Liga Preview: Sevilla – Barça, Saturday 3pm EST, GolTV
As if you didn’t know: this is important. Like, trophy-sized important. Like, all the marbles important. Like, name your next child after the guy who scores the game winner important. Okay, maybe not, especially if you’re going to have a girl named Lionela. But it’s still damned important. This is a match that will define a season filled with season-defining matches, with edge-of-your-seat battles between top-notch teams…and Mallorca.
I’m no mathematical wizard, mind you, but a 1-point lead with 6 points to play for is tenuous at best and requires 2 wins out of 2 matches. Apparently there are 81 possible outcomes to the 4 matches in question (Barça at Sevilla, vs Valladolid; RM vs Bilbao, at Malaga) and while a large percentage of those favor Barça because of our 1-point lead and the tie-breaker going in our favor, what is required of the team is to beat Sevilla tomorrow and Valladolid next weekend. That’s no easy task, but every match is there for the taking.
This is a huge match for our opponents as well, who need a win to greatly increase their chances of getting the 4th Champions League spot, which they currently own thanks to Mallorca’s loss on Wednesday to RM. And now Mallorca needs us to beat Sevilla. I see how it is: you want us to help you out, but you’re not willing to help us out. Yeah, yeah, all right…jerkwads. So who, exactly, are we going up against?
Sevilla has a different coach this time around; before it was Manolo Jiménez, this time it is Antonio Álvarez. You can read up on him here*. Suffice to say that it’s a mixed bag, but recently that bag has been producing some gems, including a 1-5 rout of Racing Santader at their house and a 3-1 win against Atleti in the prior jornada. Before that, though, they lost a thriller to Getafe (4-3), shutout Sporting (3-0) and lost to Valladolid (2-1). They lost to a relegation zone team? Wild. No wonder they’re struggling to make it to the Champions League. They beat Madrid 2-1 at the Sanchez Pizjuan earlier this year, so you know they can hang with the big boys and they obviously have a good overall record.
Sevilla: 18W-6D-12L (60GF, 43GA)
Barça: 29W-6D-1L (91GF, 22GA)
Sevilla: 10W-6D-2L (31GF, 15GA)
Barça: 12W-5D-1L (38GF, 11GA)
There is no team with a better away record than Barça (RM are tied with 41 points, but have a worse goal difference and 2 extra losses), but Sevilla is no slouch at home, with the 6th best home record behind the Big 2, Mallorca, Villarreal, and Valencia (in that order). Only Barça and Valencia have fewer home goals allowed (11 and 12) while Mallorca and Osasuna also have 15. Only RM has more goals scored away from home than Barça (41 to 38)**.
Sevilla’s leading scorer is Luis Fabiano, who has 14 goals to his name, followed by Álvaro Negredo with 11 and Freddie Kanouté with 10. Still, I think that Sevilla’s danger man is Jesús Navas, who can do an awful lot of damage down the right hand flank. Because of Eric Abidal’s continued absence, it will be up to Maxwell to really put the lid on those attacks. If they play us with a 4-4-1-1, which I kind of expect they will, that could actually backfire on them in that it could put the shackles on Navas simply by moving him farther from goal and giving our defense enough time to get back should he break through the first layer of defense. Pushing him further up, however, might open up space down their wings for our squad, which, of course, is a bad thing for Sevilla too.
Their full squad list is: Palop, Javi Varas, Stankevicius, Konko, Squillaci, Escudé, Fazio, Adriano, Zokora, Renato, Lolo, Romaric, Jesús Navas, Diego Capel, José Carlos, Negredo, Luis Fabiano, Kanouté.
Basically, I’m expecting them to start Navas on the right wing and for Guardiola to put Keita and Maxwell over there to stymie him. Watch for Keita’s work, which you’ll not notice until you don’t see Navas with the ball very often and then it will be apparent what he does so well: box-to-box defense and offense. He doesn’t really get the credit I think he deserves because he and his absurdly huge smile somehow go stealth during most matches, yet he is out there destroying, making tackles, linking offensive play, and generally making his presence known in an unknown way. Basically he’s a ninja assassin.
I think one huge missing piece for Sevilla will be Diego Perotti, who can add width to the left side of their attack while Navas is adding width to the right side. I suspect we’ll see Diego Capel trying to do that, but Perotti is, in my opinion, above and beyond Capel, who really seems to have hit a ceiling despite having been called the next Leo Messi a few years ago (cause you know, before Messi was the big deal he is now, he already had people lining up to replace him, which totally makes sense). Not that it makes Capel a bad player by any stretch, but he’s not as good as they said he would be by now. Ah well. Fate, you fickle fiend.
