The Champions League! It’s back! As if that wasn’t exciting enough, it returns at a pivotal moment in Catalunya’s history: for the first time in over seventy years, talk of independence from Spain has taken on a serious tone among those who are in a position to make it possible. Barcelona also find themselves eight points above Real Madrid in La Liga, and while this is a trivial note in the face of the broader political narrative, it’s just the icing on the cake, isn’t it.
Spartak Moscow travel to the Camp Nou this Wednesday evening for the start of Champions League action in Group G. The Russians are coached by a face familiar to Barcelona fans, and host several players whose names should ring a few bells, too. Students of Catalan history will have a little chuckle at the irony of a group of Russians appearing in Barcelona at just this moment, given their tacit involvement in past aspirations of independence, but that’s too esoteric a subject for these confines.
For Tito Vilanova this match is an important moment: success in La Liga needs to be matched with success in Europe, and a winning start in front of the Camp Nou crowd will help to extinguish any nagging thoughts of Guardiola. Unfortunately for Tito, he doesn’t have a full squad at his disposal. Andrés Iniesta remains sidelined with a thigh injury picked up on international duty, while Carles Puyol has been sidelined for six weeks with ligament damage sustained against Getafe on Sunday. Jordi Alba and Alexis Sánchez also remain doubtful for this game, but a last minute appearance by either of them does not seem entirely out of the question.
Even with these conspicuous absences Vilanova still has quite an arsenal to select from (no pun intended, given the exodus of midfielders the Catalans have absorbed from the London side in recent times). With the exception of Puyol and a few minor tweaks, this should be a similar squad to the one that lined up against Getafe on the weekend. We should see Valdés in goal with Alves, Piqué, Mascherano and Adriano making up the back four, and a midfield of Xavi, Busquets and Fàbregas. While it would be nice to see Song get some playing time, and I think he will as the match drags on, Cesc has too much European experience not to start out the campaign. Up top I’d like to see Tello, Messi and Pedro; Villa’s fine scoring form belies the fact that he’s not yet at 100% match fitness, but don’t be surprised to see him come on late and snatch a goal.
Spartak Moscow arrive in the Catalan capital having already endured several months of Champions League qualifiers and action in the Russian league. This is a team that’s had a good deal of time to gel as a unit, but Spartak nonetheless currently find themselves sitting mid-table in their domestic league. This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, though: they’ve gone on a spending spree over the summer, taking in six new players while disposing of eight through loans and sales. Two of these arrivals, in particular, bring a great deal of European experience: Lyon stalwart Kim Källström and on-loan Schalke midfielder José Jurado. They join familiar foreign faces like former Celtic winger Aiden McGeady and ex-Espanyol center back Nicolás Pareja, while the arrival of Russian international Diniyar Bilyaletdinov from Everton has added some much-needed attacking strength to the wings.
Then there is Spartak’s new coach, and Unai Emery is an odd one. The former midfielder is best known for his four year spell at the helm of Valencia, but it’s interesting to note that he’s never won in the Camp Nou with either of his former teams (the other being Almeria). He always seemed an “impassioned” coach, as the pundits like to say, but I always thought that was just the polite term for “nutter”. Nevertheless, the man from the Basque country successfully steered his new flock through the qualifiers, so perhaps there’s something to be said for his managerial style. David Villa certainly seems to think highly of him.
Right then, off to the Spartak lineup prediction. One can only glean so much from watching highlights from the Russian league, so here’s my best guess: We should see Ukraine international Andriy Dykan in goal, while in front of the big man I expect to see Kombarov, Insaurralde, Czech international Marek Suchý, and the second Kombarov on the left (you’ve read that correctly, there are two Kombarovs playing for Spartak’s back line). In the midfield I expect to see José Jurado dictating play next to holding midfielder Romulo, with Källström , McGeady, Bilyaletdinov and Artem Dzyuba leading the attack.
While it’s easy to dismiss teams from the outer fringes of Europe, and I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself, Spartak boast an impressive lineup of experienced internationals who won’t be intimidated by what should be a raucous Camp Nou. Unai Emery is quite the tactician, and will have no doubt had his team spend a good deal of time practicing set pieces, from which the Catalans are so often punished. That being said, it’s hard not to see a victory for Barcelona at home given their fine start to the season thus far. Messi continues to be his ridiculous goal scoring self, while the rest of the team seems to be finding its groove too. The first half against Getafe served to highlight a few areas that Barcelona must focus on, but in the end their desire to see their new coach off to a winning start in Europe should be all the drive the Blaugrana need.
Prediction: FC Barcelona 3-1 Spartak Moscow
FC Barcelona Lineup: Valdés, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano, Xavi, Busquets, Fàbregas, Tello, Messi, Pedro
Spartak Moscow Lineup: Dykan, Kombarov, Insaurralde, Suchý, Kombarov, Jurado, Romulo, Källström, McGeady, Bilyaletdinov, Dzyuba
Image credit: UEFA