Time is running out for Barcelona as they seek to reel in Real Madrid at the top of the La Liga table, meaning victory over Villarreal at the Camp Nou on Saturday is essential if they’re to preserve any hopes of winning the title.
Although the Blaugrana have won both games since their remarkable Clasico triumph, Los Blancos have recovered well from that last-minute loss courtesy of Lionel Messi at the Santiago Bernabeu. With three games remaining for Barcelona, optimism is dwindling.
At this stage of the season, they can only hope that pressure on their bitter rivals does eventually trigger a misstep. And given they play first this weekend, with Real Madrid traveling to already relegated Granada later in the day, they can at least build a three-point gap at the summit. They must make Madrid aware that nothing short of perfection will do in these final weeks of the season.
Still, it’s Barcelona who have the more testing fixture this weekend. Villarreal have enjoyed yet another promising campaign in Spain’s top flight, with Fran Escriba’s side sat in fifth, just five points behind Sevilla in fourth spot.
A memorable win for Villarreal here would potentially give them an outside chance of pushing the Andalusians for the final UEFA Champions League spot. But in reality, the prime ambition of the Yellow Submarine will be holding off Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad, who are finishing the season strongly.
It means that Barcelona are going to get a game in a must-win match here. Madridistas, meanwhile, will be hopeful this is the weekend the Catalonians’ title charge ends in earnest.
Where to watch Barcelona vs. Villarreal on TV and streaming
Last Saturday, when Dani Parejo equalised for Valencia at the Santiago Bernabeu, you suspect hope would have stirred in the Barcelona players ahead of their visit to local rivals Espanyol. And in the same breath, when Marcelo stuck away the winning goal a couple of minutes later, it would have been a major blow.
So perhaps it was little surprise we saw the Blaugrana struggle to get out of first gear in the Catalan derby for long spells, especially without their conductor-in-chief Andres Iniesta. But eventually, aided by a calamitous lapse in concentration by Jose Manuel Jurado, they were able to break through via Luis Suarez.
A 3-0 triumph followed, as Barcelona ensured the title race remained on a tightrope in the final weeks of the season. And now, the Blaugrana face up to their most difficult match of 2016-17, with a visit to Las Palmas and a home clash with Eibar to finish the season.
Admittedly, a league title win would be a bonus for this group of players and the manager now. Ahead of the Clasico, and even 92 minutes into it, Barcelona’s La Liga hopes looked dashed. But they’ve continued to cling on, ensuring their relentless rivals don’t processionally coast over the line.
Indeed, Barcelona have played themselves into a strong run of form, winning their last four games in succession. Neymar is back after his suspension too, while Suarez rediscovering his touch in front of goal is also key. Messi, meanwhile, continues to purr week after week.
After a 1-1 draw at the Madrigal earlier in the campaign, they’ll be well aware of the difficult task facing them on Saturday when Villarreal come to town. But in their current groove, you’d have to back the Blaugrana to find a way through.
In February, Villarreal’s star goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo suffered a cruciate ligament injury. Remarkably, it was the fourth time the ex-Atletico Madrid man has picked up this problem in his career.
Naturally, it was a massive blow to the Yellow Submarine, with Asenjo part of what had been a watertight defensive structure. The fact that Villarreal’s defensive record at this point in the campaign is only bettered by Atleti is testament to the organization and application of the rest of the side.
Escriba has assembled an industrious, tenacious and extremely effective football team. Since taking on the job last summer he’s built on the brilliant work done by Marcelino, as Villarreal continue to dig out results against the odds.
Their previous away game was a perfect illustration of what this group are all about. At the Vicente Calderon, Villarreal soaked up all Atletico had to offer, introduced Cedric Bakambu late on and nicked a memorable win with a superb counter-attacking goal. It was a win that kept them, just about, in touch with the top four.
And if they were to do a similar job on Barcelona, why shouldn’t this side believe they can breach La Liga’s elite this season? Sevilla, after all, have had a shaky end to the season and still have Sociedad to host (on Friday) and a visit to the Santiago Bernabeu to come.
There’s little to lose and plenty to gain for the visitors. Factor in their recent form—five wins from their last six matches—plus the confidence that would have been gained from their Atletico masterclass, they’re a dangerous proposition for Barcelona.
Traditionally, the strength of Barcelona has been their ability to take a grip of matches in midfield. But this season, Enrique has really struggled to find the right blend in this area of the pitch.
Villarreal, meanwhile, are rock solid at the hub of the team. Skipper Bruno is still one of the most dependable enforcers in La Liga and his qualities allow Trigueros to scurry forward and influence the game. The latter, after a tremendous start to the season, has slowed down a little as of late; he’s failed to score or assist in his last 10 outings.
Seeking to stem the attacking threat from central areas will be Busquets. The midfield linchpin has been left a little exposed at times in 2016-17, with the side lacking structure and defensive intensity ahead of him. Villarreal will see the spaces either side of Busquets as areas they can exploit.
Trigueros and Bruno will need to prevent Busquets from managing the tempo of the match too. While it’s unlikely they’ll directly engage with the deep-sitting midfielder, both must be on their toes to pick off his trademark passes into Barcelona’s illustrious world-class options. They did so to great effect in the previous meeting between the sides.