Barcelona’s top players are back from the first international break of the season, the big summer signing has been preparing for his debut and the Blaugrana are set to begin one of their most active stretches of the season with a Catalan Derby against Espanyol.
Espanyol has started the season with mixed results. They secured an impressive point in their opener away at Sevilla, but then lost 1-0 at home to Leganes. Enrique Sánchez Flores’ best XI is largely unchanged from last season, and he has stuck with the 4-4-2 formation he lined his team up most frequently in last season.
During the summer Espanyol did a fantastic job to acquire Pablo Piatti on a permanent basis after he spent last season on loan at the club from Valencia. Piatti had 10 goals and 10 assists last season and is the team’s creative force playing wide on either side of the pitch. Up front, top goalscorer from last season Gerard Moreno is joined by Leo Baptistao, who seems poised for a breakout season. He scored a brilliant goal against Sevilla, and the 25-year-old Brazilian gives Espanyol a pacey and dynamic strike force when they are in form.
It is easy to forget that Espanyol finished eighth last season and had their best point total (56) in more than a decade. They were a bit short on goals, but defensively they were solid and the addition of Brazilian centerback Naldo (no, not that one, the other one) reinforces their backline.
That said, for the past decade or so Espanyol hasn’t put up much of a fight at the Nou Camp, losing seven straight away fixtures, usually in dispiriting fashion. This is a rivalry match and there will be heated moments, but Barcelona will have more to worry about in the reverse fixture at the Estadi Cornellà-El Prat in the second half of the season than they will on Saturday night.
Even though this isn’t a massively important fixture, it might just be Ernesto Valverde’s toughest selection of the season because of all of the extenuating circumstances. Half of his first choice XI – Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets – and two reserves (Javier Mascherano and Paulinho) are coming off of 90-minute outings during international duty on Tuesday, and half of those players will have also dealt with a long flight home from South America.
Additionally, Ivan Rakitic suffered a hamstring injury in Croatia’s first game of the break and may or may not be fully fit in time for this match, and Suarez, who was still dealing with his knee injury when he left for international duty, came off limping in Uruguay’s match against Argentina before playing another 90 minutes on Tuesday.
On top of that, just three days after the Catalan Derby is the Champions League opener at home against Juventus, which is obviously a huge game. If Valverde were to play his best XI against Espanyol – and you would expect him do so again versus Juve – that would mean Messi, Iniesta, Busquets, Pique and an already injured Suarez would have started three games in a week. I can’t see that happening, and I don’t think Espanyol, while a tough opponent in terms of the physical and mental aspects of the game, is a side that can come into the Nou Camp and win even against a rotated Barça side.
Thus, here is my heavily-rotated selection for the Catalan Derby.
I would have Messi and Iniesta on the bench as a pair of “break glass in case of emergency” options and I would keep Suarez away from the pitch altogether so he can get some much needed rest. I would like to rest Pique as well, but I think Valverde needs to have his best defensive group (Alba – Umtiti – Pique – Semedo) play at least one full match together before the Juve game. Busquets could get a day off as well in favor of Paulinho, but I think that would be too many midfielders without the ability to control the game.
I’ve gone for a 4-2-3-1 with Andre Gomes as the attacking midfielder with Busquets and Roberto behind him, but that trio could also very easily form a more traditional three-man midfield. That said, I would like to see Gomes get a chance in a more advanced role, if only because his performance deeper in midfield have been far from convincing. If he isn’t up to scratch, Valverde could either make a straight swap with Iniesta or sub Paulinho on for Gomes and move Roberto into a more attacking role.
Along with Nelson Semedo, who was curiously left out against Alaves in favor of Sergi Roberto while Aleix Vidal started as a right winger, I think Denis Suarez is the player who most deserves a start against Espanyol. He has looked bright in both of his sub appearances this season and has definitely earned a chance to start on the left wing, which is a position Paco Alcacer of all people occupied most often during the first two league games.
Alright, so now that all of that is out of the way, we can get to the real main event: Ousmane Dembélé’s first game in Blaugrana!
Valverde can bet big on the kid in this fixture in order to save Suarez and Messi for Juve. Giving Dembélé the chance to have the attack flow through him would be a great way to introduce him to the Nou Camp, and if he needs any help there will be big guns on the bench.
You could argue bringing Dembélé off the bench is a better way to ease him into the squad, but he wasn’t called up for international duty and has been training with Valverde and a good chunk of the team since he signed. I think now is the perfect time to get the nerves of his debut out of the way so he can be as comfortable as possible against Juventus.
Barcelona 4, Espanyol 0