Barcelona will once again find themselves without the services of Gerard Piquè this Wednesday as they play host to the Czech Republic’s Viktoria Plzen in the third installment of UEFA Champions League Group H action. Having banished any worries of a post-international slump with a 3-0 victory over Racing Santander over the weekend, the Catalans will look to continue their fine run of form against a team that has scored a solitary goal in group play, and has yet to register a win. Still, despite the increasing ease with which Culès can be dismissive of their team as lesser opponents, it must be remembered that the Czechs qualified for the group stage after seeing off Scandinavian giants Rosenborg BK and FC Copenhagen, the latter of whom managed a 1-1 draw against Barcelona in last season’s Champions League. Do these earlier exploits hint at a possible challenge in the Camp Nou? It seems highly unlikely; the biggest shock come Wednesday evening will be when the team from the city that invented Pilsner discovers that the only beer to be had at the Camp Nou is sense alcohol.
After a week which saw a majority of the first team’s players jet off to distant lands for national duty, Barcelona extinguished any concerns of fatigue with a trademark dismantling of Racing Santander in the Camp Nou. A score line of 3-0 flattered the visiting Cantabrians, but the biggest impact of this game will yet be felt: the loss of Gerard Piquè to a hamstring strain will see the defender sidelined for a fortnight. This means a likely reappearance of Mascherano alongside Puyol in the heart of the defense against the visitors Wednesday evening. While it would be nice to see the young Fontàs get some meaningful playing time in the competition, it seems probable that coach Guardiola will instead opt for the Argentine bulldog to start.
Nobody should be surprised to see Dani Alves take up his usual spot on the right, with Abidal slotting in at the left; forced to come on for the injured Piquè Saturday evening, Abidal should start over the excellent Maxwell, who played a full 90 minutes against Santander. Also rested against Racing, expect to see Busquets in the starting line-up alongside Keita and Xavi. While I’d like to see Alcântara start and let Xavi have a rest, it doesn’t really seem like Guardiola’s style. Up top, the continued jaw-dropping excellence of Messi, Villa and Pedro should see them start.
Viktoria Plzen coach Pavel Vrba has named identical line-ups in the previous two group games, and barring some last-minute training ground injury, I don’t see why he won’t do so again. Thirty-five-year-old goalkeeper Marek Cech (no relation to his counterpart at Chelsea) should start between the sticks, with David Bystron, Marian Cisovsky, David Limbersky and Frantisek Rajtoral making up the back four of a 4-4-2. The Czech national team’s third choice keeper produced some excellent saves against AC Milan, and will have to be in similarly fine form if he is to help prevent a massacre at the Camp Nou.
Team captain Pavel Horváth, the journeyman of the team with previous spells in Portugal, Turkey and Japan should lead things from the midfield, alongside Petr Jirácek, Válav Pilar and Milan Petrzela. The usual strike pair of Marek Bakos and Daniel Kolár have so far scored only one goal between them, so don’t expect much in the way of edge-of-your-seat shooting. Coach Vrba’s post-match comments following their 2-0 defeat against AC Milan to the effect that he was happy with “…the two or three chances we created” seems to add weight to this.
So then, what will we see on the pitch Wednesday evening? The Czech bus? If the previous matches in the group are anything to go by, the answer is no. Several of the men from Plzen have a good deal of pace, as was displayed in the opening minutes in the San Siro, and several quick counter attacks on matchday two nearly resulted in a goal. Coach Vrba will likely have his men cautiously press in the opening few minutes of the game, attempting to deny Barcelona the space that they thrive in, and hope that a frustrated Catalan side begins the cheeky back passing that occasionally catches them out. An early goal at the Camp Nou would be a fantastic excuse to throw nine men back, and hope that some disciplined defending is enough to claim what would be a miraculous win.
Unfortunately for Viktora Plzen, this rarely works. European nights in the Camp Nou have a special air about them, one that even a Blaugrana side fraught with injury will use to its advantage. The absence of players like Alexis Sánchez, Fàbregas, Piquè and even Afellay would be a massive blow for any other team, but Barcelona boast more than enough talent to see off most opponents, especially at home.
Predicted FC Barcelona line-up: Valdés, Dani Alves, Mascherano, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Keita, Villa, Pedro, Messi
Predicted Viktoria Plzen line-up: Marek Cech, David Bystron, Marián Cisovsky, David Limbersky, Frantisek Rajtoral, Pavel Horváth, Petr Jirácek, Václav Pilar, Milan Petrzela, Marek Bakos, Daniel Kolár
It’s hard to imagine anything but a resounding victory for the Catalans in this game. Still tied on points for first in the group with AC Milan, Barcelona will need little encouragement to play their devastatingly effective tiki-taka in front of a home crowd. It seems a bit presumptuous to predict yet another manita, so I’ll say a solid 4-0 is in order (and hope that previous prediction results, which have tended to be off by a goal, hold true).
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