FC Barcelona will be aiming to register their eighth successive victory tomorrow evening as they return to the Camp Nou to take on high-flying Villarreal CF. With both Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid cruising to easy wins in their Saturday fixtures, the pressure will be on Luis Enrique and his Barcelona side to follow suit, even if they are up against one of the best sides in La Liga. With 38 points, the Yellow Submarine currently occupy sixth place and still harbour dreams of challenging for a UEFA Champions League qualification berth.
Indeed, if that is their end goal, they are on course to put up a serious fight; Villarreal are unbeaten in their last ten La Liga fixtures and that run extends to 18 matches if you consider their form in all competitions. Their defense is the second best in the league and they are only team in the division to have only lost once away from home. The trouble is, they’re facing FC Barcelona.
In the past seven matches, FC Barcelona haven’t just put their crisis behind them, they’ve eradicated all memory of it with a slew of impressive performances. After Bayern Munich were humbled last night, Barça’s position as the world’s "form team" was solidified – at the moment, we simply cannot do anything wrong. Play the reigning La Liga champions three times in a few weeks? No problem! We’ll beat them three times, each time in a different fashion.
From their comprehensive domination in the first La Liga fixture, to their patient approach in the Copa del Rey first-leg and then their high-octane, frenetic style in the second-leg a few days ago; we’ve won in just about every imaginable way, reacting and adapting perfectly to our opposition in each and every instance. It’s a far cry from what we have seen at times under Luis Enrique, perhaps the clearest sign yet that Lucho has finally found his feet as Barça head coach.
Yet, at the same time everything is so fragile; one bad result and the narrative changes completely. Plus, it’s entirely possible that even one slip-up could be the difference between success and failure at the season’s end. And that is why this fixture concerns so many Culés; Villarreal are high in confidence, have buckets of ability and talent at their disposal and are looking to claim a big scalp as they chase fourth spot.
Both teams want a win. Both teams think they can win. The question is: who wants it more?
No official team news has been released as of yet, although there’s little reason to expect many surprises. It’s possible that the birth of his second son may rule Gerard Piqué out of contention, but on the flipside, this is of course an important match and we need our best players in the line-up. Jeremy Mathieu might have annoyed some people with his recent media comments about the Messi-Enrique incident, but it’d be a surprise if he was left out of the squad as a result. And with no new injuries or suspensions to contend with, Enrique has a wealth of options at his disposal.
Claudio Bravo will start in goal looking for his third successive clean sheet and will likely be supported by a full-strength backline featuring Dani Alves, Jordi Alba and Javier Mascherano. As mentioned previously, Piqué may or may not be part of the squad – so there’s an outside chance that Mathieu might make his first start since returning from injury, or maybe that Marc Bartra will feature again.
In midfield, I suspect that Xavi will return to the starting line-up and that Ivan Rakitić will retain his place to partner the veteran Catalan midfielder in the centre of the park. Sergio Busquets is a virtual lock at pivote, and of course, it would naive to rule Andrés Iniesta out of contention simply because I have a suspicion that it’s Xavi’s turn to be rotated in. In fact, there’s not even any reason why Rafinha Alcântara won’t be challenging for a starting berth either; the Brazilian has been in impressive form as of late and on that basis, it might just be a matter of time before we start including him in these conversations more often.
Oh and there’s the small matter of an attack featuring Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. Last time out against Villarreal, we needed a "pure nine" in B team striker Sandro Ramirez to break their resolve at El Madrigal and pick up the win. Is that a suggestion that this could be the kind of match in which Luis Suarez can thrive, or is it an indication that we simply need him to be at his best in front of goal, as opposed to the wasteful and anxious Suarez that we’ve seen since his arrival? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see...
In the build-up to this match, the one name I’ve heard and seen the most is Denis Cheryshev – tipped as "Denis the Menace", the man most likely to cause FC Barcelona problems tomorrow. Perhaps they are right, yet for me the biggest threat is not going to be contending with Denis; it’s Luciano Vietto who worries me as a Culé. With nine goals to his name in what has been his debut season not only in La Liga, but in European football in general, Vietto has scored as many as Karim Benzema, and more than Mario Mandzukic.
Skilful, yet clinical, Vietto has all the attributes to succeed as the next great Argentine striker and despite his impressive goalscoring record, he’s been doing this all "under the radar". What better way to boost your profile than by grabbing a goal or two at the Camp Nou? Barça will have to be at their best defensively to keep him quiet.
Villarreal CF 0-1 FC Barcelona – 31st August 2014 – La Liga
Super substitute Sandro Ramirez broke the deadlock with a late goal to succeed where Barça had previously failed and get the goal needed to secure the three points.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Rakitić; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Villarreal (4-3-3): Asenjo; Gaspar, Musacchio, Ruiz, Costa; Bruno, Trigueros, Jonathan; Cheryshev, Vietto, Giovani
Make no mistake, this could be one of our toughest matches thus far this season and I think that will be reflected in the performance it inspires from our players – I see a statement victory on the horizon, 3-0 Barça.
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