Fresh from their fourth manita of the season, Barcelona fly East to face Viktoria Plzen this Tuesday evening in the fourth installment of Champions League Group H action. Knowing that a win will book their progress to the knockout stages provided that BATE Borisov fail to beat AC Milan, the Catalans will look to extend their run of eight clean sheets in all competitions and shore up their position atop Group H. As the first of seven matches in what is a crowded November calendar, Tuesday evening offers a perfect opportunity for Guardiola to fine tune his squad ahead of the decisive trip to the San Siro later this month.
Having already watched their team dispatch Viktoria Plzen 2-0 in the Camp Nou on matchday three, Barcelona fans no-doubt fancy their chances this Tuesday evening. Saturday’s dominant display against a Mallorca side that never really got out of the gate has had the effect of lulling Culès back into their collective dreamland following a nail-biting match against Sevilla. Is Barcelona back to their devastating best after a slight road bump? It certainly seems so. That a Barcelona side without the services of Xavi, Iniesta or Fàbregas is capable of such effortless destruction bodes well for the Catalans as they enter a crowded period in the calendar.
The sudden emergence of twenty year old Isaac Cuenca has provided an added layer of cover on the wings just as the Blaugrana are forced to make do without the injured Pedro. The continued absences of Alexis Sánchez and Afellay have allowed the young Cuenca to leap up the pecking order, a feat that many disenfranchised graduates of Barcelona B must be looking at with some disdain (Jonathan Soriano comes to mind). What does this mean in the long term, once Pedro and Sánchez return to fitness? For Afellay, out of action until April while recovering from surgery, Cuenca may signal the beginning of a slow fall from the first team. While the Dutchman’s pace and trickery on the wings were a welcome addition following his fine display during last season’s epic el clásico match-up madness, the truth is that Afellay has already been outshone by Sánchez.
So then, on to Tuesday evening. With an eye towards an important trip to Bilbao on Sunday, Guardiola should name a fairly strong lineup in Plzen (and assuming all goes well, throw in a few substitutes after the half). The increasingly bored looking Valdès will start in goal as always, and I expect to see Mascherano and Piqué directly in front of him. “Shakira’s boyfriend”, as my female friends now refer to him, needs some more playing time to get back to match fitness, and this represents an excellent opportunity to do so. On the right Dani Alves will take up his usual position, while on the left I’d like to see Maxwell given the nod. Abidal is in need of a rest, and I expect Guardiola to keep Adriano on the bench for some work on the wings in the latter stages of the match.
In the midfield I think it reasonable to expect Thiago, Busquets and Iniesta thrown together. Despite his obvious talent, Thiago still has a lot to learn from his more senior compatriots, and there’s no better venue to gain that experience than a European away night. Up front I’d like to see Cuenca re-join Messi and Villa, and I expect that I’m not the only one harboring this hope after his recent performance against Mallorca.
Barcelona Lineup (Predicted): Valdès, Dani Alves, Mascherano, Piqué, Maxwell, Thiago, Busquets, Iniesta, Cuenca, Messi, Villa
Despite managing their own manita on Saturday against Hradec Králové, Viktoria Plzen must surely now be aiming for the third place parachute into the Europa League. Two losses and a tie see the Czech’s sitting at the foot of Group H below BATE Borisov on goal difference, and still have only a solitary goal to their name. Things don’t bode well for Plzen, who now face a tough fight against BATE for third place.
Expect to see the same eleven from the first encounter in the Camp Nou to come out of the tunnel on Tuesday evening: Marek Cech, David Bystron, Marián Cisovsky, David Limbersky, Frantisek Rajtoral, Pavel Horváth, Petr Jirácek, Václav Pilar, Milan Petrzela, Marek Bakos and Daniel Kolár. Not a terribly in-depth team preview it must be said, but if anyone speaks Czech and would like to provide this reporter with some translation work, then perhaps next match’s byline won’t have a single name attached to it.
Viktoria Plzen Lineup (Predicted): Marek Cech, David Bystron, Marián Cisovsky, David Limbersky, Frantisek Rajtoral, Pavel Horváth, Petr Jirácek, Václav Pilar, Milan Petrzela, Marek Bakos and Daniel Kolár
Fighting to shore up progression to the knockout stage, expect Barcelona to come out firing on all cylinders in an effort to finish things off in the first period. Still, the added boost of some boisterous home fans could give the Czechs the boost they need to finally put in a goal or two, and should not be written off entirely. There is certainly potential for this to be an exciting match, but almost no potential for it ending in favor of the Czechs.
Barcelona 3-1 Viktoria Plzen