Despite Barça’s excellent response since losing at Real Sociedad at the start of January there is still ground to make up for Luis Enrique’s team in the title race. Real Madrid still have a game in hand as well as a one-point advantage at the top of La Liga leaving Barça very little margin of error in the remaining 18 games. Sixth-placed Villarreal visit Camp Nou tomorrow (Sunday 9 pm) and if Barça intend to maintain a realistic title challenge, nothing less than a win will do.
Curiously, Barça will also face Villarreal in the Copa del Rey semi-finals (Feb 11 and Mar 4) which means after playing three games against both Elche and Atlético in January we will face another opponent three times in quick succession. The three wins in three games against Atlético have demonstrated the team’s strength but just when everything was looking rosy, Jeremy Mathieu provoked another controversy by confirming a training-ground spat between Leo Messi and Luis Enrique before the Real Sociedad match.
Mathieu almost certainly intended to convey the normality of these minor bust-ups at football clubs, and while there may not be any major conflict between Lucho and Messi there could now be a problem if the pair are unhappy at Mathieu for breaking dressing-room code by revealing details of a closed training session. This is all just speculation of course and the matter will be most likely have been closed with a Mathieu apology to the group.
Luis Enrique refused to answer questions on the issue in today’s pre-match press conference so unless Mathieu is left out of tomorrow’s match squad, which the Barça coach will name in the morning, it seems unlikely we’ll hear much more on the matter. With no midweek game to follow there is little reason to break a winning team so besides bringing back Claudio Bravo in goal we will probably see the same line-up that performed so well at the Calderón on Wednesday.
Villarreal will be a very tough opponent. Marcelino Garcia Toral’s team haven’t lost since November 6, an 18-match unbeaten run that includes a win at the Calderón, and they have won their last four without conceding a goal. Both Dos Santos brothers, Giovani and Johnathan, have been involved in that run though Johnathan is more likely to start tomorrow. Giovani has lost his place to the 21-year-old Argentinian Luciano Vietto who with eight league goals this season is likely to be the main danger for Barça’s defence.
Villarreal like to come out and try to play football so it should be an open game. Despite our opponents’ excellent form Barça undoubtedly have the stronger team with Messi and Neymar both finding the net regularly. Messi scored eight goals in January but it is the Brazilian, who knocked in seven in the same period, who has got everybody talking. I have to admit there are times when I am irritated by Neymar’s involvement in back-chat with opponents but against Atlético on Wednesday he undoubtedly came out on top by winding-up the wind-up merchants while staying in control under severe provocation. Last season there were plenty of flashes of Neymar’s talent but his effectiveness was still in doubt. This season he is living up to the star-billing and proving himself a vital part of the team.
The most recent meeting with Villarreal was back in August when Sandro Ramirez scored a late winner in a 0-1 victory at the Madrigal. Last season’s fixture at Camp Nou was another closely fought game but two goals from Neymar earned Barça a narrow 2-1 win.
Barça: Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar.
Villarreal: Asenjo; Mario, Musacchio, Ruiz, Costa; Trigueros, Pina, Bruno; Johnathan dos Santos, Vietto, Cheryshev.
Prediction: Barça 2 Villarreal 0
Date: Sunday 1 February 2015. Kick-off 9 pm local time.