Things look better for Barcelona lately. The injury bug is still annoying, but the latest problems have not been as big as the early ones. The team has capitalized heavily on the games against weak opposition, not only winning the games but also establishing a strong system to keep up with the absence of its biggest star. Barça looks comfortable without Lionel Messi, and the results and performances have been encouraging.
But now the fun is over, and the hard part of the schedule comes up again. The immediate game after the international break is a trip to the Santiago Bernabéu for El Clásico against Real Madrid. There are also dates with Roma and Bayer Leverkusen that are important to decide the first place in the Champions League group stage. December brings the Club World Cup and a vital match against Valencia, which makes the end of the year a rough one for the Blaugrana.
To warm things up, Barça opens up the Camp Nou doors to welcome a pleasant La Liga surprise in Villarreal, who have been fantastic so far this season. After ten rounds, the Yellow Submarine sits in fourth place in the standings, playing exciting, attacking football with strong results as well. They will bring the fight to the hosts as they did last season, and the Blaugranes will need to be at the top of their powers to start preparations for the biggest club game on Earth with a statement victory. Will it happen?
As we know, Ivan Rakitic was the latest to suffer an injury, this time a slight calf strain that will keep him out of this weekend's clash. Although some reports claim that he might miss the Clásico, every signs point to him playing in the Bernabéu clash. He won't go with Croatia for international duty, which will give him not only time to recover from the problem, but also to rest for the first time in quite some time. He saw very many minutes lately, which certainly contributed for his contusion.
Rakitic joins Douglas, Messi and Rafinha as the injured absentees for Sunday, while Javier Mascherano will serve the last of his two-game suspension for saying some nasty things to an assistant referee in the game against Eibar a fortnight ago. These four will definitely be missed on Sunday, but Barça should still be able to field a strong starting lineup.
Claudio Bravo comes back to his usual starting slot in league games, and the Chilean has been very impressive since returning from injury. He was on the field in only one of the four recent clean sheets the Blaugrana have amassed in the last five games, but with a better defense in front of him, Bravo could have another match without conceding.
In a shocking development, Dani Alves has improved, which did not seem possible a few weeks ago. The Brazilian has had a strong run of games lately, and is certain to start this weekend. Gerard Piqué was rested in the midweek match against BATE, which probably means he will return to the center of the defense. Alongside him, without Mascherano, Thomas Vermaelen is likely to keep his place in the starting group. The Belgian has done well since coming back from injury, and is one of the contributors of Barça's good defensive form. Jordi Alba also got a day off, and should be back in place of Adriano on Sunday.
At midfield, there are not very many options, so we should see Sergio Busquets again at pivote, which is not bad news. Number Five is enjoying an unbelievable form this season, and his level got otherworldly in the last few games. Luis Enrique made a bold statement last week calling Busquets the best midfielder in the world today, and it's hard to argue with that claim with what we have seen lately. Busi's passing ability, awareness and defensive skills have reached a fantastic point so far, and if the two world-class strikers in front of him weren't on another level as well, he would be Barça's best player since Messi's injury.
Alongside Sergio at midfield, Sergi Roberto and Andrés Iniesta will play again from the first whistle like they did against BATE. Roberto continues to impress with every game, and he was very good in midweek again, playing first as a winger and then as a tempo-controlling central mid. His confidence is at its highest right now, and he could even contend for a starting place in El Clásico if he continues to perform like he has been. Good luck predicting that two months ago.
Iniesta was smartly brought back by Enrique, playing 90 combined minutes in the last two games since returning from injury. The coach was smart to not rush him even without many options at midfield, and now he is getting ready for high-intensity clashes against Villarreal and Madrid without compromising his body. The international break could actually be good for Andrés, who can use the games with Spain to improve his match fitness and arrive at Bernabéu ready for war.
Up front, Munir El-Haddadi was very good when he came in for Rakitic against BATE last Wednesday, and he should get a starting slot on Sunday. He is battling with Sandro to see who starts, plays badly and leaves for the other guy, and it should be his chance on the weekend.
With Munir, Neymar Jr. and Luis Suárez will play again and hope to continue their spectacular form. They have scored EVERY SINGLE GOAL for Barça in La Liga since Messi went down, which is out of this world. The Brazilian especially has been beyond sensational taking the Maestro role, and he has carried the torch until Messi comes back to his usual duties. Neymar is coming back to the Brazilian national team after serving a suspension, which is worrying before a Clásico and doesn't give him two weeks to rest, but hopefully he does well there and comes back with sky-high confidence for the biggest match of the season so far.
The Yellows will miss some key components on Sunday, all because of injuries. Goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo, defenders Musacchio and Eric Bailly and attackers Adrián and Léo Bapitstão won't play at Camp Nou, which deeply weakens the side.
Two former Blaugrana youngsters, Jonathan dos Santos and Denis Suárez, are likely to play at midfield, and the dangerous pairing of Bakambu and Roberto Soldado up front still makes Villarreal a strong opponent and a very difficult task for Barça.
Villarreal CF 1-3 FC Barcelona - 5th March 2015 - Copa del Rey
In the second leg of the Spanish Cup semifinal, Barça traveled to València with a comfortable advantage but did not think of preserving it. The world-beating MSN trio dominated again, with Messi serving as a creator and Neymar and Suárez scoring the goals. With two from the Brazilian and one more from El Pistolero, the Blaugranes qualified for the Copa Final with a 6-2 aggregate result.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Vermaelen, Alba; Busquets, Roberto, Iniesta; Munir, Suárez, Neymar
Villarreal (4-4-2): Areola; Mario, Bonera, Ruiz, Costa; Jonathan, Bruno, Pina, Denis Suárez; Bakambu, Soldado
This will not be easy at all. Villarreal has been great for a good portion of the season, and they always play well at Camp Nou. But with Suárez and Neymar in such a dominant form, Barça should escape with a 2-1 victory.