Barcelona look to avoid drama in the La Liga title race when they welcome Atlético Madrid to the Spotify Camp Nou on Sunday afternoon looking for a crucial victory in what has been their worst stretch of the season.
Two goalless draws in a row have opened the door for anxiety and given a difficult schedule ahead over the next three weeks, Barça simply cannot afford to drop more points if they want a comfortable finish to their chase for the trophy.
Atlético are still dreaming of second place and would love to add to Barça’s troubles with an upset this weekend, so this one promises to be a very difficult match for the home team. Here’s how we think Xavi Hernández will line up his troops on Sunday.
This week’s training sessions have brought plenty of good news as three crucial starters are back with the group and two of them are nearly guaranteed to return for this one. But the defense is still missing Andreas Christensen, who should be back soon but isn’t ready to play just yet.
Sergi Roberto’s potentially season-ending injury also hurts the depth at the back, so keeping the remaining players healthy is a priority over the next couple of weeks. But for a big game like this there can’t be any rotation, so Jules Kounde will start at right-back, Ronald Araujo will be one of the center-backs and Alejandro Balde will be on the left.
The only doubt is Araujo’s partner who could be either Eric García or Marcos Alonso. Neither feels like a great choice, but Eric has been in better form recently and should get the nod over Alonso.
Frenkie De Jong and Pedri will make the squad on Sunday which is gigantic news for a Barça midfield in desperate need of creativity. It remains to be seen if they’re ready for big minutes yet, and Pedri’s condition is of special interest considering his much longer absence compared to De Jong.
For that reason it’s more likely that we see Pedri come off the bench in the second half to not force him into action too soon, but Frenkie is probably starting since he was already a late scratch last week and has had seven full days of preparation for this one. He’ll partner Sergio Busquets in the middle, and his return probably brings the four-midfielder system back in the fold.
Without the injured Roberto and assuming Gavi will play up front, Franck Kessie will complete the midfield quartet from the start.
Ousmane Dembélé is the third key starter back from injury and the Frenchman was a full participant in training in the next couple of days, but reports from Catalonia say the coaching staff won’t risk it with Dembélé and he’s unlikely to start — and might not feature at all.
With that in mind — and assuming Gavi starts on the left — there will be one spot open on the right wing and three not very good options in the angry Raphinha, the out-of-form Ferran Torres and the not-great-on-the-right Ansu Fati. Raphinha usually wins that battle, and he most likely get one more chance to start and turn his fortunes around after a few bad games in a row.
Robert Lewandowski will once again lead the line hoping to end a three-game goal drought, and with De Jong and Pedri back in the fold the Pole will enjoy much better service than he’s had in the last few weeks.
Possible XI: Ter Stegen; Kounde, Araujo, Eric, Balde; Kessie, Busquets, De Jong; Raphinha, Lewandowski, 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!