Saturday, 21 February, 2000 CET - Camp Nou, Barcelona
The big question in Spain this week has been whether Barcelona’s 2-2 draw with Real Betis last weekend constitutes a blip in their almost flawless season. There is no denying that Pep Guardiola’s silky side were not at the races in the opening period, finding themselves 2-0 down, and it took a controversial and highly disputed penalty kick to kick-start their comeback.
However, in the second half, Betis goalkeeper Ricardo was outstanding, pulling off a string of saves, but was helpless to stop Samuel Eto’o levelling the scores five minutes from time.
So does a point away from home to a resurgent Verdiblancos side register as a slip-up, or simply a hard-fought result on the way to clinching the title? The Blaugrana still have a huge ten point lead over their closest challengers Real Madrid, and the general consensus is that it would be the greatest comeback in the history of the Primera Division if the champions can claw back that deficit.
Pep Guardiola has been as cautious as is possible with his remarks to the press this season, accepting praise where it has been bestowed but also immediately pointing out that his side will not change down through the gears until the trophies are in the cabinet.
The Catalan coach does however have Lyon appearing on the horizon as the Champions League begins in earnest, and it may affect his team selection for this weekend's clash with Espanyol. Barcelona will be expected to see off the French champions in Europe but they are by no means certain of qualification, and it would be no surprise to see Guardiola shuffle his pack to employ a starting line-up closer to his Copa Del Rey eleven - although he has confirmed that he will unleash Lionel Messi from the start after leaving him on the bench for the last two matches.
It is also, of course, a derby match, and despite the predicament that their city rivals find themselves in, the Blaugrana will be wary of the extra passion and desire that surrounds this type of fixture.
Espanyol coach Mauricio Pochettino will hope that coupled with the extra verve of playing the champions-in-waiting, his side may collect a slice of luck on the way. Los Periquitos were deserving of at least a point at home to Sevilla but squandered excellent opportunities before
Frederic Kanoute dispatched a deadly double to seal the points.
The side aren’t playing badly, but time is definitely running out in the battle to beat the drop. It is looking more and more like three from four at the foot of La Liga, with Osasuna, Numancia, Real Mallorca and Espanyol separated by just 3 points. The latter are rock bottom, in what has been a horrible year for them. They have suffered a succession of injuries to key players, a horrendous run of results, and the lack of patience with coaches has seen their circumstances spiral further out of control.
With Real Madrid and Villarreal to follow the weekend clash in the Camp Nou, Espanyol are in serious trouble of being isolated at the bottom of the table, and their stunning state of the art new stadium was not built on a Segunda Division budget. Quite simply, Pochettino’s men need to start getting wins as soon as possible, but there can be few places in Europe at the moment where you will receive less sympathy than at Camp Nou, facing Guardiola’s rampant line-up.
Feb 14 Real Betis 2-2 Barcelona (LA LIGA)
Feb 08 Barcelona 3-1 Sporting Gijon (LA LIGA)
Feb 05 Barcelona 2-0 Mallorca (COPA DEL REY)
Feb 01 Racing 1-2 Barcelona (LA LIGA)
Jan 29 Barcelona 3-2 Espanyol (COPA DEL REY)
Feb 14 Espanyol 0-2 Sevilla (LA LIGA)
Feb 08 Getafe 1-1 Espanyol (LA LIGA)
Feb 01 Espanyol 1-1 Recreativo (LA LIGA)
Jan 29 Barcelona 3-2 Espanyol (LA LIGA)
Jan 25 Valladolid 1-1 Espanyol (LA LIGA)
Andres Iniesta has picked up a knock and will miss out, while Carlos Puyol will be given until the last minute to recover from a leg knock suffered against Betis last weekend. Gabriel Milito remains a long-term concern, and Guardiola has also confirmed that Lionel Messi will definitely start the match after coming off the bench in the last two Primera Division matches.
Probable Starting XI: Valdes, Alves, Marquez, Puyol/Pique, Abidal, Xavi, Hleb, Busquets/Toure, Messi, Eto’o, Henry
Rufete has recovered in time and is in contention to play, while Angel Martinez will also return following contracting flu during the week. However, Steve Finnan terrible injury run continues, and Valdo also misses out again. Midfielder Lola Smilijanic is suspended following his red card versus Sevilla on Sunday. Most crucially though, goalkeeper Carlos Kameni faces a late fitness test and is a serious doubt for the match. Raul Tamudo, the club captain, is back and in contention to start.
Probable Starting XI: Kameni/Alvarez, Torrejon, Pareja, Sergio Sanchez, De La Pena, Roman, Alonso, Luis Garcia, Nene, Coro/ Tamudo
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Speculation continues to rage as to Samuel Eto’o's preferred destination should he decide to leave the Camp Nou, but for now he is having a sensational season and his last-gasp equaliser at Betis typified his lethal striking instinct. If Espanyol continue to defend as poorly as they have recently, Eto’o will tear them apart. He is a certainty for the Pichichi award and it would be no surprise to see him add to his 23-goal tally this weekend.
Carlos Kameni, if fit to play, could be key man in this fixture as he faces up to the hottest striking trio in world football at the moment. The young goalkeeper may be moving on in the summer but will be desperate to keep the side who nurtured his talent in the Primera Division. He will need to be at his absolute best to keep Barca at bay.
Espanyol will make things slightly more difficult than the league table suggests they should, but this Barcelona side do not slip up two weeks in a row, and they will run out comfortable winners.
Barcelona 3-0 Espanyol
Paul Macdonald, Goal.com