Spring is a tumultuous time in the footballing world. Dreams of league and cup titles are cemented or crushed, injuries mount, and for Barcelona fans those magical European nights in the latter stages of the Champions League beckon like the women of the night that prowl outside the Camp Nou.
FC Barcelona play host to Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk this Wednesday in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie, and with an eye on the challenging schedule that lies ahead will be looking to put the tie to bed at home. Mounting injuries appear to have finally caught up with the Catalans, and coach Guardiola will be hoping that his players are capable of dispatching a Shakhtar side that have played some exciting football to reach this stage of the competition.
Having met seven times prior to this Wednesday evening, Barcelona go into the game having won four of their previous meetings, tying one and losing two. Their most recent meeting, an extra-time victory in the UEFA Super Cup in August 2009, included a number of now-departed players, including Dmytro Chygrynskiy. His sale back at a €10 million loss to Shakhtar was a forgettable deal indeed. His departure also meant that Barcelona went into the season with a dearth of central defenders. But I digress.
Victor Valdes will need to continue his fantastic run of form in goal this Wednesday if Barcelona are able to overcome their defensive weaknesses. A man of the match performance against Villarreal once again highlighted the crucial role the big keeper plays, and his defense will be given a huge psychological boost with the return of Gerard Piqué following his suspension in the second-leg against Arsenal in the previous round of play, but who he partners in the heart of the defense is at the moment a contentious question. With Puyol not yet back from injury, all eyes fall on recent centre-back stand-in Sergio Busquets. Despite a sub-par performance on Saturday, Busquets is the only real option: Gabi Milito lacks the pace to deal with the quick Ukrainian attack, and Fontàs is as-yet untested on the European stage.
Dani Alves should start at his usual right back position, and Adriano will likely take up at left back as Eric Abidal continues his recovery from surgery and Maxwell nurses a slight groin strain. In midfield things look decidedly better. Xavi, suspended from La Liga action at the weekend, should return well-rested and will likely partner Mascherano, who has been excellent, and proud-new father Iniesta in the middle. These three playing together represents possibly the best midfield lineup in the world, and should make Shakhtar think twice about pushing forward without reserve.
At the top, things are equally straightforward, although the final line-up will depend on who’s fit. Having played a good part of the second half against Villarreal, Messi will be looking to marshal the Catalans forward, supported by Villa to his left. But what of the third striker? If Pedro is able to return from injury, he will start: Bojan has looked ineffective in front of goal as of late, and Afellay is, in my opinion, more useful in the midfield. If Pedro is unable to pass a late fitness test, I expect Bojan to start. Or it could be Afellay. It’s anyone’s guess, but one gets the feeling that Guardiola will tip the hardworking young Catalan over the Dutchman.
Shakhtar, meanwhile, arrive in the Catalan capital relatively free of injuries and in excellent form. A commanding 12-point lead atop the Ukrainian league all but assures them of another championship, so their focus will no doubt be a continued run in the Champions League (the quarter-final appearance represents their best showing in the tournament thus far).
Goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov has been in excellent form for the Ukrainian side, allowing a meager six goals in this seasons Champions League, and will likely be put through his paces by the Barcelona strikers come Wednesday night. Shakhtar’s defense is equally formidable, and includes a familiar face: our old friend Dmytro Chigrynskiy. While the big Ukrainian failed to live up to his billing during his solitary season at the Camp Nou, his defensive capabilities should not be underestimated. He’ll likely be partnered with Ukrainian national teammate Yaroslav Rakytsky in the centre of defense, while the wing back positions should be made up of the impressive Darijo Srna and Razvan Rat. Srna, who captains both Shakhtar and his native Croatia, has been singled out for praise by none other than Johan Cruyff. He’ll be tasked with marking David Villa, but will also be responsible for launching long balls down-field for the counter attack; his ability to do so effectively will likely play a major role in the game’s outcome.
Shakhtar’s midfield is a motley assortment of international players, including the Brazilian starlets that have been plying their trade in Europe’s fringe leagues as of late. The Czech Republic’s Tomas Hubschman is the defensive rock of the Ukrainian midfield, and should start in the middle. The wings will likely be made up of a pair of young Brazilians: Willian da Silva, and his compatriot Douglas Costa. Shakhtar host several other young attack-minded midfielders, so it’s quite possible that Alex Teixerra or Armenia’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan will play a part at some point.
The real threat to Barcelona’s hopes of a trip to the semi-final stage is Shakhtar’s strike pair. Eduardo has put in a number of fine performances this season, notably against his former club Arsenal, and poses a real challenge to the Catalans makeshift defense. His partner in crime is Brazil’s Luiz Adriano, the club’s top scorer with 15 goals to his name this season. Four of those goals have come in the Champions League, so Piqué should have his hands full come Wednesday.
Match Prediction: Barcelona at home, even in the depleted defensive state they currently find themselves in, are a force to be reckoned with. Shakhtar, however, have so far proven that they too cannot be counted out; falling asleep at the helm against the lightning-quick Ukrainian outlfit can result in the sort of upset handed out to Arsenal in the group stage. As long as Barcelona can keep some sort of order in defense, and somebody remembers to stay back during the attacking buildup, they should be able to bide their time and wait for the right opportunity to strike. A fully=fit Barcelona midfield is a force of nature, capable of shutting down even the best opponents. As Johan Cruyff said, “Without the ball, you can’t win”.
FC Barcelona 4-1 Shakhtar Donetsk