FC Barcelona head coach Xavi Hernandez will go for broke by fielding what is arguably his best possible line up in Sunday’s must-win clash against Atletico Madrid.
With the top two Real Madrid and Girona both winning on Saturday, the pressure is on fourth and third Barca and Atleti to grab all the points at the Montjuic Stadium.
In his pre-match press conference, Xavi confirmed that goalkeeper and de facto captain Marc-Andre ter Stegen wouldn’t be fit enough to make the squad list.
“He tested himself in the training session but he has discomfort. He’s sad not to be able to play because he’s one of the captains and he’s hugely involved. He’s ruled out for tomorrow,” Xavi said.
The German picked up a lower back injury while on international duty earlier this month, and hasn’t been seen in action for his club since the 2-1 comeback win over Almeria on November 12.
Inaki Pena has been impressive standing in for Ter Stegen against Rayo Vallecano in La Liga and Porto on the continent.
He was singled out for praise by Xavi after another remontada of the same scoreline against the Portuguese, which guaranteed qualification to the Champions League knockout phase for the first time in two years.
On Sunday, he’ll get a third chance on the big stage and MARCA reported that the club has every confidence in the 24-year-old to deliver.
The Player of the Match on Tuesday evening, however, was the scorer of the equalizer and provider of the assist for the winner, Joao Cancelo.
The Manchester City-owned loanee usually plays on the right, but Xavi put him at left back this time and will go for the same approach at the expense of the struggling Alejandro Balde.
Be that as it may, it’s where the manager will deploy him as Jules Kounde is dropped allowing Inigo Martinez and Andreas Christensen to partner in central defense.
In midfield, skipper and pivot Frenkie de Jong sits behind Ilkay Gundogan and Pedri.
Up top, the scorer of the winner against Porto, Joao Felix, keeps his place as do striker Robert Lewandowski and right winger Raphinha.
With the forward permanently owned by Atleti, there will be a lot of focus on Felix and how he reacts to criticism from former teammates such as ex-Barca star Antoine Griezmann.
FC Barcelona Starting XI Vs. Atletico Madrid: Ter Stegen; Cancelo, Martinez, Christensen, Araujo; De Jong, Pedri, Gundogan; Felix, Lewandowski, Raphinha