FC Barcelona (3rd, 44pts) vs Villarreal CF (14th, 20pts)*
*Standings at the time of writing
Competition/Round: 2023-24 La Liga, Matchday 22
Barcelona Outs & Doubts: Marc-André ter Stegen, Gavi, Alejandro Balde, Sergi Roberto, Raphinha, Iñigo Martínez, Marcos Alonso (out)
Villarreal Outs & Doubts: Dani Parejo, Yeremi Pino, Juan Foyth, Alfonso Pedraza, Denis Suárez, Pepe Reina, Raúl Albiol, Ramon Terrats (out)
Date/Time: Saturday, January 27, 2024, 6.30pm CET/WAT (Barcelona & Nigeria), 5.30pm GMT (UK), 12.30pm ET, 9.30am PT (USA), 11pm IST (India)
Venue: Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys, Montjuïc, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain
Referee: José Luis Munuera Montero
VAR: Santiago Jaime Latre
How to watch on TV: ESPN Deportes (USA), Viaplay Sports 2 (UK), SuperSport (Nigeria), Sports18 (India), TSN 4 (Canada), Not Available (Spain), others
Following a painful and emotionally taxing Copa del Rey exit away to Athletic Bilbao in midweek, Barcelona continue the madness of January with their eighth game this month and their first at home as the Catalans welcome Villarreal for a big La Liga clash at the Montjuïc Olympic Stadium on Saturday evening.
Barça come into this one with a chance to play their first match of 2024 in front of the home fans after nearly 40 days away from the crowd in the Catalan capital, with all three of their Copa del Rey games, both of their La Liga encounters and the two Spanish Super Cup clashes all played either on the road or at a neutral site in a span of 21 crazy days to begin the new year.
January is unforgiving in Spain, and it usually separates the good teams from the great ones. The amount of games in quick succession takes a serious toll, and the Cup ties increase the pressure and the mental fatigue of every match while injuries are almost inevitable due to the schedule.
Barça have been bit hard by the injury bug again and are out of two competitions already, and the final four months of the season will be a monster test for Xavi Hernández and his players as the Blaugrana try to rescue what has been a very difficult campaign so far.
They remain somewhat in the vicinity of leaders Real Madrid and Girona, but any slip-up will effectively end their title hopes in the league. The Champions League seems too distant of a target even if they can get past Napoli in the Round of 16, so La Liga is the only somewhat realistic chance of a trophy in 2023-24.
The next month offers a bunch of winnable games, but the squad is tired and missing key pieces and will need to show a lot of fighting spirit to continually bounce back and stay close to the top of the table. Saturday offers a very tough test in the Yellow Submarine, who have recovered from a disastrous start by sacking Quique Setién and replacing him with veteran Spanish manager Marcelino García Toral, who himself bounced back from a very short stint in France and has done a solid job so far.
But injuries to key players have also impacted Villarreal, who are missing in essence their entire starting back four which has led to very poor defensive performances despite having a manager in Marcelino that prides himself in having solid, well-organized teams who make defending a priority.
They’ve won only one of their last seven in La Liga and conceded at least three goals in three straight league games on the road, and one or two more bad results in succession will sound real alarm bells as the relegation fears grow. A good result in Barcelona is always a huge confidence boost for any team fighting to avoid the drop or the threat of it, and Villarreal know how vulnerable Barça will be after playing 120 minutes on Wednesday and especially how poorly they’ve defended all season.
The imminent return of Marc-André ter Stegen will help matters at the back, but Iñaki Peña is badly struggling and the players in front of him are either not protected well enough in certain circumstances or making basic mistakes that compromise the entire system in key moments. They’ve conceded a lot of early goals and have had to come from behind seemingly every other game, which creates unnecessary desperation and pressure for a team that under Xavi needs to establish a rhythm and score first to have control of a game.
Villarreal under Marcelino are well-coached to alternate moments of high pressing and low blocks, but they might choose to sit back for most of the evening and frustrate Barça to hit them on the counter. That has been a very effective tactic against Xavi’s team, and it could prove fatal if the Blaugrana don’t score early themselves.
This is a game Barça badly need if they want to have any chance to win La Liga. This is a game Villarreal badly need if they want to avoid a dangerous dance with the drop. It’ll be full of tension and probably full of bad defensive moments and goals for both sides, which might make this quite a lot of fun.
Barcelona (4-2-3-1): Peña; Kounde, Araujo, Cubarsí, Cancelo; Gündogan, De Jong; Yamal, Pedri, Félix; Lewandowski
Villarreal (4-4-2): Jörgensen; Femenía, Bailly, Cuenca, Moreno; Akhomach, Coquelin, Comesaña, Baena; Gerard, Sorloth
Barça are tired and injured and can’t defend and Villarreal badly need a result but also can’t defend. Everything points to a high-scoring draw, but I’ll still bet on the good guys: 3-2 Barça.