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Keys to the Game: Barcelona vs Elche

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Time for a no-nonsense professional victory

FC Barcelona v Athletic de Bilbao - Spanish Super Cup Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Barcelona has had a good go of it recently, with only Atletico Madrid earning more points in their last five domestic games.

That’s positive news as Barca looks to close the three-point gap that separates them from second-place Real Madrid.

Elche will play host on Sunday and are currently dwelling at the bottom of the table in the relegation zone.

Barcelona should not read too much into this. Without Lionel Messi, the supporting cast will need to answer the call with a strong performance in order to grab the much-needed, and expected, victory.

Mighty Elche is not, but they are capable of competence

Real Valladolid CF v Elche CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

Much of the story this season has been Barcelona dropping points to opponents in the bottom half of the table.

Elche will be a barometer for what to expect going forward. Can Barca dominate a struggling team? They learned from Eibar the danger of letting underdogs hang around. From Getafe, they learned what happens when you let yourself be pushed around.

No excuses anymore. Lessons learned, now it’s time to take care of business.

Elche hasn’t won a game in La Liga since back on October 23rd. Seriously.

Just recently they got knocked out of the Copa del Rey against second-division team Rayo Vallecano, a team Barca play in the next round incidentally.

They are still capable of causing headaches. Back on December 30th, they played Real Madrid to a 1-1 tie, a result that helped Barcelona gain ground on their rivals.

Elche don’t score a lot of goals, only 16 on the season, but their defense is solid and can be counted on to keep games close. Against Real Madrid, they were patient and eventually equalized on a second-half penalty.

The leading scorers on the team are veteran midfielder Josan and left-winger Fidel, both of whom have netted four times. Forward Lucas Boye has scored three goals.

Really not a lot to worry about in terms of individual talent, but collectively Elche could take advantage of a poor showing from their opponent.

With Messi out again, this is Dembele’s team to lead

Cornella v FC Barcelona - Copa del Rey Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

If not Messi, then who?

Ousmane Dembele has shown signs of being the next man up. He has the ability to create chances out of nothing, and against Cornella took the opportunity to lead the way with a clutch moment to seal the game.

It goes beyond his play on the field. You are starting to see Dembele being vocal, making demands of his team-mates, and even showing support to young players like Sergino Dest.

There is enough skill even without Messi, but the leadership intangibles are another matter.

Whether it’s Dembele, or another young but seasoned player like Frenkie de Jong, Barcelona needs leaders who are setting the example and holding everyone accountable in the locker room and on the pitch.

Koeman may have found a winning combination in the midfield

FC Barcelona v Athletic de Bilbao - Spanish Super Cup Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Ronald Koeman has found his preferred midfield combination.

Frenkie is on a hot streak, pushing the game forward, and finding ways to be dangerous in front of goal. If Elche sits back, he could be called on to push an aggressive tempo.

Pedri has cooled off a bit, but alongside Sergio Busquets he has the ability to penetrate backlines with sharp passing, and smart movement in tight spaces.

The performance of the midfield has often determined the outcome of games. When Barca look their best, it’s because these three are taking chances and making plays.

On the flip side, we’ve seen a bad version that prioritizes possession without an end in mind.

Intention matters. An attack-minded midfield could make a big difference.

Find top form now to be competitive for silverware

FC Barcelona v Athletic Club - Supercopa de Espana Final Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

La Liga is a long shot. A Champions League run is more of a possibility than you might think with so many super clubs struggling to find their best form. The Copa del Rey is being served up on a silver platter.

Competing for any of it will require getting hot at the right moment. Now would be the perfect time.

In spite of the disappointing loss in the Supercopa, Barca are riding momentum domestically and need to hold on to it.

If they put in a strong performance against Elche, and build upon the success going into February, who knows what they’re capable of when a player like Ansu Fati returns in March.

You have to love it when you see Ronald Araujo refusing to give up on La Liga.

That’s the right attitude. Fight for everything.

If it becomes contagious watch out.

Against Elche let’s see that fight. Take nothing for granted.