With all of the coverage surrounding last weekend’s 0-8 drubbing of Almeria and the bi-annual media insanity leading up to El Clàsico (and Catalan parliamentary elections thrown in just to make things interesting), you can be forgiven for forgetting that FC Barcelona have an important midweek clash in the Champions League this Wednesday. Traveling Eastward to face Panathinaikos in Athens, the Catalan side can guarantee progression out of the group with a win; a win in Greece, combined with an FC Copenhagen loss at Rubin Kazan would assure Barcelona of winning the group outright.
With all eyes firmly fixed on next Monday’s meeting with arch rivals Real Madrid, Barcelona coach Guardiola will surely pick a somewhat makeshift squad with the intention of giving some of his players a rest before El Clàsico. What does this mean, exactly? It means that Messi probably won’t start, but will certainly come off of the bench in the second half if needed. It also means that Xavi may be given a much needed rest in favor of Mascherano in the midfield. Then again Guardiola may decide to field a strong team to quickly and decisively crush Panathinaikos, and then bring on the kids from La Masia in the second half to get some European experience. It’s a tough call. Either way, Andreu Fontàs deserves to be considered for a start after his solid performance in Almeria.
The only two players from the first team not making the trip to Greece are Pinto (still serving out a two match ban), and the injured Milito. How many times has that last bit been written out during the last few seasons? Abidal should make the trip, although his match fitness is still uncertain, and Jeffren should return from the knock picked up against Ceuta in the Copa Del Rey.
FC Barcelona’s Predicted Lineup: Valdés, Alves, Piqué, Fontàs, Maxwell, Busquets, Mascherano, Iniesta, Bojan, Villa, Pedro
Over in Athens a few things have changed since these two teams met last in September. Panathinaikos have sacked manager Nikos Nioplias after a poor string of results, and have found an experienced replacement in Portugal’s Manuel Jesualdo Ferriera (formerly of Benfica, FC Porto and Málaga, to name just a few). The arrival of the traveling Portugese seemed to do the trick, as Panathinaikos promptly returned to their winning ways with a 4-2 thrashing of mid-table side Iraklis. Two goals from Djibril Cissé should remind everyone why he was brought along in France’s disastrous World Cup squad, and whoever is marking him should be wary of his (sometimes) dazzling skill. Former Spanish international Luis Garcia also bagged himself a goal, as did Greece’s Antonis Petropoulous. Panathinaikos go into Wednesday’s match without any major injury worries.
Panathinaikos Predicted Lineup: Tzorvas, Boumsong, Vyntra, Spyropoulos, Gilberto Silva, Katsouranis, Plessis, Karagounis, Cissé, Luis Garcia, Petropoulos
Predictions: This is a game with a good deal of meaning for both teams. Barcelona’s performance will be written about to no end in the press as the definitive preview to El Clàsico, and will be decisive in their pursuit of progress to the tournament’s knockout sage. Escaping the match up without any injuries to the first team will be a chief aim for the blaugrana.
For Panathinaikos, currently lying at the bottom of Group D with two points from four matches, anything but a win will doom them to crash out of this season’s Champions League. That being said, qualification for the knockout stage would require a win over Barcelona, a subsequent victory against FC Copenhagen, and a string of equally unrealistic results for Rubin Kazan. More likely Panathinaikos will be shooting for the third place parachute down into the Europa League.
Ah yes, a prediction. After September’s 5-1 demolition of the Greeks at the Camp Nou, and the recent form of the Catalans in the league, can anything but a win be the result? It seems highly unlikely that Panathinaikos can recreate the counter attacking form of the Danes that was so successful in Copenhagen on the last European match day. As long as Barcelona remain wary of the Greek counter attack, everything should be fine.
3-1 to FC Barcelona.