FC Barcelona travel to El Madrigal on Saturday knowing that nothing less than a win will do if they are to realistically retain their title. In their way will be a resurgent Villarreal side under new management, that of Jose Francisco Molina, who has guided the team to a win, a draw and a loss from his three games in charge. The Yellow Submarine have been in action as recently as Monday as they defeated fellow strugglers Sporting Gijon 3-0, with goals from Marco Ruben, Borja Valero and Bruno Soriano securing a pivotal three points.
Traditionally, fixtures against Villarreal have been amongst the toughest of the season for Barcelona, but you may remember the 5-0 thrashing we handed to them back in the first game of the season. That night will go down in history as the first sighting of the Guardiola 3-4-3 in competitive football, although one must admit that it is unlikely to make an appearance tomorrow evening.
Put simply, Barcelona do not have enough centre-backs at 100% fitness to sustain the 3-4-3 for 90 minutes away from home. Then we look at the opposition, and yes, they are without their best player, Giuseppe Rossi, while fellow star striker Nilmar is heading to Sao Paulo in the near future, but they remain a superb footballing side fully capable of giving Barcelona a run for their money. After the complacency the Blaugrana displayed on Wednesday, it is imperative that the players take this game seriously, rather than judging the opponent on their league position.
The defense looks shaky as ever, although a game against a Real Madrid side chasing a three goal swing does tend to distort views ever so slightly. Sure, they looked terrible at times, and were nigh-on average at best, but what team has looked assured defensively against Real Madrid this season? If any team has, I doubt they did it with their eccentric back-up keeper...
So, with that in mind, it is a little early to write off Gerard Pique as some have started to do, or label Eric Abidal as over-the-hill, they played badly in a given match (as well as a few others) but this is a new game, and a new chance to shine. So, it’s fitting that I think both Carles Puyol and Eric Abidal will drop to the bench.
Dani Alves can continue at right-back, he famously said before that he will rest when he dies, and provided he has a pulse rate on Saturday evening, he will start. Gerard Pique should also retain his place, partly as he is the most athletic centre-back, maybe because he is the youngest, but also out of necessity. If Carles Puyol drops to the bench, and Eric Abidal follows suit, who is there to play centre-back? Javier Mascherano will be filling in for Puyol, while moving Sergio Busquets back would not only leave the team short of defensive midfielders, but would also make little sense with Pique available.
Given Abidal’s age, and the fitness concerns since he returned from his surgery, it seems like a good time for Adriano to step in at left-back and provide us with some more of his world-class crosses.
The midfield will be without Andres Iniesta for the best part of three weeks, ruling him out of contention for both the Copa del Rey semi-finals, and possibly the first leg of the round of sixteen tie with Bayer Leverkusen. Obviously this is bad news, but the midfield is better equipped to deal with an injury or two compared to the other positions in the squad. I fully expect Sergio Busquets to start in defensive midfield, with Thiago almost guaranteed a start. However, from there on in, we can only guess at what Pep will do.
If he chooses to pick Xavi alongside Thiago, it is clear that either Xavi is past his injury struggles for good, or that Guardiola is not too bothered with the Copa del Rey. But, if he leaves Xavi on the bench for either Cesc Fabregas or Sergi Roberto, it shows that he does value the Copa del Rey, perhaps above the league (i.e. that it is more realistically attainable than the league). Alternatively, it also shows that he has faith in the team to produce the goods without Xavi and Iniesta, but we Culés tend to be pessimistic by nature, am I right?
In attack, there could be a league debut for Cristian Tello, called up to the squad after Alexis’ injury in the Clasico. The winger is certainly an exciting prospect, much like Isaac Cuenca, although I doubt that he will start. Isaac Cuenca appears to be the more likely replacement for Sanchez, while Pedro displayed that he is ready for a starting berth with his goal against Real Madrid on Wednesday. It goes without saying that Lionel Messi will start in the false #9 role, and he will be looking to build upon his hat-trick at La Rosaleda with a goal or two tomorrow.
All in all, it is a winnable match for Barcelona, but given their match in midweek, they have to put this game beyond question within the hour. Any later than that, and either tiredness or anxiety will kick in, especially if Real Madrid cruise to victory in their match against Real Zaragoza which precedes kick-off in Villarreal. Just like every other game before it, and every match after it, this is a must-win encounter for Pep Guardiola and co.
For the Villarreal side of things be sure to check out our friends at Villarreal USA
Match Prediction: I am Peptimistically predicting a 3-1 win for Barcelona, with Thiago Alcantara grabbing at least one.