Through 4 games in the 2010-11 Champions League campaign Barcelona has been moving along in a rather up-and-down fashion, roughly the equivalent of a season of “Mad Men”: never terrible, occasionally missing its stride, but brilliant the rest of the time. Simply, unequivocally, brilliant. In our first foray into continental competitions this year, the boys brutally decimated Panathinaikos 5-1. Then a trot of 1-1 at Kazan, 2-0 to Copenhagen, and 1-1 to Copenhagen leaving us top of the group with 8 points and holding tiebreakers over second-place Copenhagen, who sit on 7 points. A win here and we are one step closer to qualifying in 1st for the Round of 16. So without further adieu, let’s Preview.
By way of full disclosure, I am doing your preview today as Isaiah has been on one hell of a bender lately and was at one point declared legally dead this weekend after 4 zombie jager bombs, a drink we recently invented that involves jager, Red Bull, and tequila. It attained the name “zombie” because it actually kills the drinker for a short time before resurrection. Nice week for you to go down Isaiah, nice. Seriously though, these will not be as long as normal because my finals have sucked the life out of me, so I hope you can fend for yourselves for the time being.
Anyway, this Panathinaikos game is a pickle to predict because of the team’s historical impotency in CL road games under Pep and the Greecian’s historical steeliness at home. Yet, the boys are hitting on all cylinders right now and Messi has decided that playing god was not enough so he had to become the creator of all things and destroy all in his path (including the Brazilians). The team also seems to be bucking some trends recently. As has been noted, Barça rarely scores much at Almeria, then again, we decided that 8 goals were just enough to salt the earth on the way back home. Combine this with Pana’s complete lack of offensive prowess in the CL (they have scored exactly 1 goal this year in Europe, on a keeper punt and poor defense to open up against us in September), and we have ourselves sort of a conundrum.
Until we look deeper. Look, I am wrong about a great many things, but our boys are playing their best right now. After grinding out one against Valencia 2-1, we’ve rolled off scores of 2-0, 5-0, 3-1, 3-1, and 8-0 in all competitions. That’s over a month of solid play with our offense finally getting the goals it needs and capitalizing on chances. Villa has found his touch and has 6 goals, Messi we have already discussed, even Bojan has gotten in on it of late, and Pedro has come on as well. This combined with the apparent regeneration of Xavi’s achilles and Alves doing everything on the field at once means the boys are more formidable across the board and are getting solid contributions from as many spots as possible, and others are continuing to learn and grow before our eyes (I’m looking at your Biscuits and Pique). In short: we need to put this one away early, hold the lead, and continue the stellar play before that other game on Monday.
Of course the team is not carrying its full compliment of players. Pep is bringing 20 guys to Greece including Valdes, Mino, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Maxwell, Abidal, Adriano, Fontas, Xavi, Iniesta, Thiago, Mascherano, Biscuits, Keita, Villa, Bojan, Messi, Jeffren, and Pedro. Good to see Fontas and Thiago getting more burn with the big boys. Missing from this list are Milito, injured, and Pinto, whistling. Not crushing blows, but hopefully we wouldn’t need them anyway. Tactically we should be looking at doing the exact same things we always do, though Pep may decide to rest a couple of guys looking ahead, even though it is not his normal style. I’d like to see Fontas and Thiago start, but I doubt that happens either.
We will see if any huge changes are made to the starters. As much as Pep and everyone in the club really wants to say that no one is looking ahead, that’s a load of crap. Real Madrid is looking like the biggest game of the year by far now that both teams are in stride and an injury to any player, even a role player, would be harmful to the efforts. This has to come into effect when Pep is determining starters. Then again, this is Pep, so we may have Valdes playing DM, Puyol in goal, and Messi at right back, weaving his way up the pitch. I am going to predict a strong lineup to go out and stomp this one out early and then early subs for Xavi, Iniesta, and Villa. We will know how Copenhagen fared by game time since they play early in Russia. With a loss or a draw there and a win for us we will clinch 1st in the group.
Predicted Lineup: Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Pique, Maxwell, Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi, Villa, Messi, Bojan
Final Score: 4-0, goals by Villa (2), Messi, and Busquets (why not right?)
Game time: 2:45 EST. Right now, the only TV I see showing up in America is a replay at 5:00 EST on FSC, but I may be missing something on one of Direct TV’s 3,000 channels.
Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images Europe