It has been a bruising few days for Barcelona having been given a proper-thumping by arch-rivals Real Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana last Sunday.
Back on home soil though after the trip to Saudi Arabia, Mark Sochon thinks they will just about get back to winning ways...
Barcelona travel to Salamanca on Thursday, four days on from a heavy defeat in El Clasico and with Xavi under more pressure than he has been at any other point in his 26 month reign.
Third tier Unionistas provide the opposition in the Copa del Rey Round of 16. It’s the kind of night where Barca have little to gain, but everything to lose with a shock defeat or even just another underwhelming display sure to raise more questions about Xavi’s future.
Truth be told, it’s highly unlikely that Barcelona will make a change mid-season, but it does now feel like the Barca boss really needs a strong end to the campaign and perhaps a trophy if he’s to extend his stay beyond the summer.
This competition provides a good opportunity to win some silverware. While their progress was never really in doubt, they stumbled over the line against fourth tier Barbastro in the last round, winning 3-2. This should be a slightly tougher game against a team from one level up the Spanish football ladder and one that has already sent two higher ranked teams packing.
Unionistas are a fan-owned club, one of two born out of the ashes of UD Salamanca a decade ago. Their story has been a really positive example of how fans can rebuild something special when their clubs go bust and against the odds, they’ve managed to outperform Salamanca UDS who took over the old stadium and were largely seen as the successor to the defunct club.
In their short history, Unionistas have already created some cup memories too, reaching the Copa del Rey Last 32 in 2020 when they lost 3-1 to Real Madrid. Having defeated Segunda Division Sporting Gijon in Round 2 this season, they saw off top flight Villarreal on penalties in the last round, in a tie that had to be completed a day late after floodlight issues at the 5,000 capacity Estadio Municipal Reina Sofía.
It’ll be packed to the rafters on Thursday for the visit of Barcelona and Unionistas will fancy they can cause some problems for their illustrious opponents having watched minnows Barbastro score twice against them earlier this month.
This will still represent a significant step-up in class though for Unionistas on their Round 3 tie. Despite Barca’s own struggles, they are still a much better side than Villarreal who are down in 15th in La Liga with the joint second-worst defensive record in the Spanish top flight.
Unionistas are in decent form and come into the game unbeaten in 2024. One of their league victories since the turn of the year actually came against Barcelona’s B team who are six places higher than them in Group 1 of the Primera Federacion.
For all the doom and gloom that surrounds Barcelona right now after they were trounced by a clinical Real Madrid, punters should still bear in mind that they had won four on the bounce in all competitions before Sunday’s Supercopa Final.
Their Semi-Final win over Osasuna was one of the best performances in recent months and if there’s a positive to come out of their trip to Saudi Arabia, it’s the possible return to form of Robert Lewandowski who scored in both games.
Barcelona have a tough away game in La Liga against Real Betis on Sunday, one that they really need to win if they are to stay in the hunt for the title. Therefore we can expect some rotation from Xavi in this game, although he’s really short on options in some areas.
Ronald Araujo is suspended after seeing red in El Clasico while the same goes for Lamine Yamal. Meanwhile Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Inigo Martinez, Gavi, Raphinha, Marcos Alonso and Joao Cancelo are all injured.
As a result, Xavi’s squad for the trip to Salamanca only includes 14 senior players and that’s counting the likes of Fermin Lopez and Iñaki Peña who have only really started to feature in the first team this season. 16 year old Pau Cubarsí and 17 year old Diego Kochen are among the B team players who have been called up to make up the numbers.
Unionistas have had an extra day off after beating Rayo Majadahonda 2-1 in the league on Saturday. They’ll clearly be going as strong as possible, but that may not mean a place for Alfred Planas who scored a decisive 87th minute penalty in the last round to force their tie against Villarreal into Extra Time.
Unionistas vs Barcelona Odds:
Barcelona are 1/9 to win in the Match Result market while you can get the Draw at 6/1 with Unionistas available at 16/1 with the tie going to Extra Time and penalties if required.
Xavi will certainly want to avoid that and he’ll be looking to his attacking players to take care of business early on. Robert Lewandowski is the 8/15 favourite to score anytime, although we may see Vitor Roque rotate in up front with the Brazilian youngster available at 8/11 to score anytime.
Joao Felix should start having only been used off the bench in El Clasico and he’s priced at 9/2 to score first and 6/5 to score anytime.
If you fancy the minnows to make a real game of this, you can back Unionistas or Draw Double Chance at 9/2 while Unionistas to score over 0.5 Goals is priced at 5/4.
Bet 1 - Both Teams to Score @ 11/8
The absence of Ronald Araujo is likely to add even more uncertainty to a Barcelona defence that has been nowhere near as impressive as it was last term. In both collective and individual terms, we’ve seen a real drop-off in performance levels and it’s just one clean sheet in eight competitive games for Barca heading into this.
While Unionistas have been far from prolific in their league, they’ve managed to cause problems for opponents from higher leagues in this competition and had 17 attempts on goal in the last round, which was four more than Villarreal managed.
There’s every chance they’ll manage to get on the scoresheet again here and I’m backing Both Teams to Score at 11/8.
Bet 2 - Unionistas +2.00 Handicap @ 13/8
While Barcelona did finally manage to end a nearly four month wait for a win by more than a single goal when they saw off Osasuna 2-0 last week, there are still enough doubts about this team to suggest they aren’t simply going to turn up in Salamanca with a severely depleted squad and run away with this game.
Unionistas look like quite an organised team defensively with just 16 conceded in their 19 league games while they’ve only conceded once so far in their three games in this competition. They stand every chance of making this a tricky game for Barca to negotiate and I’m backing Unionistas +2.00 Handicap at 13/8.
You can check out Mark's La Liga Betting Tips along with those from the rest of the Betfred Insights Spanish Football writers on our La Liga home page...