La Liga Preview: Barça – Almería, Saturday 2pm, ESPN Deportes
Remember when you were younger and sports was all about the thrill, the spectacle, the careless joy of watching your team play? I remember those days too, but something happened and it became an activity fraught with peril. That massive change in approach came about rapidly for me, as I watched Weligton turn joyous play into a trap of injury possibilities.
I’m still seething about the lack of action against a player who purposefully attempted to injure not one, but two players in last week’s match. I do not, for a moment buy that it’s an overreaction on my part to demand Weligton be suspended for at least 3 matches and fined a commensurate amount. The reason has nothing to do with last week’s match, which we won anyway thanks to both individual brilliance and collective play that was worth far more than Malaga’s butcher tactics.
The reason is because this week we take on Almería, who enter knowing that little is punishable when you’re playing a team as good as Barcelona. Your center backs should feel free to kick the quality out of Barcelona’s players when the ref isn’t looking because, well, no one cares. The official reason that Weligton has avoided punishment appears to be because he didn’t cause injury with his actions. Really? Really? That he didn’t break Messi’s ankle or slice open Pique’s head is lucky for them, not a reason that Weligton’s actions weren’t designed to injure. They were and that much is obvious not only from the video, but also from his later statements that he was just paying Messi back for having spit at Duda last year.
So Almería sees that and knows that they just have to kick people while the ref’s back is turned. And maybe they’ll end up injuring a player this time since that’s the idea. Say what they will, but defenders are trying to injure people when they step on opposing players’ ankles and try to punch them in the head. That’s what those actions are for. Perhaps Almería will be above that or will be too afraid to do that in the Camp Nou where decisions go towards the home team more often (that’s a statistical fact in al grounds, not just the Camp Nou); that would be nice if they didn’t play kick-the-player-with-the-ball, but the likelihood of that is smaller now that Weligton is off the hook, at least until he visits the Camp Nou.
None of this is to say that Barcelona is somehow being continually hunted by opposing defenders, but when the gulf in class is as massive as it was between Barça and Malaga, the benefits of kicking begin to outweigh the dangers of suspension, which should never be the case. If a Barcelona player purposely attacked another player, targeting that which they use to earn their keep (ie their legs), the papers, especially Marca and AS, would be full of pictures condemning such actions as anti-futbol, et cetera et cetera. The double standard would, of course, be applied there. I’m just demanding that the game not be violent and RFEF/LFP to maintain a semblance of order.
I’m fully expecting this match to be a humdinger as it’s the last match before an international break. It’ll be interesting to see who Guardiola starts because if Iniesta still isn’t 100% but is working himself back into full fitness, he’ll probably still start for Spain despite a World Cup appearance already haivng been confirmed in the previous round of matches. So does Guardiola trust that del Bosque will keep his starters on the bench or does he hedge his bets and keep Iniesta on the bench in favor of a returning Bojan?
Speaking of which: Bojan is back! Yay! I certainly don’t expect 90 minutes from The Kid, but I would like to see 60 to 75 out of him. I don’t know what Henry’s situation is, though supposedly he’s fit enough to start. We’ll get back to this in a moment, though, after we’ve dealt with Almeria.
Our opponents bring the same squad they’ve used in the last 3 consecutive matches: Diego Alves, Esteban, Michel, Chico, Acasiete, Pellerano, Guilherme, Domingo Cisma, Soriano, Bernardello, Corona, Juanma Ortiz, Nieto, Ortiz, Crusat, Kalu Uche, Piatti, David Rodríguez.
I watched parts of Almeria-Racing last weekend and noted that they play Crusat, Piatti, and Uche in a trident similar to ours. It’s just that Crusat is 5’4″ and Piatti comes in at a whopping 5’3″. Uche brings the average height up a bit being 5’10”, but still, it’s a short lineup that Pique should be able to handle in the air with ease. If they’re going to play a 4-3-3 (dynamic though it may be), they’re going to run into a few mismatches in midfield when Xavi is given the ball against a single man and merely passes it around him to Alves on the wing, who will, because there are only 3 players in their midfield, always be open. One of the strikers will have to retreat deeply to counteract this, but still it’s risky business because it creates a lot of one-on-ones in the open field. If Hugo Sanchez thinks his team is up for that, we’ll see a 4-3-3 from him and the better team will come out on top. And you all know who I think that means will win.
If Pique and Puyol (or possibly Marquez) are able to lock down the defense against Almeria’s counters (which are fairly quick, but aren’t as refined as some, from what I saw) then that frees Messi on the right for a lot of open field attacks of his own. Think of it as a counter-counterattack. Once your counterattack has been stifled, you’re caught out with our own three-man strike force to contend with. Bojan would do well in this scenario, but so would Henry. So if Henry isn’t 100%, I say give Bojan the start at LW while letting Iniesta start at MD and giving Keita a rest. Then you sub on Keita at halftime and Henry for Bojan at the hour mark.
Lineup: Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Pique, Maxwell, Busi, Xavi, Iniesta, Bojan, Ibra, Messi.
There is both attacking width and ball control in that lineup, meaning that whatever Almeria puts out there, we’ve got our bases covered. Abidal would make more sense on the left than Maxwell, but he’s played the last batch of matches and promises to play for France over the coming days in highly important matches for them, so I would err on the side of caution and give Abidal a rest. That could be another argument for starting Henry on the bench, as well, since he’s doubtless going to get a lot of minutes for Les Bleus.
Most of our players are in the same situation, none more so than Messi, who is no doubt demanding to play all minutes at all times while also demanding to play all 180 minutes against Peru and Uruguay. Thus, I’d like to see him start and start on fire and then be subbed off in favor of Pedro! on the hour. Big time players show up in big time situations, of course, and this part of Messi’s career is the biggest he’ll face as both Peru and Uruguay are going to enter the matches guns blazing. I’m sure Messi is thinking “bring it” because that’s the sort of player he is.
So there you have it: two 4-3-3s running into each other, but only one will survive. Official prediction: 4-1, goals by Messi (2), Ibra, and Bojan.
New York/EST: 2pm
San Diego/PST: 11am
Sydney, Australia: 4am Sunday
Singapore: 2am Sunday
India: 12:15am Sunday
I’ll leave you with a tribute to Rio, who earned the 2016 Olympics today, as linked by the ever-brilliant Orson Swindle at EDSBS: