou. However, there are some pretty recent bad memories for Barça in these games. Who could forget Raul Tamudo’s last minute equalizer which cost Barça the league in May 2007? Then the following season, in Frank Rijkarrd’s last local derby, Espanyol keeper Carlos Kameni stopped everything in a 0-0 draw. Espanyol’s one victory came in February 2009 when Ivan de La Peña scored twice in a 1-2 win though Barça went on to win the triplete in Pep Guardiola’s first season. Espanyol haven’t scored at Camp Nou since the De La Peña brace and the last five Barça-Espanyol games have all ended in a home victory. Last season was a close game but a second-half goal from Alex Sanchez earned Barça a 1-0 win.
Barça: Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Rakitic; Suarez, Messi, Neymar.
Espanyol: Kiko Casilla; Javi Lopez, Colotto, Alvaro Gonzalez, Fuentes; Abraham, Victor Sanchez, Cañas, Salva Sevilla; Stuani, Sergio Garcia.
Prediction: Barça 2 Espanyol 0
Date: Sunday 7 December 2014. Kick-off: 5 pm local time.