FC Barcelona returns to Copa del Rey action after a fortnight hiatus tomorrow, as they will take on Villarreal CF at the Camp Nou in the first-leg of their semi-final clash with the Yellow Submarine. After being pushed to the limit by Villarreal in their latest La Liga showdown just over a week ago, FC Barcelona know that they are in for a challenging night, but that progression to the final will likely hinge on them securing a win tomorrow evening.
Even then, a win alone may not be enough – a repeat of the 3-2 scoreline that graced the last meeting between the two clubs may in truth favour Villarreal, handing them two valuable away goals that could make all the difference after the conclusion of the second-leg at El Madrigal.
Indeed, it goes without saying that FC Barcelona will be aiming to concede fewer than two goals for the fourth match in succession. Yet, it’s also true that they will be keen to avoid Villarreal dropping too deep and may invite a similarly frenetic tempo to tomorrow’s first leg to boost their own chances of picking up the win. After all, we witnessed the impact that Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar could have on their defense on the counter-attack, as the winning goal ultimately involved our entire fabled attacking triumvirate.
While that victory ended Villarreal’s impressive 18 match unbeaten streak, Marcelino’s side haven’t let that dent their confidence. Granada were the visitors this past weekend, and they were promptly dismissed in a comfortable 2-0 win courtesy of goals from Mateo Musacchio and Gerard Moreno. With Sevilla slipping to their second consecutive defeat against Getafe, that enabled Villarreal to climb to within a single point of fifth place, and maintain their three point deficit to fourth place Valencia.
Will they be able to build on that momentum and shock the Blaugrana in their own backyard, or will Barça claim another hard-fought win to extend their winning streak to 10 matches?
Martin Montoya has been struggling with a nasty illness in the past couple of days, while much to the annoyance of no-one, Douglas has picked up an injury – as if that actually impact Luis Enrique’s selection plans for tomorrow’s match. Thankfully, this weekend’s upcoming La Liga fixture only pits us against Levante UD who are currently occupying the final spot in the relegation zone; oh, and we’re at home for that match as well.
Basically, Lucho doesn’t need to rest a single soul and can play his full-strength side tomorrow to negotiate the threat that Villarreal will pose. That means a start for regular Copa and UEFA Champions League goalkeeper, Marc-André ter Stegen who will likely be protected by a defense featuring Dani Alves and Jordi Alba on either flank.
In the centre of defense, it’s a little harder to predict. Marc Bartra has featured prominently this Copa campaign, so perhaps he will start – but Javier Mascherano rarely sits out two matches in a row. The chances are that Sergio Busquets will remain at pivote, meaning that Mascherano and Bartra will have to contend with Gerard Piqué for the two remaining places in defense. My money is on Piqué and Mascherano – but I could easily be wrong.
In midfield, I’ve given away the game by declaring Busquets a lock to start as anchor man earlier on, but that means we can focus more on the two advanced berths – they’re more interesting anyway. What are the odds that Luis Enrique rotates both of his starters from the weekend, and replaces them with Andrés Iniesta and previous Man of the Match candidate against Villarreal, Rafinha Alcântara?
That’s what I would like to see personally, but then again I wouldn’t be too concerned or dismayed by the inclusion of either Xavi or Ivan Rakitić and can see an upside to pretty much any combination of the quartet. When you think about it that way, it really is a great time to be a Culé.
Go back, and read the final 10 words of the last paragraph again. And once more for good measure – why? Well, because it’s time for the attack! Lionel Messi has elevated his game beyond deity status to reach a level beyond description. Neymar is perhaps the third-most prolific player on the planet behind Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, while at long last, Luis Suarez was back amongst the goals at the weekend.
I can’t stress enough, it really is a great time to be a Culé folks.
Visiting the Camp Nou for the second time this month, Villarreal have no new injury or suspension concerns to contend with. Bojan Jokic remains sidelined with a knee injury, while Ikechukwu Uche misses out for the same reason. Tricky winger and scorer of the opening goal a week or so ago, Denis Cheryshev is just one yellow card away from a suspension in the competition, so perhaps watch out for that – but in general, expect a similar line-up to last time out.
FC Barcelona 3-2 Villarreal CF – 1st February 2015 – La Liga
FC Barcelona defied the usual "Hlebuary" curse to twice come from behind and ultimately defeat a plucky Villarreal outfit on this Sunday evening kick-off at the Camp Nou.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rafinha, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Villarreal (4-3-3): Asenjo; Gaspar, Musacchio, Ruiz, Costa; Bruno, Pina, Jonathan; Giovani, Vietto, Cheryshev
Another tough match, but I think we’ll have learnt a lot from the previous encounter and will use that experience to register a more comfortable victory. 3-1 Barça.