Another elegant Barcelona performance saw the Catalan side register an impressive 4-1 victory over sixth-placed Athletic Bilbao on Saturday night, a result which keeps their championship dreams very much alive going into a week which sees the Camp Nou outfit take on both Arsenal and title contenders Real Madrid.
Pep rings the changes
With an eye on the forthcoming Champions League second-leg clash with Arsenal on Tuesday, Pep Guardiola made several changes to his side, with Jeffren Suarez, Dmytro Chygrynskyi, Eric Abidal, Bojan Krkic and Yaya Toure coming in for Dani Alves, Xavi, Pedro, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Seydou Keita – all of whom started in North London in midweek. The most worrying development for Guardiola was the injury suffered by Ibrahimovic in the warm-up, the Swedish striker tearing his calf muscle and now highly likely to play any part in the Camp Nou on Tuesday night.
However, despite this blow to Barca’s European preparations, the 19 year-old Bojan proved himself an able deputy with two superb finishes to sink Los Leones and take a 3 point lead over Real Madrid – albeit with Los Blancos having a game in hand. Bojan’s goals were added to by Messi and Jeffren – who scored his first competitive strike for Barcelona – both of whom had bright games attacking from the flanks (although Messi was deployed as more of an inside forward).
To look at Bilbao’s performance, despite being outplayed for large periods of the game – Barca enjoyed 70% of possession during the first half hour – Joaquin Caparros’ side could take heart from the number of opportunities they carved out against their Catalan opponents. Fernando Llorente continually got into good positions without, unusually, being able to apply the finish, whilst Markel Susaeta was lively in his role behind the striker and was rewarded for his endeavours with his side’s only goal after 77 minutes. Gorka Iraizoz, Athletic’s eternally reliable custodian, put on a good display between the posts on a night when his side played fairly well, but was unable to prevent Bilbao from being outclassed by a simply superior group of players.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the game, particularly in the context of Tuesday’s Champions League clash, was the handful of defensive options Guardiola considered ahead of the Arsenal game when he will be without the suspended Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique. Eric Abidal, who tonight returned from a long injury lay-off, looked very bright at left-back and, with Maxwell (who played on the left side of Barca’s midfield three last night) having done well on the left of defence of late, could find himself deployed at centre-half against – reportedly the Frenchman’s favourite position – against Arsenal next week.
Guardiola afforded £25m Ukrainian Dmytro Chyrgynskyi a rare start, playing him in the heart of the defence where he proceeded to play his way out of any chance he may have had of featuring in the Champions League. Looking sluggish and constantly out of position, Chyrgynskyi was made to look foolish by Llorente and Susaeta as they exposed the lumbering defender’s numerous flaws. Despite the club having shelled out a good deal of money on the Ukrainian, it’s hard to imagine Chyrgynskyi staying at Camp Nou beyond the end of the season and even harder to envisage him partnering Gabriel Milito in the centre of defence on Tuesday.
The other potential central-defensive option Guardiola has at his disposal is Yaya Toure, the Ivorian featuring in his usual central midfield berth against Bilbao having been somewhat surprisingly omitted at The Emirates on Wednesday. With Chyrgynskyi playing so poorly, Guardiola may have missed an opportunity to try Toure out at centre-half after the break, the player having shown some potential in the position in the past.
With Dani Alves, who was suspended for last night’s game at Camp Nou, returning to action on Tuesday, Barcelona’s defence will hardly be weak come Arsenal’s visit to Catalonia, but Guardiola will have to exercise a degree of caution to ensure that what will be a slightly makeshift back four are not overloaded by the Gunners’ talented attacking unit. For now, at least, Barcelona continue along the road to retaining both their European and domestic titles, but Tuesday night could represent their toughest test yet.
Probable XI vs Arsenal: