Arnaiz and Alena seek Barcelona chance in Copa del Rey clash at Murcia
Lionel Messi will be on his way back from FIFA's The Best awards in London and Paulinho will be in China. Luis Suarez will be at home resting his knee and Andres Iniesta, Samuel Umtiti, Sergio Busquets and Marc-Andre ter Stegen will also be taking a well-earned break in Barcelona. Around 600km south, Ernesto Valverde will be fielding a mix and match side made up of youngsters, players with a point to prove and just a handful of regulars.
It's the first time this season that Valverde will take the chance to make wholesale rotations. Luis Enrique did it regularly last season -- and it cost him points against Alaves and Malaga at home -- but the former Athletic Bilbao coach has resisted so far. On Tuesday, though, he's deemed a Copa del Rey trip to Real Murcia's Nueva Condomina as the perfect setting to ring the changes.
On Sunday, after a light recovery session, Valverde dismissed seven first team players: Messi, Paulinho, Suarez, Iniesta, Umtiti, Busquets and ter Stegen. They're not due back in until Wednesday. In addition, Ousmane Dembele, Rafinha, Aleix Vidal, Jordi Alba and Arda Turan all have injury problems. The latter three may be available for selection, but it's unlikely any risks will be taken.
In place of the dismissed and the wounded, Valverde called up seven players from the B-team to join in with training: Jose Arnaiz, Carles Alena, Marc Cucurella, Oriol Busquets, Vitinho, Carles Perez and Adria Ortola. There's a good chance all of them will be included in the squad for the round-of-32 first leg tie.
That's not to say Barca are undervaluing the competition. Far from it. It is common for the big clubs to rest their stars in the early rounds, especially considering the draw means they will always be paired with one of the lowest teams left in the competition ... and there's always the second leg at home to correct things if you mess up in the first leg. In fact, it's been three years since Barca won a first leg, 3-0 at Huesca. Since then they've been held by Hercules and Villanovense.
However, they've always overawed their lower league opposition back at Camp Nou and in each of the last three years have gone on to win the Copa del Rey. If they defend their title this year, they will become the first team since the 1930s to win four consecutive cups in Spain. No side has ever won five in a row.
The two B-team players the supporters and local media are most hoping to see in Murcia are the two As: Alena and Arnaiz.
Alena is already well-known. He has been on the fringes of the first team squad for the last year, went on preseason tour with Valverde's side in the summer and even scored the leveller in last season's 1-1 draw with Hercules. Catalan by birth and an attacking midfielder by trade, the 19-year-old has started the season, his first in Spain's second division, in good form and there's every chance he will start on Tuesday.
Arnaiz has featured prominently in the local press. After a long negotiation process with Real Valladolid, the winger eventually joined Barca at the end of August for around €4 million and has hit the ground running with four goals in nine appearances and some dazzling dribbling. One dribble even earned its own story on Diario Sport. "Messi-like" is how they described it -- but Arnaiz is a different mould of player to Messi.
Other than the youngsters, there will also be a first competitive start of the season for Jasper Cillessen in goal. The Dutchman was excellent in preseason and can consider himself unluckily to be playing second fiddle to ter Stegen.
Valverde should also hand starts to Andre Gomes, Denis Suarez and Paco Alcacer, three players who have featured infrequently this season. They all have a place in the team and their futures to play for.
Win well in Murcia and the same players will be guaranteed another chance in the second leg at the end of November. Leave the tie in jeopardy, though, and Messi & Co. may have to wave goodbye to a few days leave at the same time next month.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.