Remember the win against Levante just two days ago? You better stop celebrating that great win, because there's another game ahead. That's the beauty and unfairness of this amazing sport: you're hero on one day, and the villain just three days later. You get a break of tough opponents on the weekend, but get a hard match at midweek. That's the case on Wednesday, when Barcelona face Celta Vigo at Balaídos looking to remain the only perfect team in the Spanish League this season.
The season so far has been bittersweet. The results and performances have been satisfying, but the injuries have altered the immediate future of the team. Coach Luis Enrique was forced to rejigger his rotations, tactical approach and minute delegation, but it seems like the storm is slowly going away. The players who are hurt get closer and closer to fitness, a few of them have already returned, and only long-term problem is the absence of Rafinha Alcântara, who's likely out for the season. But for now, things don't look as dark anymore.
With a team now coming back to its usual world-beating form, we could start to get excited about where this go could go in the future. This young campaign has been full of hurdles on the track, but the team has jumped over them with very little trouble, and they want to keep doing it. The next hurdle is a gigantic one. Will they get over again?
The announcement of the squad list brings the best news of the week: world-class center-back Gerard Piqué is finally back from the four-match suspension that kept him out of the initial portion of La Liga. He did play a Champions League game while banned from domestic competition, which certainly helped him maintain a good level of match fitness to face a very dangerous opponent.
Piqué will likely be on the defense, so let's meet his teammates. Marc-André ter Stegen will start his fourth game between the posts. He has been solid, but the weird goals conceded have turned a lot of heads lately. He has to be alert against one of the most dangerous attacking trios in Spain, and hopefully he won't get one of those "WHAT THE HELL??????" balls going into the net.
In front of the German, the aforementioned Piqué will likely be paired with Javier Mascherano. The Argentine has been a little shaky so far, but he usually steps up when necessary, like we saw against Levante, when Barça fielded four attackers and left him and Marc Bartra alone to stop counter-attacks, and they did. There is a doubt between Mascherano and Jérémy Mathieu, and the French has a good case since he scored the game-winner at Celta last season. Still, as we argued in our projection of the lineups, Mathieu will likely be on the bench for this one. On the flanks, Dani Alves (who had an impressive return on Sunday), and Jordi Alba -- rested at Camp Nou and surely ready to come back to the lineup.
On to the midfielders, where we should see the three usual performers: at pivote, Sergio Busquets, who played only 60 minutes against Levante, a clear indication that he will be used on Wednesday. Alongside him, Ivan Rakitic and Andrés Iniesta. The two have flipped roles in comparison to last season, with the experienced captain being the best of the two, while the Croatian is struggling to recover his spectacular form showed in the first half of 2015. Winning the midfield battle will be huge to force a naturally attacking team to defend deep into their box and reduce risks, and the Busi-Rakitic-Iniesta trio will be more than key if Barça want to leave Vigo with a win.
Up front, no doubt about the attacking trio. Enrique surprised us on Sunday when he left Luis Suárez on the bench for the entire 90 minutes, but the Uruguayan should be back on the starting XI for this one. Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr. played the whole game against Levante, but it's hard to see them missing this one from the start.
If all predictions are correct, the Gala XI, as is called the usual lineup for the biggest games, is set for its first start of this season, and all of them will need to perform at a high level to get through one of the hardest teams in the league.
Los Celestes have been the biggest surprise of the season so far, sitting at the top four of the league table, ahead of strong contenders like Valencia, Atlético Madrid and Sevilla. With three wins in four matches, Celta has actually outscored Barcelona so far, only trailing Real Madrid as the team with the most goals scored so far. Led by the impressive attacking trio of Fabián Orellana, Iago Aspas and Blaugrana target Nolito, they have been on fire at home, scoring at least three times in each of their last three matches at the Balaídos. They use the home field advantage as well as any team of La Liga, and they will bring pressure and intensity for 90 minutes.
The only problem: talented defender Jonny, who can play either as a center-back or on the left flank, is suspended for Wednesday, and that puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of former Blaugrana Andreu Fontás, who will be almost on his own trying to stop Messi and Suárez, who usually transit on Fontás' side of the field.
Celta Vigo: WWDW
RC Celta Vigo 0-1 FC Barcelona - 5th April 2015 - La Liga
In one of the last difficult games in Barça's league schedule last season, the Blaugrana traveled to the Balaídos to face an in-form Celta, and the hosts certainly made things difficult for the eventual champions. The Catalans created very few chances, and faced a compact defense combined with dangerous counter-attacks. But a late Jérémy Mathieu header saved the day for Barça, and that win was vital to keep the team on top of the table in their title run.
Celta Vigo (4-3-3): Álvarez; Mallo, Cabral, Fontás, Planas; Fernández, Hernández, Wass; Orellana, Aspas, Nolito
Barcelona (4-3-3): Ter Stegen; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suárez, Neymar
Celta has been on fire lately, especially at home, and Ter Stegen attracts goals, which tells me they will score at least once. But with MSN getting in form, I say Barça take this one; wild 4-2 victory.