Liga Preview: Barcelona – Mallorca, Saturday 2pmET, ESPN Deportes/ESPN3
Please note: if you’re done reading Kari’s rambunctiously lovely breakdown of Barça B, I suppose you’re allowed to read this here preview. If you haven’t read the piece, go do it now or you’ll be flogged.
Coming off of the midweek match, which I prefer to call a slogfest of crapbutt (so I’m in agreement with Kxevin here), Barça returns to the Camp Nou to face off against cross-water rivals Mallorca. It’s not your Laudrupian Mallorca anymore, though, with Miguel Angel Nadal sitting shotgun with him. Laudrup left the club in late September, Nadal took over for a bit, and then Nadal himself left when Joaquin Caparrós, recently out of Neuchâtel Xamax, took over.
The enigma that is Caparrós never ceases to befuddle me. He’s probably most notable for being Athletic’s manager over the last 4 years, perennially achieving just above what you might expect. But he was also the guy who set the table for Sevilla’s magical run in the mid 2000s under Juande Ramos. And he also took Depor towards the brink of relegation as they scored just 32 goals (tied worst) in 2006-07. Yet he also finished 8th with them the year before when they weren’t known for their terrible devotion to not scoring.
With Mallorca, Caparrós hasn’t done a particularly amazing job so far. Perhaps he’s building his team or perhaps he has little to work with. When Josu Urrutia was elected president of Athletic Bilbao in the summer, Caparrós’ contract was not renewed and he was replaced by Marcelo Bielsa and that could be seen as a sign that Athletic was looking to take a step forward and challenge for European spots on a more consistent basis. Which is funny given that they just qualified for the Europea League. Perhaps it was more political than anything, but I am not an Athletic Bilbao backroom expert.
Regardless, Caparrós was off to Switzerland to the new project under Bulat Chagaev, but left after just 5 matches (you can read a sensationalist version of it here, where they bizarrely call him Jose Caparrós) and was therefore available when Mallorca came calling. As I said, though, he hasn’t been a savior. They’ve managed 3 draws and a loss from 4 matches since Caparrós’ appointment, but at least they’ve scored in all them.
It’s the loss, at home to Sporting Gijon, that is probably most disturbing. With 2 consecutive wins, it appears that Sporting Gijon has decided to actually start their season, but it must still rankle the Mallorcan faithful to lose to the last placed team, especially in their own house. Caparrós has signaled his intent to ratchet up the intensity by declaring, “We need to learn from the mistakes, grit our teeth, and prepare for the next match. We played well [against Sporting], with a good intensity, for 25 minutes.”
Yeah…you can’t play for 25 minutes against anyone, much less Barça and hope to come away with points. Yet they haven’t been playing total patsies the whole time. They drew 1-1 with Valencia and 1-1 at Atleti, which isn’t so bad. They’re playing a 4-2-3-1 with goalscorer Tomer Hemed alone up front. The Israeli international has scored 4 times so far in the league and accounts for half of their total goals.
Their squad: Calatayud, Bigas, Joao Victor, Ramis, Zuiverloon, Chico, Pereira, Pep Lluís Martí, Alfaro, Hemed, Castro, Nsue, Aouate, Víctor, Tissone, Cendrós, Crespí, Alvaro.
Without Jonathan de Guzman (now at Villarreal), they’ve lost some of the creative and attacking flair on the wings and are having to rely more on Nsue and Gonzalo Castro for that. Michael Pereira, who got 5 goals last season in 35 appearances, has yet to manage any this season in 2 starts and 3 substitute appearances; probably not incidentally, both of his starts have come under Caparrós. Their main defensive midfielder, Tomás Pina, is missing through yellow card accumulation suspension–after just 9 games! I don’t suppose it should be particularly surprising given that Mallorca has amassed 30 yellow cards as a team (to Barça’s 17). Pina and Chico both have 5 (Chico having served his suspension already) and Ivan Ramis has 4.
I highly suspect that Caparrós will have watched the last 2 Barça matches and maybe he saw how to keep Barça bottled up, but with a leaky defense like the one he’s got (no clean sheets since the opening day win against Espanyol). Perhaps he’ll come out with a double bank of 4 as pretty much everyone has done so far. Raul Caneda (former assistant at Almeria under Juanma Lillo) pointed out on Tuesday (h/t Paradigma Guardiola) that both Sevilla and Granada let Dani Alves run free on the flanks and tucked their other defender in, content to head any crosses out rather than open themselves to the slick passing moves Alves, Xavi, and Messi create on the right wing. With Pedro out of form (and now injured) and Afellay missing, there were no quick darts to the end line and no good crosses anyway.
If Mallorca can defend with extreme discipline, they have a shot, but they don’t have tremendous athletes like Sevilla does (Navas’ speed, Caceres’ endurance, for example) and they don’t have the homefield advantage (along with terrible turf and rain) that Granada did. All teams go through the doldrums, however, and if Barça is still feeling the malaise that set in over the last fortnight, they’ll struggle through, perhaps on some individual brilliance like Xavi’s freekick. It would be a mistake, however, as Jordi Costa says at the beginning of his defense of defending, to suggest that Barça played badly against Sevilla. On the contrary, Sevilla played extremely well defensively and it took a string of good saves from Javi Varas to earn a single point. Perhaps cules are bored or frustrated with other teams looking to play out 0-0 draws or steal a goal on the counter, but that’s what happens if you beat teams 8-0 when they decide it’s time to do anything other than sit back and absorb pressure. Villarreal, Osasuna, etc would have all gladly taken 0-0, don’t you think?
As it is, Barça may have something to say about all of it anyway. Both Pique and Puyol return with the medical all clear, while Pedro and Alexis Sánchez are out (and of course Afellay). Messi will start, obviously, but Fontas will not. That’s also obvious, I suppose. The team got Wednesday off to recharge batteries and, no doubt, do awesome modeling shots like Valdes has been doing with his wife. They’re pretty hot.
With both Gerard and Carles back, does that mean Javier starts on the bench? I wouldn’t see that as too bad a thing if they’re match fit given Mascherano’s playing time recently. Instead, though, I suspect we’ll see Mascher + one of those two to start and then a sub in later, especially if the game is going well. That returns Abidal to the left where I think he plays best. The midfield, well, how about the full lineup:
Valdes, Alves, Mascherano, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc, Messi, Villa.
With Pedro gone and Sánchez still out, there really isn’t too much the team can do up front without switching to one of those wacko Maxwell-up-front kind of things and I don’t see that as happening despite the looming Tuesday Champions League match, which is, unfortunately for the squad’s tired legs, in the Czech Republic. That means extra travel time, so it’s totally possible that Guardiola plays Adriano, Maxwell, and/or Keita. Dropping points against Mallorca wouldn’t be the end of the world, but doing so against Viktoria Plzeň would definitely not be very good for our CL group chances or, at the very least, would force us to win in Milan in order to top the group.
I think we take this one to Mallorca like they haven’t seen in a while. Official prediction: 3-0, goals by Cesc, Alves, and Messi. A team game that puts us back where all the fans love to be: the winning and winning well seat.
On a somber note, Mallorca has released an official statement in support of the release of kidnapped aid workers Enric Gonyalons (a Mallorcan and ex player), Ainhoa Fernández, and Rosella Urru. It appears that Gonyalons was injured in that attack. May they get home safely.