FC Barcelona will be looking to move one step closer to retaining their La Liga title tomorrow when they travel to Andalusia to take on Real Betis at the Estadio Benito Villamarin. Of the three games remaining on our schedule, many would consider tomorrow evening’s showdown with Los Verdiblancos to be the most difficult – Betis after all are the highest ranked of our three remaining foes and boast a relatively respectable home record.
However, be that as it may, Betis also have the least to play for. They are eight points clear of the relegation zone in 13th place and based on the remaining fixtures to be played, that’s enough to keep them safe from the drop. Given how congested it is at mid-table, it is true that Betis could harbour quite realistic hopes of finishing as high as eighth – but their recent performances have been laboured and inconsistent.
Our hosts for tomorrow’s match continue to boast the most lethargic offense in La Liga; with just 31 goals to their name through 35 matches, there is not a single club that has scored fewer goals this season, while Luis Suarez alone has bagged 34. While I understand that Betis can be quite good at home, it seems unlikely that they will have the firepower or defensive discipline to stop a Barcelona team that has scored 14 goals in its last two matches.
So yes, while there may be a chance that the Blaugrana could be as low as third in the standings by the time they kick off with both Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in action in Saturday’s afternoon schedule, I wouldn’t bank on them ending the Jornada that low. Who knows, this might even be the week that we pull away from the chasing pack once again.
Luis Enrique primarily made the headlines this afternoon for his comments regarding Francesco Totti, rather than for what he said about tomorrow’s match against Betis. For Lucho, it was business as usual in front of the press; he answered their questions in an honest fashion – reminding them that he never declared the title race to be over before, but that he was looking forward to the final three games and seeing what his side can produce now that the margin for error is non-existent.
Certainly, we will have the tools to produce results with very few injury concerns to note ahead of the trip to Seville. Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen are both sidelined through injury, and will probably miss the remainder of the La Liga campaign at least, but leaving that aside, there are no real injuries to speak of to any regular members of the first team.
And disappointed though we may be with watching the UEFA Champions League semi-finals on the television like everyone else, there’s a sense that our elimination might have some positive impacts after all. The squad were given two days off training at the start of the week for instance, and we’ve seen what this team is capable of producing when they’re fit and firing – players like Neymar especially look set to benefit immensely from a short break in action.
It also means that Enrique is largely free to select his strongest team, or perhaps more pertinently, make the selections he feels are required to contend with an opponent like Real Betis.
Claudio Bravo will start in goal looking to keep his third consecutive clean sheet after pitching shut-outs against Sporting Gijon and Deportivo La Coruna, where he was ably assisted by strong performances from all the Barcelona defenders. Dani Alves and Sergi Roberto both performed effectively in sharing the right-back berth, while Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano and Marc Bartra have all been outstanding for one reason or another. Heck, even Jordi Alba has looked okay in the past couple of games.
I figure that we’ll see a return for Alves tomorrow, with Piqué, Mascherano and Alba completing the backline. If they can figure out how to stop Ruben Castro between them, I like their chances at keeping another clean sheet.
In midfield, the triumvirate of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić and Andrés Iniesta is likely to fend off competition from the likes of Arda Turan and Rafinha Alcântara to get the start tomorrow, and we will need them to be at their best if we are to secure a result. Real Betis like to play quite a scrappy brand of football, and of course, if we allow them to dictate their style, then we aren’t going to get the best out of our frontline.
Speaking of our attack, it’s been Luis Suarez who has been capturing our attentions the most in the past couple of games; while he struggled in that three game losing streak, he’s bounced back in quite emphatic fashion with eight goals in his past two appearances. As a result he’s leapfrogged the injured Cristiano Ronaldo in the race for the Pichichi and just generally, he’s managed to steal the headlines away from the greatest player of all time, Lionel Messi.
Will the Uruguayan continue his hot streak tomorrow, or will Betis manage to frustrate the MSN trident?
Predictably, Real Betis didn’t manage to secure a result on their trip to the Ramon Sánchez Pizjuan last weekend; Sevilla boast a home record as impressive as any in La Liga this season and comfortably cruised to a 2-0 win in the Seville derby. In spite of this, Juan Merino makes just one changes to the squad that slumped to defeat that night, as Algerian midfielder Foued Kadir replaces the young Fabian Ruiz, who came on as a late substitute in the loss.
All the focus therefore will remain on their key players to deliver; Joaquin can be dangerous, Antonio Adan will be motivated to put in a good performance for his previous employer, Real Madrid, while we all know about Ruben Castro. The veteran striker has scored six goals in 11 appearances against the Blaugrana, even if he is waiting for his first win against the Catalans.
Real Betis: LLWDWL
FC Barcelona 4-0 Real Betis – 30th December 2015 – La Liga
The Catalans returned from their FIFA Club World Cup triumph to dismantle Betis as a brace from Luis Suarez sealed an emphatic win after first half goals from Lionel Messi and Heiko Westermann (OG).
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Betis (4-2-3-1): Adan; Bruno, Westermann, Pezzella, Montoya; Petros, N’Diaye; Cejudo, Joaquin, Ceballos; Castro
The first half will be a struggle, but quality shines through in the end. 3-1 Barça.