30 April, 2011; 11:30 pm, IST
Estadio Municipal de Anoeta, San Sebastián
Amidst a plethora of El Clasicos, the crucial away match against Real Sociedad was almost forgotten. After a confidence-boosting, yet controversial victory against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, in UEFA Champions League, Guardiola’s men might be in good mental health to travel to the Anoeta, but will definitely not be in the prime of physical conditions. The better news is that a host of B team players are on the verge of getting some playing time, thereby substantiating their claim for a first-team place next year.
Team News and Tactical Brief
The hosts welcome FC Barcelona at the Anoeta after a hiatus of four years. Last time Barcelona visited the Basque side, the team had Zambrotta, Thuram, Gio, Edmílson, Eto’o and Ronaldinho, with Gudjohnsen and Oleguer on the bench. Frank Rijkaard was the manager of FC Barcelona then. Real Sociedad had a promising start to the season, but they soon succumbed to the quality of the La Liga, after being promoted. A collection of only four points from nine consecutive games hurt their chances of survival even more. However, Martín Lasarte’s men are now doing just enough to sustain themselves in the La Liga. With 38 points in 33 matches, they are still not guaranteed a place in the top 20 next season and a match against FC Barcelona should dent their chances even more.
The last weekend loss against rival Athletic Bilbao might just have deflated the confidence of Sociedad outfit. Appalling performance from Diego Ifran didn’t help their cause either. Lasarte’s line-up should not have much surprise. Midfielder Xabi Prieto, one of the sureshot starters, looks hopeful against the mighty Catalans – “It will be a complicated match, but I’m sure that we will get our chances if we play our cards right,” said the midfielder. Lasarte’s men know that Barcelona will be going into the match after a rough away trip to Madrid and will also be apprehensive of the return leg tie in three days time, when Madrid visits Camp Nou. The Basque side will want to capitalize on any kind of distraction and opportunity because with Barcelona’s brand of football, chances will be far and few. Sociedad must not let go even a single opportunity to hurt the Catalan giants if they want to garner any points from this fixture.
Probable Starting XI (4-2-3-1): Bravo, Martinez, Demidov, Gonzalez, Estrada, Rivas, Aranburu, Griezmann, Zurutuza, Prieto, Ifran.
The defending Spanish Champions still need 7 more points to seal the league. In the midst of all the El Clasico mêlée, the importance of matches like the ones against Sociedad, Deportivo and Espanyol were somehow forgotten! However, Guardiola is as wary as ever. The Gaffer had recently responded to Mourinho’s provocations and also grilled out a result against Jose’s men at the Bernabeu. However, the past has never been a factor for Guardiola and it is not unknown that he will have the most immaculate of preparations against the Txuri-urdin.
Lionel Messi, the contender to break Mario Jardel’s 55 goals in a single season record (of recent times), is injured. A minor muscle tear might jeopardize the Argentine’s chances of makin it into this match. Keeping in mind the UCL return leg of paramount importance, Guardiola might not risk his star attacker. Iniesta remains on the sidelines and continues to recuperate. Puyol too has been ruled out for technical reasons. B team members – Fontàs, Thiago, Montoya, Sergi Roberto and Gerard Deulofeu have been called up to the squad. Fontas and Thiago are most likely to make the cut and get the nod to start.
After a fantastic cameo against Madrid, Ibrahim Afellay can expect a place in the starting XI and would be partnered by Villa and either Jeffren or Pedro upfront. In either case the Asturian striker should begin from the centre, where he broke his 11-match goal drought. Pique and Alves select themselves with their fitness and stamina. For the rest of the two slots, it would be a permutation of Fontas, Mascherano and Milito. Xavi, Keita and Alcantara are expected to run the midfield.
Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): Valdes, Alves, Pique, Fontas, Milito, Xavi, Keita, Alcantara, Afellay, Villa, Jeffren
TheHardTackle’s PLAYER TO WATCH OUT FOR
Ibrahim Afellay (FC Barcelona)
After an exemplary performance against Real Madrid, the Dutch winger is definitely the key man for FC Barcelona against Sociedad. In the absence of a few key players, Afellay will be expected to provide the cutting edge to the Barcelona attacking department. A good outing might also earn him a place in the starting line-up against Madrid for the return leg Champions League fixture – keeping this in mind, the Dutch international will be extra motivated to impress the manager.
Real Sociedad 1-3 FC Barcelona
Despite the absence of key personnel, Barca enter this match as clear favourites. A win will also make sure that they take a step closer to the domestic league title. A make-shift defense might just succumb to the intelligence of Prieto, who can hurt the opposition with his vision and range of passing.