For the first time in what feels like forever Barcelona have had a full week of recovery and training in beautiful Catalonia to prepare for their next La Liga match, and now the Blaugrana begin a crucial stretch of games in domestic and continental competition with a home game against Granada on Sunday night.
The Catalans come into this one after a strong performance and a solid victory away to Deportivo Alavés despite a very controversial refereeing decision that forced them to play the final 20 minutes with 10 men, and with other results going their way the Blaugrana might still be alive in the title race.
Real Madrid and Girona meet on Saturday, and if the game ends in a draw Barça will have a monster opportunity to truly return to the title fold if they finally manage to beat a Granada team that’s been a thorn on their side the last couple of years.
Here’s how we think Xavi Hernández will line up his troops for Sunday’s battle.
The best goalkeeper in the world is back. Marc-André ter Stegen will, barring a last minute setback, make his long-awaited and much-needed return to the squad and the starting lineup after missing almost three months with a back injury that required surgery. Ter Stegen’s absence has been monumental and Barça’s defense has fallen apart without him, and Iñaki Peña failed to prove his ability to be a capable backup with his first extended run between the sticks.
Ter Stegen adds poise, experience and world-class shot-stopping ability to a team that badly needs it right now, and his return also gives him a couple of games to regain rhythm ahead of the huge Champions League trip to Napoli in a couple of weeks.
The German will likely start behind a back four of Jules Kounde, Ronald Araujo, Iñigo Martínez and João Cancelo, though young Pau Cubarsí will be ready to start again if Iñigo is not quite ready to go from the beginning.
Iñigo’s return and Cubarsí’s ascension has allowed Xavi to finally experiment with Andreas Christensen as a pivot against Alavés, and while the Dane didn’t exactly look like prime Sergio Busquets he offered a quality option that Xavi can go to depending on the matchup and/or the situation of the game.
Xavi especially liked the freedom that Christensen’s presence gave Frenkie de Jong, so we’ll likely see those two once again as a double pivot on Sunday. That would push Pedri further forward to play as a false left winger again with Ilkay Gündogan completing the midfield quartet as a number 10, a role in which the German has excelled in the last few games.
Xavi’s use of a four-man midfield is especially needed given the number of absences in attack, which includes a one-game suspension for Vitor Roque after a ridiculous red card last week. But another Brazilian returned to training this week as Raphinha will likely return to the squad after missing around a month with a hamstring injury.
Lamine Yamal badly needs a rest and there’s a small chance Raphinha starts to finally give the 16-year-old a night off, but the most likely option is Yamal retaining his spot in the starting lineup and being replaced by Raphinha, hopefully as early as possible, in the second half.
Robert Lewandowski is literally the only other first team attacker left, and after a good performance and a great goal last week the Pole will lead the line again, and he could be poised for a return to his best self ahead of the most important stretch of the season.
Possible XI: Ter Stegen; Kounde, Araujo, Iñigo, Cancelo; Christensen, De Jong; Yamal, Gündogan, Pedri; Lewandowski (4-2-3-1)
How do you think Barcelona should line up against Granada? Let us know your thoughts, predictions and teams in the comments below!