The imminence of El Clásico brushes away most other thoughts as it approaches, with the week leading up to this epic match a blur of hysterical Marca headlines proclaiming the moral superiority of Madrid’s men in white. It is easy to forget, dear reader, that Tuesday heralds the last game of Champions League action for 2011, with the arrival of Belorussia’s BATE Borisov to contest the final game of Group H. Having firmly secured top spot in the group following a thrilling encounter against Italian rivals AC Milan a fortnight ago, Barça have little to play for but pride; for BATE things are not so simple. Sitting bottom of the table, the Belorussian side enter the final match day fighting for third place, and the golden parachute into the Europa League. As much of Barcelona’s first team rests for this weekend’s decisive match against arch rivals Real Madrid, Borisov look set to face a youthful Catalan side in what should prove an excellent opportunity for the younger players to gain some European experience in front of a home crowd.
FC Barcelona Team News
As the Champions League draw came to a close last August, it was hard not to imagine the very scenario that the Catalans now find themselves in. Drawn alongside the Rossoneri and the champions of the Czech Republic and Belorussia, many a Culè predicted that a duel with the Italians would decide Barcelona’s fate in the group. Now guaranteed winners of the group and still undefeated in the tournament, the Catalans find themselves part of a large, yet somehow smaller game that plays out over the course of the final few group games. BATE sit at the foot of Group H with a mere two points from five matches played, desperately hoping that a string of unlikely results allow the team to leapfrog Plzen into third place. Two points separate the two sides, and with BATE’s goal difference better by just one, the side from Borisov will be able to pull off a minor miracle if it can manage to take three points in the Camp Nou, and hope that Plzen manage no better than a draw. It is very possible that this duel at the bottom will go to goal difference, so get out your calculators and get ready to take sides.
Luckily for BATE, Saturday’s match with Madrid offers a glimmer of hope. Guardiola will no doubt rest the majority of his first team in preparation for the trip to the Spanish capital, and Borisov must surely be hoping that a distracted Barcelona side will be low hanging fruit for a lightning fast counter attack. The question of player selection for a match such as this causes hand wringing and disagreement even among fast friends: Should Pep field a side full of B team players? Start a few of the first team members to have a run out before El Clásico? I won’t even attempt to perform any psychoanalysis of the infallible Catalan boss; we will trust in Pep, as we always have, and remember how lucky we are.
This is a match I’d like to see Pinto play. The unspoken agreement with management that he plays only Copa Del Rey games creates the odd situation where he ends up playing in games that require much more goalkeeper action than most, and this should be another. While I’m no fan of the his cornrows, it seems only fair that Barcelona’s second goalkeeper get into the action at least once in a while.
The defense is a similar story. I would not be surprised to see Piquè start on the right,with Fontàs starting next to one of the two young Marcs, either Bartra or Muniesa. Nobody can forget the short lived debut of the latter of these two youth players, who managed to get sent off after coming on as a substitute against Osasuna during the 2008-2009 season. And on the left? The much maligned Maxwell. It is clear that many on this forum are not fans of the aging Brazilian, but his footballing brain is impeccable, and his penchant for long range shooting should be put to good use against BATE.
For those who ply their trade in the midfield, this match offers an opportunity for a few of the utility players to impress alongside Thiago, who is a shoe-in to start the match. I’d like to see Jonathan Dos Santos start as well, with someone even less well known beside him. Who might that be? How about the younger Alcântara, Rafa. The thought of seeing the two brothers finally playing together is almost irresistible, so I won’t bother trying to resist.
Up top I expect to see Pedro given a starting berth. Having recently started a number of matches form the bench the striker from the Canaries is surely looking to impress his boss with a few goals, and BATE may well be the team that suffers this misfortune. Cuenca’s fine form, capped with a wonderfully taken low goal on Saturday, should see him take up a position on the right; the explosive emergence of the man from La Masia has been a wonderful bonus early in the season, and he seems to have already cemented a position in the first team. The last striker? I’m going to go out on a limb a bit and hope that Deulofeu is finally given a start. The young man looks to be yet another phenomenon from the academy, and with a name that’s that much fun to say out loud (try doing it five times quickly in your best Catalan accent!) he has to be given a shot sooner or later.
While this lineup is not necessarily in Pep’s general order of things, as he is never one to make a team feel disrespected by fielding a weakened XI, circumstances have provided a wonderful opportunity to focus on building the youth with an eye towards Saturday. As outlandish as these selections seem, there is no reason for Guardiola to risk a single player ahead of the decisive derby match. The hope for Culès everywhere is that we finish this match unscathed. Anything else that can be taken away when the final whistle blows will just be an added bonus.
Predicted starting XI: Pinto, Piquè, Fontàs, Bartra, Maxwell, Dos Santos, Thiago, Rafinha, Pedro, Cuenca, Deulofeu
BATE Borisov Team News
BATE enter the match with the task of qualifying for the Europa League. Beaten 5-0 in Minsk in its first encounter with last season’s Champions League title holders, the side from Belorussia face an uphill battle to leapfrog current third place holders Plzen. Can the team do it? Circumstances are in its favor. The aforementioned match with Madrid means that the players face a Barcelona side that would probably rather avoid this game altogether, so surely they are cooking up a plan that relies heavily on the counter attack. If the Catalans lose possession in their own half, BATE cannot afford to be wasteful, and as the draw with AC Milan on match day four shows, they are indeed capable of claiming a large scalp.
Unfortunately for the Belorussian side things are not completely in its own hands. Sitting two points above the team in the group is Plzen, who face AC Milan at home. A win against the Rossoneri would secure third place for the Czechs, although that seems unlikely given the Italian’s recent form. BATE coach Viktor Goncharenko is surely hammering into his players the importance of securing all three points in Catalunya, because in the end this match is largely what the players make it; even a Plzen loss will do nothing for the Belorussian side if they cannot manage a win.
Right then, the BATE lineup. Having played its last game of the domestic season on November 27th, BATE’s players should be well rested for their trip to Catalunya. Still without the long-injured duo of Vitali Rodionov and Evgeni Kuntsevich, neither of whom have featured in this season’s group stage, expect to see the same side that lined up against Viktoria Plzen on the last matchday. Aleksandr Gutor will start between the posts, with defenders Marko Simic, Yego Filipenko, Maksim Bordachev and Aleksandr Yerevich all helping out in the back. Aleksandr Pavlov, Dzimitry Baha, Artem Kontsevoy and Aliaksandr Valadzko should make up the midfield, while our old friend Mateja Kezman should start the game up top alongside Renan Bressan.
Predicted Starting XI: Gutor, Simic, Filipenko, Bordachev, Yerevich, Pavlov, Baha, Kontsevoy, Valadzko, Kezman, Bressan
A prediction for this match could go a few different ways. Will youthful inexperience fold against a side that has its back against the wall to achieve a result? Are Barcelona’s younger players just a younger blueprint of the first team, capable of doing away with the visiting side? I’m inclined to believe that this match is going to be a draw. Fortune favors the visitors, who are actually playing for something more than impressing the coach. The siren call of Europa League action in the new year, not to mention the millions of Euros that come with continued appearances in continental play offer, should do more than enough to motivate BATE. Blaugrana fans should take this match as an opportunity to see some of the Camp Nou’s future heroes in action. All of that being said, I would love to be proven wrong with a destruction of Borisov at the hands of Barcelona’s fringe players. We shall soon see.
FC Barcelona 1-1 BATE Borisov