Luis Enrique has named 18 players for tomorrow evening’s game at Villarreal in the second round of La Liga 2014/15, but the Barça coach will have to make do without Andrés Iniesta who is reported to have some knee discomfort. Javier Mascherano also misses the game following his sending off in last week’s victory over Elche but Gerard Piqué and Neymar are both back in the squad. Ter Stegen, Vermaelen and Adriano won’t feature until after the international break as they continue recuperating from their injuries while new signing Douglas will also have to wait for his chance. With Luis Suarez still suspended Munir El-Haddadi and Sandro Ramirez continue with the first team. Alex Song doesn’t travel as he is still looking for a move before the transfer window closes.
El Madrigal is always a difficult stadium to visit. Having suffered a season in the second division in 2012/13 Villarreal were back to an impressive standard last season, finishing sixth to qualify for this season’s Europa League. Barça last visited El Madrigal shortly after the death of Tito Vilanova at the end of April, and in a highly emotional atmosphere Tata Martino’s team turned a 2-0 reverse into a 2-3 win. Unfortunately, the game was marred by an idiot throwing a banana at Dani Alves as the Brazilian went to take a corner. One can only hope we see nothing like that again tomorrow.
Villarreal have begun the season strongly with three straight wins. They began their league campaign with a 0-2 win at Levante while they beat Astana 7-0 on aggregate over two legs to pass to the next stage of the Europa League. Cani and Bruno are both still at Villarreal after many years and there is a fair bit of continuity from last season with coach Marcelino Garcia Toral and the core of the team still there. Giovani dos Santos and Ikechuwku Uche look likely to form the Villarreal attack but Barça’s defence will also need to watch out for the Russian Denis Cheryshev who has joined Villarreal on loan from Real Madrid and scored last week on his debut at Levante.
All eyes will again be on Luis Enrique’s team selection, looking for more clues as to the new coach’s intentions. Will Gerard Piqué regain his place in the team or will Lucho follow Vicente del Bosque’s decision to prefer Marc Bartra? Will Xavi come in for Iniesta or could the coach prefer the youth of Sergi Roberto or perhaps Rafinha in midfield? And perhaps most tellingly will be whether or not he decides to play Neymar from the start. There have been some rumours in the press that Luis Enrique is not entirely happy with Neymar and it will be interesting to see what he does to try and get the best from the Brazilian.
This is the most difficult test so far in Luis Enrique’s short reign in charge. I’m backing Barça for an away win but Villarreal certainly have the ability to cause a surprise if we are not completely tuned in for the challenge. With Real Madrid playing at Real Sociedad immediately after our game this could prove to be a very important weekend in the eventual outcome of the league.
Barça’s 18-man squad: Bravo, Masip, Alves, Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Mathieu, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Rakitic, Sergi Roberto, Rafinha, Pedro, Messi, Sandro, Munir, Neymar.
Villarreal: Sergio Asenjo, Rukavina, Mussachio, Gabriel Paulista, Jaume Costa; Bruno Soriano, Manu Trigueros; Cheryshev, Giovani, Cani; Uche.
Barça: Bravo; Alves, Bartra, Mathieu, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Rakitic; Pedro, Messi, Neymar.
Prediction: Villarreal 0 Barça 1
Date: Sunday 31 August 2014. Kick-off:7 pm local time