Barça are back in action after the Christmas break with the first game of 2015 against Real Sociedad at Anoeta (Sunday 9 pm). Leo Messi, Neymar Jr and Dani Alves returned to Barcelona yesterday and joined training last night. The first team squad plus Munir El-Haddadi trained again this morning with the only doubt for the game being Alves who has a thigh strain and has still not received medical clearance.
January is always a month with a packed fixture schedule and if Barça can beat Elche in the Copa del Rey then the team will face eight matches in the space of 25 days including a quarter-final cup-tie against Atlético or Real Madrid. It is obviously a time for rotations though we might expect Luis Enrique to put out his best XI for tomorrow’s game and for next Sunday’s league clash with Atlético at Camp Nou. If Barça are going to fight for this Liga then we really must show it in these two tough games.
Luis Enrique should also be looking to define exactly who should make up his most effective line-up to face the crucial final phase of the season. Claudio Bravo has performed excellently in goal and deserves the number one slot right now though Ter Stegen will get the chance in the cup to stake his claim to the goalkeeper’s position. Alves and Alba seem likely to hold the full-back positions though it is still unclear who will become the best central-defensive pairing. Bartra, Piqué and Mathieu can all perform better and only Mascherano shows consistency though his lack of height can be a problem. El Jefecito is also needed in midfield, more so if Sergio Busquets cannot regain his best form, while there is also the dilemma of choosing between Xavi and Rakitic though neither truly bosses the midfield like Xavi used to do.
The most difficult decision may turn out to be whether a front three of Messi-Suarez-Neymar is as effective as an attack that includes Pedro. Few can doubt the quality of Suarez though his incorporation has meant Messi has often been pushed out wide. If Messi then drifts infield it leaves Alves covering the whole right flank by himself and other players needing to readjust their positions as a consequence. Pedro offers more balance to the team and his form before Christmas deserves to be awarded with a starting place, at least for now.
There is plenty of potential for this squad but it remains to be seen if that can be converted into glory and success. With the FIFA transfer ban being confirmed this week we have to back the group of players we have and look for support from the youngsters coming through. If it is all managed well then the ban could even turn in our favour but there remains the possibility that we win nothing this season which would leave the same squad struggling to find optimism against strengthened opponents in the 2015/16 season.
It is vital to start 2015 well. For tomorrow’s game Bravo will return to Anoeta for the first time after playing eight seasons for La Real. It seems reasonable to believe that Alves won’t be risked so Adriano or perhaps Montoya could start at right-back. Mascherano and Piqué appeared to be slightly favoured before Christmas as the best centre-back pair so they may start again with Alba at left-back. Busquets, Rakitic and Iniesta could form the midfield though Xavi will always be in with a chance of starting while up front Neymar may start on the bench due to his late incorporation which would mean another chance for Pedro and Suarez to form an attacking trio with Messi.
We could hardly face a tougher test as we haven’t beaten Real at Anoeta since May 2007 when Frank Rijkaard’s team won 0-2. The Basques were relegated that season but they returned to the top flight in 2010 and beat Pep Guardiola’s team 2-1 in their first season back and then gained a 2-2 draw in the 2011/12 season. Tito Vilanova’s team were first beaten in the league in a 3-2 defeat in January 2013 while Tata Martino’s team also lost 3-1 in the league last February though Martino’s team did gain a 1-1 draw in the Copa del Rey semi-final that was worth qualification for final. Overall that’s just two draws and three defeats in our last five trips to San Sebastian and while Real are having an inconsistent season, currently placed in 14th position on just 16 points, they have again demonstrated their predilection for the big games by beating Madrid 4-2 back in August. Star player Carlos Vela was injured in the basque derby on December 14 and faces a race against time to be fit, while Zuldua, Zurutuza, Zaldua, Mikel and Carlos Martínez will all miss the game.
It’s not going to be easy but let’s hope we can start the year with a win. Let me also take the opportunity to wish all barçacentral readers good health and happiness in 2015.
Real Sociedad: Rulli; Estrada, Íñigo Martinez, Ansotegi, De la Bella; Markel, Granero; Canales, Chory Castro, Xabi Prieto; Finnbogason.
Barça: Bravo; Montoya, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Pedro.
Prediction: Real Sociedad 2 Barça 3
Date: Sunday 4 January 2015. Kick-off 9 pm local time.