After a huge win over Atlético Madrid and a full week of training in beautiful Catalonia, Barcelona return to La Liga action for another giant Top 4 clash as they welcome co-leaders Girona to the Montjuïc Olympic Stadium on Sunday night.
Barça put together one of their strongest team performances of the entire season against the Colchoneros and made a statement about their ability to defend the title, and now they get to face their Catalan rivals to get even closer to the top of the table as we reach the mid-point of the season.
But Girona promise to provide a brutal test and are looking to prove to the world that they’re for real and that their beautiful, high-flying offense can score goals against anyone, including away from home against the mighty Barça.
Here’s how we think Xavi Hernández will line up his troops for Sunday’s battle.
Iñaki Peña is now set for an extended run as Barça’s starting goalkeeper after Marc-André ter Stegen underwent back surgery and is out for a while, and the young Spaniard has done plenty enough to show that he’s capable of replacing Ter Stegen at a high level both as a shot-stopper and a ball distributor.
In front of him, João Cancelo at left-back has proven very successful in recent games and will most likely continue for this one, which will mean either Jules Kounde or Ronald Araujo at right-back and Andreas Christensen at center-back in the place of the injured Iñigo Martínez.
Alejandro Balde will probably return to a more regular full-back role as the season goes on, but at this particular time the team seems to function better with him on the bench in big games.
The midfield trio of Frenkie de Jong, Ilkay Gündogan and Pedri needed to play very well against Atlético and did just that, taking full control of the ball and dictating the pace of play for virtually all 90 minutes. The trio fits perfectly together and their increasing familiarity and chemistry will be crucial for Barça’s success the rest of the season without the injured Gavi, and they’ll need to play very well again to beat a Girona team that also dominates the center of the park.
It hasn’t been easy for Xavi to find a consistent front three all season, but Raphinha and João Félix are in excellent form on the wings and deserve to start again on Sunday. Ferran Torres and Lamine Yamal have been relegated to bench roles for now, and will face even more competition for places once Vitor Roque arrives in less than a month.
But Roque’s arrival is especially important to try and spark some life into Robert Lewandowski, who continues to struggle to find his place in Barça’s offense and looks visibly annoyed with himself and his teammates in every game that he can’t perform at a high level.
His stats remain productive, but the eye test shows a player that can’t quite figure himself or the team out. Maybe having a true competitor in Roque will bring the best out of Lewy, but even with his current struggles he remains the best finisher in the squad and will lead the line again on Sunday.
Possible XI: Peña; Kounde, Araujo, Christensen, Cancelo; Pedri, De Jong, Gündogan; Raphinha, Lewandowski, Félix (4-3-3)
How do you think Barcelona should line up against Girona? Let us know your thoughts, predictions and teams in the comments below!