FC Barcelona face their first away trip of the 2014-15 La Liga season and of Luis Enrique’s reign in charge tomorrow, as they travel down the coast to face Villarreal CF at El Madrigal. The Yellow Submarine were tremendous throughout preseason and continued their good form last week with a 2-0 win over Levante UD at the Ciutat de Valencia in their season opener, following up that victory with an aggregate win over Kazakh side FC Astana in the UEFA Europa League.
While La Liga looks as stacked as ever at the top of the table, Marcelino’s men are expected to contend for the final UEFA Champions League qualifying berth and a spot in the top four, but in order to do so, they know that they must pick up as many points as possible at home – irrespective of the opposition. Their record at El Madrigal against FC Barcelona is good, but not great. Sure, Barça can expect a tough game, but this isn’t their "bogey" match by any stretch of the imagination.
If they can build upon the fundamentals they displayed in their opening day win over Elche, the Blaugrana will be considered as favourites to pick up the victory. The absence of Andrés Iniesta through injury will impact Lucho and the rest of the side, but every cloud has a silver lining – and this silver lining comes in the form of a Brazilian superstar, Neymar.
After an impressive preseason debut against Club Leon, Neymar was ruled out of the 3-0 win over Elche; he will be keen to pick up where he left off and get his season off to a good start before leaving for international duty. Indeed, the prospect of seeing Neymar link up with Lionel Messi and possibly Munir el Haddadi is a mouth-watering one – will it be enough to secure Barça the victory in this tough fixture?
News of FC Barcelona’s squad for tomorrow’s match emerged earlier today, and there were no real shocks to speak of. Andrés Iniesta was left out; Neymar came back in along with Gerard Piqué, available for selection once again after he served his suspension against Elche. There’s no room for new signing Douglas, while Thomas Vermaelen, Marc-André ter Stegen and Adriano Correia all miss out through injury or lack of match practice. As a result of these absentees, there are two places in the squad for Sandro and the latest La Masia sensation, Munir. Not much change from last game, but plenty of potential changes for Lucho to make, both in terms of personnel and tactics.
Claudio Bravo will start in goal, and will likely face his first real test of the season, both metaphorically and literally. Against Elche, Bravo didn’t have a single save or claim to make; if he has a similar night against Villarreal tomorrow, then FC Barcelona will have done very well indeed. In Giovani dos Santos, Denis Cheryshev, Cani and Ikechukwu Uche, Villarreal have attacking talent in abundance – they will create chances and it will be up to Bravo to be equal to those chances. I have every faith in his ability; let’s see what the Chilean is made of.
Indeed, let’s see what the rest of the team is made of; Villarreal away is one of the toughest fixtures on the calendar, at least on paper – it’s all well and good that we can beat Elche at the Camp Nou, can we do the same to Villarreal in their back yard?
Starting with the defense, we need to see strong performances from the backline. Jordi Alba was impressive last week and will continue at left-back, while I expect to see Jeremy Mathieu partner Alba on the left-side of that defense.
The Frenchman may not have been everyone’s first choice as a defensive signing this summer, but early signs suggest that he was an astute buy from Andoni Zubizarreta and it’s tough to see Vermaelen or anyone else displacing him as the season progresses. The natural balance he provides the defense is important from a tactical standpoint, while his pace and height are crucial physical attributes we lacked last season.
The only question is: who will join Mathieu in the heart of defense?
The smart money is on Gerard Piqué, who clearly has the reputation and talent to thrive in this kind of game, but we still don’t know just how much Luis Enrique trusts him. Vicente del Bosque discarded Piqué in his latest Spain squad in favour of Marc Bartra; will Enrique do something similar? I suspect Piqué will be given a chance to perform, but equally I wouldn’t be against a start for Bartra either.
Given the calibre of the opposition and the threat they pose, Enrique may be wise to follow Adam’s tip in his La Liga, Jornada 2 picks – drop Dani Alves and start Martin Montoya. Andrés Iniesta’s injury may force Ivan Rakitić to the left of midfield, with Xavi stepping back into his usual position on the right, therefore leaving that same right-flank somewhat exposed. Can we run the risk of starting someone as offensively-minded as Dani Alves? I would play it safe and opt for Montoya, although it may also depend on our offensive selection too – but more on that later...
Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić and Xavi Hernández; the midfield picks itself in Iniesta’s absence, which leaves Luis Enrique with just one decision left to make – who will join Lionel Messi and Neymar in attack?
Lionel Messi was in God-mode last week, bagging a brace against Elche to bring back memories of his incredible Ballon d’Or winning form; if he’s at his best tomorrow, he could quite easily win the match on his own. However, the return of Neymar will be a welcome boost for the Argentine who was just as creative as he was clinical against Elche. With Messi providing the cutting edge, Neymar may well fancy his chances at a goal on his return; certainly, Barça’s quality in the final third is a key reason why the Blaugrana are considered favourites for tomorrow’s clash.
The final spot however...will it be Munir? Could Pedro return to the frontline? What about Rafinha Alcantara? As much as I would like to see Munir, I’m tipping Enrique to start Alves at full-back, and therefore compensate by starting Pedro in attack, hoping his work ethic will help mask any gaps left behind by Alves’ forward runs.
Ahmed broke down Villarreal’s transfer activity, tactics and predicted line-ups earlier today in his pre-match scouting report. Check it out and check out Villarreal USA for more coverage of the Yellow Submarine prior to the big kick-off.
Villarreal CF 2-3 FC Barcelona – 27th April 2014 – La Liga
Villarreal raced into a two-goal lead courtesy of Cani and Manu Trigueros but own-goals from Mateo Musacchio and Gabriel Paulista tied the two teams at 2-2, before Lionel Messi sealed the three points and a memorable turnaround victory.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mathieu, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Rakitić; Pedro, Messi, Neymar
Villarreal (4-2-2-2): Asenjo; Rukavina, Gabriel, Musacchio, Costa; Bruno, Pina; Trigueros, Cani; Uche, Giovani
No-one quite knows what to expect from tomorrow’s match, but I’m backing the Blaugrana to pull through courtesy of Messi’s quality – 3-1 win for Barça.
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