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Keys to the Game: Villarreal vs Barcelona

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A tricky away game for Ronald Koeman’s title-chasers

FC Barcelona v Getafe - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

A dramatic and distracting week comes to a close with Barcelona facing one of the toughest remaining challenges of the season.

With the talk of a Super League, Villarreal is one of the teams in Spain who should have felt the most insulted.

Over the past two decades, the Yellow Submarine made their debut in La Liga, been relegated, and fought back to earn their place at the top of the table to compete regularly for a spot in Europe.

They are a perfect example of what makes the game special at the club level.

Barcelona may have added fuel to their fire, and they’ll need to be focused and prepared to come out on top in this must-win game for both teams.

Koeman must do better managing rotation

Athletic de Bilbao v FC Barcelona - Spanish Copa del Rey Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

One of the major reasons that Barcelona has surged into contention for a domestic title has been the change in formation.

The shape is effective, and it’s getting the most out of Koeman’s preferred players.

He deserves credit for making changes when he did, and for his prescience around cultivating Pedri from the start, and Ilaix Moriba at the moment.

Nonetheless, his game management with respect to substitutions remains puzzling.

Koeman could very well become his own worst enemy if he runs Pedri into the ground. The implications aren’t just for this season.

The solution is obvious for anyone who follows the team, and fans aren’t going to shut up about it. Play Riqui Puig.

Riqui should have been starting games from time to time throughout the year. He hasn’t.

Riqui at the very least should have been a go-to super sub when energy and impact is needed. He hasn’t been used for that either.

Pedri would benefit from the competition, and he would also benefit simply from the rest.

The other player who was doing well, only to be banished to the bench the last few months, is Francisco Trincao.

This one is easier to explain as the new formation simply doesn’t suit him, but if Barcelona fall short of the title at the end of the year, Koeman will be criticized for his game management.

There is still time to look deep inside himself, and see whether more evolution in his judgment of his players is needed.

What to do with Dembele?

Real Madrid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Ousmane Dembele is fit and available. This is fantastic news, but presents a dilemma for Koeman.

Dembele or Antoine Griezmann?

Or does Koeman play all three forwards together, and move Frenkie de Jong to the backline?

He’s found success with different variations, but against Villarreal, I’d like to see him be as attack-minded as possible and play the French nationals together.

One caveat is that ironically, in lieu of a number nine, Frenkie has become the biggest presence in the box.

Messi avoids it, Griezmann dabbles in it, and Dembele prefers to run into it with the ball at his feet.

But Frenkie knows how to navigate it and become a target. His offensive instincts in general are a massive asset, and one Koeman may not want to sacrifice.

Regardless, this will likely be the most consequential decision that Koeman makes down the stretch.

Villareal are capable of delivering in a big game

Deportivo Alavés v Villarreal CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Unai Emery is perhaps best known as a legend of the Europa League from his time as the Sevilla manager.

Right now, he has Villarreal in the semi-finals and in a prime position to win a title.

Standing in his way is his former club Arsenal, followed by a possible final against Manchester United.

In order to qualify for Europa next year, his team is one point behind Real Sociedad, and level on points with Real Betis, both of whom hold the last spots.

Barcelona are in a race of their own making this fixture one with a lot on the line.

Way back in September, in the days of Ansu Fati, Barcelona smashed Villarreal 4-0, with the young Spaniard scoring two goals of his own.

The matchup on paper favors Barcelona. Villarreal is a balanced team who play with integrity and a desire to win, for better and worse.

Barcelona players will recognize their old team-mate Paco Alcacer, who since leaving the team has become a very effective striker for Dortmund and Villarreal. After being kicked out of Germany with the arrival of Erling Haaland, Alcacer made his way back to Spain and has recorded 12 goals this year in all competitions.

The danger man, however, is Gerard Moreno, who is having a career season with 26 goals, and is right behind Messi and Karim Benzema in the Pichichi race.

Villarreal have a very sound defense anchored by Pau Torres and Raul Albiol.

They also have an experienced midfield led by Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin, highlighted by the young and intriguing Nigerian Samuel Chukwueze.

The mindset for Barcelona is seven games to go and seven finals.

Villarreal will surely play their part, and if Barca is to win they will need to do what fans across Europe have been calling for this week. Earn it.