Our squad list looks like this: Everyone.
I imagine the scene at the Camp Nou (or Joan Gamper facility, more likely, but that’s not as compelling a backdrop) involving Guardiola portraying a much, much kinder, yet no less intense, Gary Oldman from Leon, The Professional: Bring me everyone! Tito Vilanova is obviously Benny. I don’t know who plays Natalie Portman…(you knew I’d bring her up again before the end of the year, didn’t you?)…perhaps Bojan. I don’t know.
Only Iniesta and Abidal are not really included in the squad list, but they’ve made the trip to Sevilla anyway to support the team in what is a must-win situation. Lose and you’re done. Lose and the title is lost, despite the massive points total we’ll have at the end of the season (and already have). 99 points are necessary to ensure the league title. Absurd. Thiago Alcantara is also in the squad list, but I highly doubt he’ll be included.
There are injury concerns over Pique, who I don’t expect to be fit enough to play (and why play an unfit Pique when you can play a 100% Milito?) and certainly not fit enough to play 90 minutes of bang-the-knee-against-the-tall-guy’s-injured-knee. Which is a fun game, actually. You should try it sometime. Unless you’re the tall guy. There are also concerns over Xavi’s fitness, but I expect him to play through the pain tomorrow because, well, this is it. This is the season. And he’s Xavi. He’s a beast, if you didn’t know, and he’ll play through anything for the title. There was talk of complacency when the season began, of players expecting to win, but Xavi? He obviously wants it and wants it so badly he’s risking his World Cup to win now. Perhaps that’s stupid, in the end, but you can’t blame him for it and I, for one, am mightily impressed with his dedication. All of Spain wait with bated breath for several reasons.
Predicted lineup: Valdes, Alves, Yaya, Puyol, Maxwell, Busi, Keita, Xavi, Pedro, Ibra, Messi.
Whoa. A Yaya in the back line? Absolutely. He was trusted there during the Champions League final against ManU and that worked out pretty well, didn’t it? Some have expressed concern that a pairing of Milito and Puyol at the back is too much like-with-like, too much destroyer, not enough Beckenbauer, not enough vertical movement. I said I wouldn’t include Busi in the lineups, but this isn’t my preferred lineup, this is my predicted lineup. My preferred one is actually Milito-Puyol in the back with Yaya in the middle instead of Busi, but Guardiola won’t play it like that, I don’t think. Kevin has suggested Messi officially in the middle playing the Xavi role while our vice captain heals a bit on the bench, but I don’t see us not risking further injury with so few minutes left on the clock. And Messi plays better in a free role where he isn’t required to control the rhythm and tempo of the game, something he hasn’t mastered yet and which Xavi is the greatest in the world at.
So there you have it. I don’t want Busi on the field, but he’ll be out there anyway. Bojan’s exclusion from the starting lineup isn’t because he hasn’t been good (or at least effective; that debate is something I don’t really want to get into right now, though), but rather because I think the physical nature of this game is something Ibra is slightly more suited to, though there is probably some merit in the argument that Bojan’s quickness might outfox the slower, more ponderous Sevilla defenders while Ibra’s size and lack of quickness would make our offense easier to mark. I can see both sides of the argument and I can even seen arguments for putting Bojan in for Pedro!, whose super sub status can’t be questioned, but who has also been pushing heavily for a regular starting role.
Official Prediction: 1-2, we eek out a win thanks to some late heroics. We’ll all have to clean out our pants after this one, folks, as RM are going to roll over Athletic Bilbao at the Bernabeu and only that game winner will preserve our championship.
Time: 9pm Local/Sevilla; 3pm EST/NY; check your local time here.
TV: In the US, this match will be on GolTV. All matches are at the same time here, so ESPN2 will be showing RM-Bilbao at the same time as this match is going on. Get both going so you can live the drama.
Weather: ~70F (~21C), getting colder as the night progresses, 30% chance of rain by the end of the match.
*I find this line particularly chuckle-worthy, though: “In 2000, he accepted a position with Sevilla FC as an assistant to the manager; in this capacity, he learned the rules of the game by observing Joaquín Caparrós, Juande Ramos, and more recently Manolo Jiménez.” Really? He was unsure of the rules of the game despite having played as a professional for 22 years? Maybe it was meant figuratively (as in, he learned how things went or he learned the concepts of managing), but seeing as this is a game with rules we’re talking about, that was, perhaps, a bad choice of words.
**Espanyol has 9. That’s right, 9 away goals. And they still have more away points than Tenerife (11 to 6)! And did you know that Racing Santander is the only team with a better away record than home record (22 points to 14)? That’s wacky.