'Business as usual' as Barcelona head to Sporting Gijon midweek
Although Lionel Messi's jaw-dropping penalty against Celta on Sunday continues to be the main talking point in the streets of the Catalan capital, Barcelona players have already turned the page and shifted their attention to their next match. The Blaugranas' relentless schedule will see Luis Enrique's side travelling to Gijon on Wednesday to face Sporting in a game originally postponed due to their participation in the Club World Cup in late December.
A potential victory at El Molinon would see the current treble-winners extend their lead at the top of the La Liga table to a six points over second-placed Atletico Madrid. Even though there will still be 14 matches to play before the end of the season after the final whistle, having such a considerable advantage would undoubtedly boost the team's morale and help them face the many challenges ahead with renewed confidence and considerably less pressure on their shoulders.
With Rafinha now the only first team player sidelined due to injury, Luis Enrique will have plenty of talent at his disposal on Wednesday. The manager has not called up regular left-back Jordi Alba or the versatile Sergi Roberto for the game in Gijon, a move which clearly hints that non-regulars such as Adriano or Arda Turan could be included in his starting XI. Cules can also expect Jeremy Mathieu, Thomas Vermaelen and Aleix Vidal to be given much-needed playing time as part of Lucho's rotation policy.
Many supporters would also love to see Munir El Haddadi in the starting lineup, as his inclusion up front would grant at least one of the Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar trident some much-deserved rest. However, the chances of any of the MSN forwards willingly agreeing to be left out of the game are slim, especially if we consider their impressive form in recent times.
Barca are currently on a record 30-match unbeaten run and have not lost a game since Oct. 3 2015, when they fell short against Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan (2-1).
The Catalans' superb form and unquestionable quality makes them virtually unstoppable at this point, the deserving recipients of constant praise from football lovers and media outlets all around the planet. Headlines such as 'The Incredibles,' 'Total Show,' 'All-Stars' and 'EuroDisney,' while clearly an exaggeration, are a fair reflection of the positive mood in the Blaugrana community at this moment in time.
Having said that, the excessive euphoria sweeping the Cule fan base can only have a negative impact on the team and, as a result, must be stopped as a matter of urgency. Players must ensure they remain focused on every play in every single game as any potential loss of concentration would only result in unwanted slip-ups which could jeopardise the team's chances of success.
Sporting may not have the most impressive budget in Spanish football, but their intensity, hunger and pride make them a very difficult opponent to break down, particularly in front of their passionate home crowd. Currently placed 16th in the league table and fully immersed in the ferocious battle against relegation, however, it would be cynical to deny the fact that Barca are hot favourites for the win in El Molinon.
Los Rojiblancos are currently on a four-game unbeaten run, which is fantastic news given their disastrous start to the season. Sporting manager Abelardo Martinez, who made 178 appearances as a centre-back for Barca between 1994 and 2002, is slowly but surely making his side's back-line more incisive and organised as the year develops. For a team which has traditionally struggled to keep their place in the Spanish Primera Division, the clear defensive improvement of late could be the difference between relegation and survival at the end of the season.
The confirmed absence of regulars Dani Ndi and Antonio Sanabria due to injury means that Barca loanee Alen Halilovic will most definitely be included in Sporting's starting XI. Having made 23 appearances and scored five goals since joining Los Rojiblancos in the summer of 2015, the young Croatian has grown enormously in terms of confidence and ability in a very short space of time thanks to Abelardo's guidance.
Although it remains unclear whether the Catalans will exercise their option to bring the youngster back to the Camp Nou at the end of the season, it is obvious a great performance against the treble-winners would help his case enormously.
The match will undoubtedly be emotional for Luis Enrique. Born and raised in Gijon, the Asturian has always been upfront about his undying love for the Red and Whites. While it is obvious that the Barca manager will approach the game against his childhood club in his traditionally professional manner, there's no denying that his heart will be split in two ways before and after the game.
Having his lifelong friend Abelardo sat in the hosts' bench will only make the situation even harder to deal with from an emotional perspective but, inevitably, it can only be 'Business as usual' once the ball starts rolling.
Barca have not lost to Sporting since 1994 and, given the excellent form that Messi and Co. are in at the moment, common sense clearly indicates that the Catalans are likely to come away with yet another three points when they travel to Asturias midweek.
Having said that, the passionate hosts will do everything within their power to make Barca's mission as hard as possible despite their theoretical inferiority.