Barça face one of the toughest tests of the season with the visit of fifth-placed Villarreal to Camp Nou tomorrow evening (Saturday 8 pm). Dani Alves has not recovered in time to return while Adriano Correia misses the game through suspension but Cesc Fabregas is back after serving a one-match ban for Wednesday’s 6-1 win over Celtic.
The defeat at Athletic two weeks ago has allowed Atlético Madrid to draw level with Barça on 40 points at the top of La Liga while an in-form Real Madrid are now just three points behind the two leaders. With a top-of-the-table clash between Atlético and Barça coming up on January 12. Tata Martino will not want to concede any advantage to Diego Simeone’s team before the two sides meet. Tomorrow’s match with Villarreal and next week’s visit to Getafe will provide a big challenge for Barça as the title race hots up.
After a season in the second division Villarreal have returned to the top flight in style. The team built up so successfully around the likes of Marcus Senna, Santi Cazorla and Diego Forlan has split up with just Cani and Bruno Soriano remaining, but a new young crop of players have broken into the first team from the youth ranks which gives Villarreal an impressive vibrancy. Cani will miss tomorrow’s game through injury while Bruno is ruled out through suspension so we can expect coach Marcelino Garcia to field an even younger team than usual. Two ex-blaugranas could make Villarreal’s starting lineup: Giovani dos Santos has been in good form and has notched six goals so far this season and could start alongside the Nigerian international Ikechukwu Uche in attack while Manu Trigueros, who played alongside Marc Bartra and Martin Montoya in Barça’s Juvenil B side of 2008/09, looks likely to get another start in midfield.
As a newly-promoted team Villarreal probably began the season with survival as the main objective. However, their strong start leaves them currently in fifth position and the possibility of a return to European football next year. Their record away from home this season is particularly impressive with four wins and a draw from seven games with ten goals scored and only five conceded.
Martino will recognise the need to match the visitors’ vitality and he must be tempted to give Barça’s in-form youngsters Marc Bartra and Sergi Roberto a chance from the start. Both players have performed creditably when called on this season but there is always the danger that if they don’t play enough they could easily be tempted by other clubs’ offers. The team can also benefit from the energy imput from these players but Martino needs to be brave enough to bench more senior players to give the youngsters the opportunity they need to continue developing.
I have a feeling that tomorrow Martino will continue with the Piqué-Mascherano partnership, which to be fair looked much better against Celtic though the Scots were hardly the most difficult test. There are more likely to be changes to the midfield where Fabregas and Iniesta could start though Martino may prefer to use Cesc again as a false nine to give a rest to one of the forwards.
Villarreal have caused plenty of problems for Barça at Camp Nou over recent years but their last two visits both ended in very impressive Barça victories. In November 2010 David Villa and Leo Messi with two scored Barça’s goals in tensely-fought 3-1 win, then at the end of August 2011 Barça opened the 2011/12 league season with a stunning 5-0 win with goals from Thiago, Fabregas, Alexis and Messi with another brace. If tomorrow’s game is anywhere near as good as those last two encounters then it will be well worth watching.
Barça’s 18-man squad: Pinto, Oier, Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Puyol, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Song, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Iniesta, Fabregas, Alexis, Pedro, Neymar, Tello.
Possible starting XIs:
Barça: Pinto; Montoya, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Neymar, Pedro.
Villarreal: Asenjo; Mario Gaspar, Musacchio, Gabriel, Jaume Costa; Aquino, Piña, Trigueros, Hernan Perez; Uche, Gio.
Prediction: Barça 2 Villarreal 1
Date: Saturday 14 December 2013. Kick off 8 pm local time.