After a heartbreaking Copa del Rey exit against Athletic Bilbao in the Basque Country, Barcelona are right back in action on Saturday in the penultimate match of a very busy January as the Catalans welcome struggling Villarreal for a crucial La Liga clash at the Montjuïc Olympic Stadium.
Barça played 120 minutes of physically and emotionally taxing football and suffered a painful defeat that ended their best chance to win a trophy this season, and now the challenge is to quickly bounce back and turn their attentions to La Liga for the next couple of weeks.
They’re not out of the title race just yet and have a run of winnable games over the next month, but the Catalans cannot afford to drop any points if they want to stay close to Real Madrid and Girona. Villarreal are having a very difficult season and are desperate for a change in fortune to escape the threat of relegation, and they know Barça are vulnerable and tired and will be looking to cause a big upset this weekend.
Here’s how we think Xavi Hernández will line up his troops for Saturday’s battle.
After playing 120 minutes and having to travel back from the Basque Country, it is really hard to know who will be starting for the Blaugrana with such a short turnaround. Only the coaching and medical staffs have access to the vast fitness level data available from each player, and Xavi will rely on those numbers as well as the recent run of games to decide the most physically apt XI this weekend.
So this is our best guess (BIG emphasis on GUESS): with Ronald Araujo clearly struggling with a knee injury against Athletic it would be wise to rest the Uruguayan for this one, allowing Pau Cubarsí to continue his breakout month alongside Jules Kounde at right-back and Andreas Christensen as Cubarsí’s partner in the middle.
Christensen, like Ronald, is also playing through injury but was subbed off early against Athletic while Araujo remained in the game even through extra time, which could be an indication that Xavi has already made up his mind about sitting Araujo this weekend.
Alejandro Balde’s injury means João Cancelo probably returns at left-back as it seemed as though Xavi chose to not risk the Portuguese at San Mamés after Balde’s early exit. Héctor Fort will be ready to step in if Cancelo is not quite ready to start yet, with the youngster playing very well and for over 90 minutes on Wednesday.
After playing 100 minutes in Bilbao it would be a huge risk to start Pedri again with such a short turnaround, with the magician best served to be a super sub against Villarreal for the final 30-35 minutes of the game.
Both Frenkie de Jong and Ilkay Gündogan looked exhausted at the end of the Bilbao match, but it would be a surprise to see all three midfield starters benched for this one. Because De Jong has consistently been one of the most physically reliable players in the squad since his arrival we think Gündogan will be the one moving to the bench, with Sergi Roberto and Fermín López completing the midfield with Frenkie at the base.
Xavi could easily start Gündogan as the pivot and give De Jong a much-needed rest as well, but the biggest surprise would definitely be Oriol Romeu starting.
Lamine Yamal had a couple of big misses in the second half against Athletic but also scored a spectacular goal early in the game, and the 16-year-old once again provided a glimpse of his limitless potential. But he also played 105 minutes and looked very tired when he came off, and having already played all 90 minutes away to Real Betis it would be a shock to see the youngster starting three times in six days.
A rest for Yamal is the only sensible choice, which would mean Ferran Torres moving to the right wing and a rare start this month for João Félix on the left. Robert Lewandowski has been subbed off twice in a row in the middle of the second half, and with both Marc Guiu and Vitor Roque earning real minutes in recent games it seems as though the leash is becoming shorter and shorter for the Pole even if he remains the starter for this one.
Possible XI: Peña; Kounde, Cubarsí, Christensen, Cancelo; Fermín, De Jong, Roberto; Ferran, Lewandowski, Félix (4-3-3)
How do you think Barcelona should line up against Villarreal? Let us know your thoughts, predictions and teams in the comments below!