Barcelona's testing week starts in Italy

Posted by Francesc Tomas

Barcelona are starting one of those weeks that fans highlight on their calendars as soon as the fixtures are announced. Facing AC Milan, the seven-time Champions League winners, in front of their fiery crowd on Tuesday would be exciting enough; the fact Real Madrid awaits at the Camp Nou four days later makes it an even more difficult yet motivating challenge.

While it is far too early in the season to call the upcoming matches crucial, the truth is that victories in both would almost certainly ensure qualification for the next European stage and ease off the pressure at the top of the domestic league for the Blaugranas.

Manager Gerardo Martino is fortunate enough to have most of his talented squad at his disposal as key players have recently returned from unsettling periods on the sidelines.

-Milan coach Allegri hails Barca
-Martino says Messi ready to go

Having rotated players well from the moment competitive matches started after the summer break, it is still unclear what his preferred XI actually is. Given the importance of the matches against Il Rossoneri and Los Merengues, it is time for the manager to finally lay his cards flat on the table and field his ideal lineup.

In defence, the only significant absence is Jordi Alba. But considering the recent solid performances that Adriano has been delivering, that shouldn't necessarily cause a huge inconvenience. It would be best to continue to trust Marc Bartra and Gerard Pique as centre-halves as they have performed well together and are growing as a reliable partnership. In my opinion, Dani Alves' experience to deliver when pushing forward gives him the edge over Martin Montoya.

However, Martino does have a tricky dilemma in midfield. Xavi Hernandez has played 950 minutes of football for Barcelona this season, followed by Sergio Busquets (911), Cesc Fabregas (878) and Andres Iniesta (862).

While it seems clear that Busi will start in the pivote position, picking the two interiores will be difficult for the coach. Whoever doesn't make the team is likely to publicly support Martino in front of the media, but will certainly not be happy behind closed doors.

I would field Busquets-Iniesta-Fabregas at the San Siro. With Milan likely to rely on a robust, no-nonsense back-line to keep Barcelona at bay, I believe having the dribbling ability of Don Andres and the dynamism of Cesc in the rotation would be a major benefit.

The way the pair are likely to link with Lionel Messi and Neymar while overlapping and rotating with each other could bring much-needed unpredictability.

The choice of forwards will, on paper, be a much easier task for the manager. The fit-again Messi is sure to get a start as a false striker, as is the impressive Neymar from the wings. The third position up front, based on recent performances, should be given to Alexis Sanchez.

The Chilean international would give the team the relentless determination, unpredictability and work ethic needed whenever rivals decide to park the bus in front of goal and hope for a break on the counter via long balls across the park -- as Milan are likely to do on Tuesday.

If Barcelona want to succeed at the San Siro, whoever ends up in the starting XI must give their absolute best from the very start to push toward the Italians' goal. While the patient midfield game may be needed at some stages, having possession for its sake doesn't mean much when chasing a positive result at European level.

Ambition, desire, freshness and determination must be obvious throughout the whole match in order to bring the three points back to Catalunya. I am confident that the vital lack of cutting edge shown against Osasuna on Saturday will be solved as a matter of urgency.

My preferred lineup -- Goal: Victor Valdes; Defence: Dani Alves, Bartra, Pique, Adriano; Midfield; Busquets, Iniesta, Cesc; Forwards: Messi, Neymar, Alexis.

Time to deliver, Barca!

The Quote -- "More than ever, we need to be Barcelona. We need to manage the different scenarios the game may bring. We must have control and avoid quick counter-attacks, which are situations that can hurt us. This is not a test for team, as we are tested every 3-4 days." -- Martino.

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For more news and opinion notes on Barcelona, follow Francesc Tomas at @TomasESPN and Barcablog on Facebook; 49,500 Cules have already joined.

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