FC Barcelona face one of their toughest tests of the season so far tomorrow when they host newly-promoted Villarreal CF at the Camp Nou in their final home fixture of the calendar year. Following an impressive 6-1 win over Celtic in midweek, the Blaugrana are on cloud nine and will be hoping to pick up where they left off to retain their place at the top of La Liga. Last week’s slip-up against Athletic Bilbao has not been forgotten, but will be forgiven – especially if Barça can mastermind a victory against the Yellow Submarine.
After a shocking 2011/12 campaign saw the former UEFA Champions League semi-finalists drop to the Segunda, Villarreal have not only returned to the top tier at the first time of asking, but they have seized the initiative to move back into contention for a UEFA Champions League qualification berth. Spearheaded by impressive displays from fan favourite Bruno Soriano and former Barça starlet Giovani dos Santos, Villarreal enter tomorrow’s match in fifth place – just one point removed from Athletic Bilbao in fourth.
Up until last weekend, Marcelino’s side occupied that spot, but a surprise home draw, coupled with Athletic’s shock win over the Blaugrana saw them slip out of the UEFA Champions League qualification places for the first time this season. Will they be able to recover and inflict more pressure on Gerardo Martino and Barcelona, or will the likes of Neymar and the returning Cesc Fàbregas inspire Barça to an incredible 23rd successive home La Liga win?
Suspended for Wednesday’s memorable win over Celtic FC, it is expected that Cesc Fàbregas will return to the Barcelona line-up tomorrow; albeit in a more familiar, central midfield position. Certainly it would be surprising to see Gerardo Martino move Neymar away from the centre of attack after his sensational display against the Scottish champions, although it raises the question of who to drop from the midfield – both Andrés Iniesta and Xavi were also in remarkable form on Wednesday. It’s a tough decision, but an enviable position for Martino to be in.
Likewise, Jordi Alba should make his La Liga return, as Martino’s hand has been somewhat forced thanks to a suspension to Adriano Correia would could have operated on either the left or right-hand side of defense at the expense of young Martin Montoya. The Catalan full-back set up one of Neymar’s three goals in midweek, and as such, it would be have been a disappointment to see him drop to the bench anyway – thankfully that’s not going to be an issue.
Gerard Piqué grabbed his second UEFA Champions League goal of the season in midweek, reminding Culés not only of his defensive ability, but also of the additional dimension that he can provide the Barcelona attack, thereby reaffirming his importance in the starting eleven. The only question remaining for Martino to answer is just who his partner should be.
Many Barça fans are keen to see Marc Bartra make the step-up from the bench to first-team regular, and I can absolutely see the thinking behind this. Bartra is exceptionally talented and he represents the future of the Barcelona defense – but equally, I can see why Martino may opt to keep his faith in Javier Mascherano. After all, this is the same Mascherano that was earning plaudits for his defensive work not too long ago. Furthermore, Mascherano is simply too good to sit on the bench – and I’m sure everyone would agree that he is also too valuable to risk losing.
Aside from his obvious quality, there is also the link and bond he likely shares with his compatriot, a diminutive Argentine by the name of Lionel Messi – an affinity that Martino himself clearly recognises, hence the delicate management of the defensive situation.
That being said, I would love to see Bartra given a chance tomorrow, with Sergio Busquets continuing just ahead of the defense at pivote. I remain convinced that Busi is far and away the best midfielder in world football, a fact he emphatically hammered home on Wednesday with a superlative display. If he is on form, Villarreal simply will not stand a chance – which is particularly true given that Bruno will not suit up in his Amarillo jersey.
Cesc Fàbregas and Xavi would get the nod from me ahead of Busi, with a resurgent Pedro, Neymar and Cristian Tello my choices for the Blaugrana attacking triumvirate. Alexis Sánchez will almost certainly get the start ahead of Tello – but what better time to test out Tello than tomorrow, when he can wreak havoc from his preferred left-wing position?
Villarreal USA: Villarreal vs Barcelona Preview
•Villarreal USAVillarreal visit the defending champions FC Barcelona this weekend and will have to do it without the services of its two talismans, Bruno Soriano and Ruben Gracia 'Cani'.
For more coverage of tomorrow’s match, be sure to give our sister site Villarreal USA a visit, with their team providing expert insight about every aspect of the plucky side from Vila-real.
Villarreal CF 0-0 FC Barcelona – 28th January 2012 – La Liga
Despite dropping out of La Liga at the end of the season, Villarreal held Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona to a goalless draw at El Madrigal, who couldn’t break through the host’s resolute defense with Pep’s unorthodox team selection.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto; Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas; Pedro, Neymar, Alexis
Villarreal (4-2-3-1): Asenjo; Mario, Musacchio, Gabriel, Costa; Pina, Trigueros; Perez, Giovani, Aquino; Uche
Barcelona were in scintillating form in midweek – and barring a surprise change of tactics from Martino, I see no reason why that cannot continue – albeit on a less visible scale, scoreline-wise. I’m going for a 3-0 home win.
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- FC Barcelona News: 12 December 2013; Barça Outclass Celtic in Champions League, Draw to Be Held on Monday
- UEFA Champions League: FC Barcelona 6-1 Celtic FC: Match Review
- UEFA Champions League: FC Barcelona vs Celtic FC: Live Game Thread
- FC Barcelona News: 11 December 2013; Barça Announce Sponsorship with Intel, Look to Secure First Place Against Celtic