Following a two-week international break where most of the squad stayed home and trained together, Barcelona return to action to start a huge month with one of the biggest games of the season against Atlético Madrid at Camp Nou.
February is a make-or-break month for Barça, with four crucial La Liga games and the two Europa League Playoff ties against Napoli over the next three weeks. The January transfer window brought some important reinforcements and the squad is relatively healthy, so Xavi Hernández will be able to select strong teams for all six games.
Even though there will be 16 matches left in the league season after this weekend, this is a truly massive game for Barça’s Top 4 hopes. If they beat Diego Simeone’s side, the Blaugrana will finish the weekend in a Champions League place for the first time since September and overtake a direct rival in the race. It’s a truly gigantic match, and here’s how we think Barça will line up on Sunday.
Despite some strong rumors on Deadline Day, Barça didn’t bring in any new defenders in January other than Dani Alves, and injuries to Eric García, Samuel Umtiti and Clément Lenglet have left the backline without any depth ahead of a huge month.
But even if all of the defenders were available, there’s very little doubt about which players Xavi will go with on Sunday: Alves at right-back, Ronald Araujo and Gerard Piqué in the middle, and Jordi Alba at left-back. Sergiño Dest had a good week with the United States and is available for both full-back positions, but the American will most likely start this one on the bench.
Sergi Roberto is the only midfield player currently unavailable, which means there is some serious depth in the middle of the park at the moment. Sergio Busquets, Frenkie De Jong, Pedri, Nico González, Gavi and Riqui Puig are all healthy and ready to go, and all six might have to play a part in February.
And for this one, we might see not only three, but four of those players. My educated guess is there is a good chance Xavi goes with an extra midfielder on the wing to have more control and possession against a tough Atlético defense, something he did in the first few matches after taking over when almost every attacking player was injured.
Busquets, Frenkie, Pedri and Gavi are the four most likely to start, and in a normal 4-3-3 system one of them would have to be on the bench. But don’t be shocked if Gavi is on the left wing on Sunday, with the other three in the middle of the park.
Note: there have been reports over the last 24 hours that Ousmane Dembélé will be in the squad and could even start on Sunday, but as of this writing there is no confirmation of that from Xavi or the club so we’ll assume the Frenchman is out for the purpose of this article.
Ansu Fati is gone for at least two months and Memphis Depay continues to struggle with a hamstring problem, but there is still depth in the Barça attack thanks to the two signings made in the final two days of the January window.
Adama Traoré (and his muscles) bring some serious speed and individual dribbling quality to the attack, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a world-class goalscorer who, if healthy, can be the lethal weapon in front of goal that Sergio Agüero was supposed to be. Aubameyang hasn’t played since December, however, and even though he will be available for the bench it is unlikely that he plays more than 20 minutes on Sunday.
But Adama (and his muscles) are more than ready and he was playing very well off the bench for Wolverhampton Wanderers before moving to Camp Nou, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Traoré starting on his debut. Ferran Torres is a lock to start, and the only doubt is whether he plays up front of on the wing.
If Xavi does go with four midfielders and Gavi on the left, then Ferran will play centrally. But if it is a traditional 4-3-3 with two wingers and a striker, Ferran will most likely be on the left with Luuk De Jong in the middle. Ferran Jutglà and Ez Abde have been faithful servants until now, but with the new signings it is hard to see the two youngsters having any real chance to play.
Possible XI: Ter Stegen; Alves, Araujo, Piqué, Alba; F. De Jong, Busquets, Pedri; Adama, Ferran, Gavi (4-3-3)
How do YOU think Barcelona should line up against Atlético Madrid? Let us know your thoughts, predictions and teams in the comments below!