Barcelona begin crucial seven day stretch

Posted by Dermot Ledwith

Barcelona face key games in three competitions in the next seven days with very different objectives in each. While Saturday's league game at home to Rayo Vallecano requires three points, the two cup ties either side of it at Real Sociedad on Wednesday in the Spanish Cup semi final and at Manchester City next Tuesday in Champions League do not necessary need victories, but both require favourable outcomes if progress is to be made in both competitions.

- Tomas: Messi barce saves Barca
- Report: Neymar returns to training

The intensive week begins in one of Spain's most beautiful cities, San Sebastian, where the weather regularly plays a part, and where Barca have to defend a 2-0 first leg victory over a Real Sociedad side playing for the prize of reaching their first final in 26 years.

There is still belief in an opponent that felt hard done by during the first leg and Barca can't afford a repeat of the first half performance in the atrocious conditions at Sevilla on Sunday, where, although they managed a 2-1 lead at the break, they could count themselves lucky to not have been losing by at least a goal.

In the pre-match press conference on Tuesday, Martino insisted his side will go out to control the game from the start and play as if the score line was level again at 0-0.

"Each team has hopes to go through; they will think they have a chance so we have to take charge of the game to calm their early pressure. We have to take the ball off them and not give them any space up front because they are fast and have quality."

"The second game of a two legged tie is always different but we should be capable of taking advantage of this result. These players are experienced and nothing that can happen in the game will surprise them," Martino told the local Catalan press before travelling with his squad.

Cautious of a repeat of the Sevilla game where the home side attacked Barca from the first minute, Martino did admit he had thought the same as many observers when asked if his side appeared to start games slowly, but he confirmed he had been analysing the stats and maintained that was not the case.

"Sevilla attacked us a lot on Sunday and we suffered defensively, I thought the same as many of you but statistically we have just been analysing it and we concede the same amount of goals in the second half as the first," he said.

At such a crucial stage of the season and with an eye on all three prizes, Martino will be sure to shuffle his pack over the first two games to make use of an almost fully fit squad, which leaves the Argentine coach with a multitude of dilemmas as to which players to deploy for each game.

Against Sociedad few risks will be taken and Martino is expected to play what he considers to be his strongest side as he strives to reach his first final with the club. Sergio Busquets was rested against Sevilla and should return while Dani Alves and Javier Mascherano will be back from suspension and could be recalled.

For many the latter has been at the centre of Barca's defensive woes in recent games and the youngster Marc Bartra would be a better option. It would perhaps be an idea to let both players stake their claims for a place against City over the next two games. Although Martino has preferred Mascherano for the big games until now, any more defensive slip-ups from him could quickly change that.

On Neymar, who is back training with his colleagues, Martino said he will be available when he thinks it "convenient", and could feature in at least one of the three games. Wednesday would appear to come too early, but if he trains well it would not be a surprise to see him against Rayo in an attempt to give him minutes before the trip to Manchester.
Lionel Messi showed in his performance at Sevilla that when his side needed him most, he answered the call and showed that he is very much back. Messi being Messi, he will want to play all three games but Martino has plenty of attacking options in Pedro, Alexis Sanchez, Cesc Fabregas and Cristian Tello to share out minutes among all forwards in a bid to save heavy legs.

Fabregas, of course, can be used further back and Andres Iniesta was important in his first game back after injury on Sunday, while Xavi's legs are not what they were, so expect some mixing and matching in midfield before the team reaches England, with Sergi Roberto likely to be added to the equation.

All can be trusted to defend a 2-0 lead on Wednesday, but Martino is taking nothing for granted, anything other than qualification for the Spanish Cup final – likely against Real Madrid -- on April 19th would be disastrous for a side capable of brilliant and lacklustre performances in recent weeks.

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