Travelling to the Nou Camp to face FC Barcelona is a tough task at the best of times, but choosing to field a reserve side surely diminishes whatever already slim chances Sporting Gijon had of winning.
Rumours are rife that Gijon manager Manuel Preciado will rest up to eight of his first choice XI for tomorrow's match, seemingly content to write of this game and protect his top players for the more ‘winnable’ game at home to Valencia on Saturday. This news has been met with outrage by the Madrid-based sports papers who have decried Preciado for, in their eyes at least, handing victory to Barcelona before a ball is even kicked.
While some would make the case that Preciado has the right to use his playing resource as he sees fit, and will be justified in his actions should they win at the weekend, this assumed capitulation leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth. The neutral would of course love to see Gijon go all out to achieve a result against Barca, something that will be nigh on impossible with their second string.
The prospect of facing a weakened Gijon side, sandwiched in between a hard fought victory away to Atletico Madrid on Sunday and a tricky trip to Bilbao this coming Saturday, may tempt Barca manager Pep Guardiola to rest a few players himself.
Then again, it was only ten days ago that Barca rested some of their star players and came completely unstuck at home to Hercules. That 2-0 defeat, their first home league defeat since May 2009, will have served as a healthy warning to Barca that nothing can be taken for granted at this level.
Even the second-half introductions of Dani Alves, Xavi and Pedro did nothing to prevent Hercules' well deserved victory, so Guardiola will have a few tricky selections to make with regards to this game.
Of course, a club of Barca’s stature and success are used to games coming thick and fast at this level, so even if Pep chooses to shuffle his pack considerably, anything short of victory will be seen as a hugely disappointing result for the Spanish champions. Three points become even more vital following Real Madrid's 3-0 victory over Espanyol on Tuesday evening which moved Mourinho's side to the top of the table, four points ahead of Barca.
One player who will definitely not feature against Gijon is Lionel Messi. The sight of the world’s best player being stretchered off late on after a crude challenge from Atletico defender Thomas Ujfalusi was a sad one for any fan of the beautiful game. Messi has been in imperious form again in the early weeks of this season, and it goes without saying that it is a blow for Barca to lose him for any period of time, so the news that Messi is only expected to miss two weeks will be met with sighs of relief all around the Camp Nou.
Messi’s injury may offer a starting place to new €24m signing Javier Mascherano. The loss of Messi will likely see Andres Iniesta moved into the front three alongside David Villa and Pedro, which opens up a place in the midfield three that could benefit Mascherano. The Argentine midfielder has seen little action since his debut in the aforementioned Hercules defeat, a torrid 45 minutes in which he was given the run around, picked up a booking and was lucky to avoid a second yellow before he was replaced at the break.
Mascherano is undoubtedly one of the world’s top defensive midfielders, but it looks as if it will take him a while to adjust to life in La Liga, which is considerably less robust than what he has been used to in the English Premier League. Other potential starters include Seydou Keita and young forward Bojan Krkić, depending on how many changes Guardiola decides to make.
The smart money would be on Barcelona dominating possession (as they do in any game they play) and peppering the visitors’ goal with shots, with a repeat of Hercules' shock victory surely beyond this Gijon side.
Then again, stranger things have happened; I just can’t think of any right now.
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