Tuesday evening’s Champions League second leg clash between FC Barcelona and Shakhtar Donetsk promises to be a pivotal encounter for the Catalan side, the importance of which cannot be overstated. Yes, Barcelona enter the match with a 5-1 first leg lead. And yes, I do expect Barcelona to progress to the semi-final stage, where they will in all likelihood encounter Real Madrid. But this match has all of the signs of a potentially bruising encounter, at a time when Barcelona need all of their players in peak form as they look to wrap up their Spanish League title chase. They will be playing Real Madrid at least twice, but more likely than not four times. In three competitions. In two weeks. I’ll let that sink in for moment.
Last week’s visit from the Ukrainian side was relatively free of the on-field violence that encounters between these two sides have produced over the past few seasons, in no small part due to the departure of Shakhtar striker Brandão for different pastures. But this game could be very different: Shakhtar have a habit of playing ferociously at home, and will be looking to restore some of their wounded pride in front of what will probably be a sell-out crowd. As injuries continue to mount for the Catalan side the most important goal for Guardiola’s men should be to escape this game without any injuries, and of course, with a ticket to the semi-finals.
A somewhat makeshift lineup will likely be on display this Tuesday, with Puyol and Bojan out through injury, Abidal still recovering from surgery, and “Don” Andres suspended through an accumulation of yellow cards. Valdes will start behind a back four that will probably be a repeat of the first leg, albeit with Maxwell lining up on the left in place of Adriano. The midfield should be interesting: I’m tipping Keita to start, especially given his fantastic goal in the first leg. Alongside the Malian will be Mascherano (who will be suspended for El Clásico), with Thiago filling in the third spot. It’s clear that Guardiola intends to use the youngster on a more regular basis, and an excellent performance against Almeria on the weekend has shown that he is indeed capable of playing at the highest level.
The loss of Bojan to injury for the remainder of the season, while on the face of things not a disaster, could have serious implications for the coming few games. I expected him to start this game, so his absence forces Guardiola’s hand to use some of the more prolific first teamers. David Villa should start, with an eye towards regaining his goal scoring habits before the encounters with Madrid arrive. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pedro and Afellay starting up top alongside the Asturian, with Pep hoping he can give Messi a well-deserved rest. I don’t want to see Messi play at all if it can be helped.
Shakhtar could be without influential captain Srna and Razvan Rat is out on suspension, but other than that will likely be walking out of the tunnel with a lineup unchanged from the first leg. The notable exception to this could well be Eduardo, who I would be surprised to see start this game on the bench. Ex-Barcelona man Chigrinskiy will probably not play due to injury. Also, Chyzov and Kucher’s fitness is doubted.
It’s almost impossible to imagine Guardiola’s team throwing away a four-goal lead, and nobody in their right mind would wager otherwise. I expect Shakhtar to go for broke, as they say in America, and launch wave after wave of attack, because hey, they’ve got nothing to lose. It’s plain to see that Piqué and Busquets are not a natural pairing in the back, but nobody can blame big Busquets as he continues to fill-in where needed. As we saw in the first leg, a failure to communicate between these two is likely Shakhtar’s best route to goal, and I expect the Ukrainian outfit to be ruthless this time around. Barcelona must be careful not to underestimate their opponents; losing possession anywhere near the halfway line will result in a lightning quick counter attack, the likes of which Busquets is unlikely to be able to stop. With an eye on the upcoming fixture list Barcelona will need to play this game carefully.
Barcelona Lineup: Valdes, Alves, Piqué, Busquets, Maxwell, Keita, Mascherano, Thiago, Villa, Pedro, Afellay
Shakhtar Lineup: Pyatov, Rakitskiy, Ischenko, Kucher, Chyzhov, Hubschman, Mkhitraryan, Willian, Douglas Costa, Jadson, Eduardo.
Match Prediction: 2-2