Something’s got to give. FC Barcelona will put their nine game winning streak on the line against a Sevilla outfit that is undefeated at home when they travel to Andalusia on Saturday night to take on Unai Emery’s in-form side at the Ramon Sánchez Pizjuan. At the end of the evening, either Barça’s impressive streak of consecutive wins will have been brought to a grinding halt, or Sevilla’s formidable home record will be left in tatters.
The rest of La Liga will be watching closely with one eye on the title race. A win in this, one of their toughest remaining fixtures, would prove to be a massive boost for the Blaugrana not just in a literal sense as it brings them one win closer to regaining their title, but also in a psychological sense. Sevilla represent a challenge, a significant hurdle; they’re the latest pop quiz that Luis Enrique must face to prove his worth as Barça manager.
Going toe-to-toe with Unai Emery and escaping Seville with all three points would be the latest in a string of fine accomplishments for Enrique. Defeat and failure is simply not an option; all the doubts, the talk of crisis would come flooding back adding an extra layer of pressure to both the La Liga title race, not to mention our upcoming UEFA Champions League obligations against Paris Saint-Germain.
And therein lies the problem.
This will be Barça’s third match in the space of a week with the promise of two more critical matches to follow in the next seven days. We’re travelling to face the only side in the division with an unbeaten home record and even then, the pressure to secure a win is immense. A draw would be a credible result for any other side – but Culés seem to hold Barcelona to a higher standard.
The reaction to a narrow victory over Celta Vigo was mixed to say the least, while there hasn’t even been universal praise for our emphatic win over Almeria in midweek. If we drop points, how will the fanbase react – and what impact could that have ahead of our trip to Paris?
Let’s hope Barça do us proud and we never have to find out...
Guess who’s back! Jordi Alba has recovered from the hamstring injury he suffered on international duty in double-quick fashion to not only return to training, but also receive the medical green light to be named to the 18-man squad that will travel to Seville. His recovery however, coupled with Sergio Busquets’ return from suspension has forced Luis Enrique into a couple of changes to the squad; Martin Montoya and Sergi Roberto both drop out after playing a role in the win over Almeria.
Ergo, there’s still no room in the team for Thomas Vermaelen – although as much was to be expected given the importance of this fixture for our title aspirations. Likewise, both Douglas and Jordi Masip have been left in Catalunya, but I doubt you really needed me to tell you that.
Getting to tomorrow’s line-up, Claudio Bravo will start in goal having kept three clean sheets in his last four appearances, with Pichichi leader Cristiano Ronaldo grabbing the only goal against the Chilean in the last six hours of football. That’s not a bad record by any stretch of the imagination, although it’s safe to say that Bravo will have his work cut out for him up against one of the league’s best strikers: Carlos Bacca.
The Colombian forward only trails Ronaldo and Messi in the race for the golden boot, having scored 17 goals – the same number as Neymar – in his 30 appearances this campaign. That being said, Bacca struggled to make an impact in the previous match between the two sides this season and the likes of Gerard Piqué will be studying that night for tips on how to keep Bacca at bay.
Indeed, Piqué should return to the starting line-up after a deserved rest in midweek and it’s likely that he will be partnered by Jeremy Mathieu, who has grabbed the opening goal in each of his last two appearances for the club. At right-back, Dani Alves should start against his former club while Jordi Alba is favourite to slot back in at left-back after recovering from injury.
However, with Paris Saint-Germain to come in midweek, don’t be surprised if Alba is eased back into action off the bench, with Adriano Correia continuing in his role on the left-hand side of defense against his former club.
At pivote, expect to see Sergio Busquets back in the side after he served a one-match suspension for yellow card accumulation against Almeria in midweek. Javier Mascherano seems to have been an ever-present in the side under Lucho, although having checked the stats he has actually made fewer La Liga appearances than Xavi this season, perhaps suggesting that a spot on the bench isn’t as unlikely as one might have thought for El Jefecito.
Speaking of Xavi, it’s been a pleasure to watch him work his magic in the past couple of matches, although I fear that that run is momentarily over and we will see Ivan Rakitić paired up with Andrés Iniesta. Not that this is an inherently "bad" thing, but any Culé would agree that it’s tough to see Xavi sitting on the bench after all he’s done for the club over the years. Nevertheless, our captain offers a different dimension and a touch of undoubted quality off the bench – two traits that could prove vital in breaking down an astute Sevilla defense.
On the other hand, it might not come down to that thanks to the quality of our front three. Lionel Messi scored a superb hat-trick the last time these two sides met back in November. Neymar helped himself to a goal and two assists, while Luis Suarez created a goal of his own for Ivan Rakitić. Three world-class players each making an impact, a game-changing contribution against one of the division’s best sides – that’s why we introduced Suarez to the fold, to bring the best out of the trio.
In recent weeks, it has been the Uruguayan who has been shouldering the responsibility somewhat, with Messi still chipping in with decisive contributions while Neymar’s form has rather cooled off. The great thing about the Brazilian though is that one goal is all it takes – and judging by the composed finish we witnessed against Celta Vigo in spite of the offside flag, that goal isn’t too far away and Neymar might be ready to start firing on all cylinders again soon enough.
Much has been made of Barcelona’s tough schedule, but what about Sevilla’s? They aren’t as good as us, which in itself is a disadvantage, but they’ve also had a tough couple of matches against Athletic Bilbao and Levante in the past week. Not only that, but they have the UEFA Europa League to look forward to and a tie with Zenit St Petersburg, so they have just as much to contend with as us – perhaps a fact that some are all too eager to overlook in their build-up to the clash.
With no injuries or suspensions to contend with, Emery has a strong squad at his disposal, but will it be enough to challenge the runaway league leaders?
FC Barcelona 5-1 Sevilla FC – 22 November 2014 – La Liga
A Lionel Messi hat-trick stole the headlines, but the real highlight from this emphatic victory was the overall level of performance from the whole team – not just the star-studded frontline – as Barça completely dominated one of the league’s best teams en route to their latest win.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mathieu, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Sevilla (4-2-3-1): Beto; Coke, Carrico, Pareja, Navarro; Krychowiak, Iborra; Vitolo, Denis, Vidal; Bacca
A tight match, and a narrow 2-1 Barça win.