After Real Madrid’s 1-0 loss to Real Betis at the Bernabeu on Wednesday, Barcelona has a chance to keep the pressure on their league rivals with a sixth straight victory in La Liga as they head down the road to face newly-promoted Catalan side Girona. With a midweek trip to Lisbon for a Champions League matchup with Sporting Club coming up, Ernesto Valverde will have to either prioritize one of the fixtures or risk overextending one of his key veterans, all of whom have had very busy Septembers.
Girona nearly had a perfect start to life in La Liga. They were up 2-0 when Antione Griezmann got sent off in their season opener against Atletico Madrid, but conceded twice in the last 12 minutes to drop two points. Girona rebounded well, winning 1-0 against Malaga on Match Day 2, but they haven’t scored a goal since having lost to Athletic Club and Sevilla and drawn with Leganes.
The vibes at the club are still positive, however, and there is a reasonable chance for Girona to make their first appearance in Spain’s top flight more than just a cameo. Manager Pablo Machin has his team playing an attacking style in an intriguing 3-4-1-2 and though the goals have dried up since the first two weekends of the season, this is not a club that will set up in deep defensive blocks all season hoping to eke out just enough points to prevent a return to the Segunda.
Manchester City’s ever-growing football group took over the club during the summer – which included a partial investment from Pep Guardiola himself – though that didn’t result in a massive spending spree to strengthen the squad. In fact, Girona only bought two players during the window, both coming from Middlesbrough: Defender Bernado Espinosa (€4.5 million) and striker Chisthian Stuani (undisclosed fee). That said, Girona has become Manchester City’s new loan farm in Spain, and really talented youngsters like Marlos Moreno, Pablo Maffeo and Aleix Garcia have all come from City on loan.
Although the new association between the clubs played a huge role in those loan moves, how Girona play is also a factor. City obviously want their prospects well-schooled in expansive and enjoyable football, and Girona is a club that offers their prospects that kind of environment.
Valverde surprised me once again when he started both Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets against Eibar. Although Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Jordi Alba got some much-needed rest, Iniesta and Busquets both played an hour before coming off. If Valverde is ever going to rest them for a full game (or at least until they are needed as subs), then it will be this match. Not because Girona are a team to be taken lightly – far from it – but because an away match in the Champions League is next on the schedule, and dropping points in Lisbon would render Barcelona’s victory against Juventus meaningless.
The big surprise with regards to this fixture is that Valverde has left Nelson Semedo and Gerard Deulofeu out of the squad, with Andre Gomes and Paco Alcacer taking their places. Semedo has yet to play in an away match since the Spanish Super Copa for whatever reason, and this likely means Sergi Roberto is back to being shoehorned in at right back. Aleix Vidal could also start in defense, but I thought he was excellent as a forward after coming on late against Eibar, so with Deulofeu out I expect Vidal to start at RW.
In midfield I have gone with rotation for both Iniesta and Busquets, though in reality I would expect only one of them to actually be benched. Ivan Rakitic is likely to come back into the team, and if he does so without Busquets, then he would likely be Barcelona’s holding midfielder. I suspect Valverde has brought Gomes back into the team for a reason, so I have him starting, though I wouldn’t be angry if Paulinho kept his place after his strong performance against Eibar. Finally, I have Luis Suarez returning to the lineup, but with Denis Suarez keeping his place by sliding into midfield and giving Iniesta a proper rest.