If 2017 is to see Barcelona reel in Real Madrid in the race for La Liga glory, a roadmap for their recovery must begin at El Madrigal against Villarreal on Sunday.
With Madrid, currently three points clear of Barcelona having played a game less, poised to set a Spanish record for games unbeaten on Saturday at the Santiago Bernabeu against Granada—it’ll be 39 matches in succession in all competitions without a loss should they avoid a shock slip—the pressure will be on the Blaugrana a day later.
Villarreal have their own ambitions too. After an inconsistent beginning to the season, Fran Escriba’s side have found some form as of late and currently sit in fourth spot in the table; if they were to secure a memorable win over Barcelona, they’d close to within two points of the champions.
As impressive as the Yellow Submarine have been at home in 2016-17, winning six, drawing one and losing one of their eight home games, the onus will be on Barcelona to take the game to the hosts. And Cules across the globe will want to see their stars in peak condition following the winter break.
Getting back to winning ways immediately following the resumption of the domestic calendar can ignite the cause of a Barca side that stuttered their way towards to festive hiatus and showed signs of a festive hangover in midweek against Athletic Club. But Villarreal, the best defensive side in the division this season, will feel confident of stifling their illustrious visitors.
While Villarreal did suffer a disappointing 3-1 loss to Real Sociedad in the Copa del Rey in midweek, prior to the midseason break they’d picked up some encouraging form.
The 3-1 triumph on the road against Sporting Gijon was impressive, although the 3-0 win over Atletico Madrid really caught the eye. At the Madrigal, Villarreal trampled over one of the most obdurate and cohesive teams around; they’re traits they’ll need to show in abundance again to get a result on Sunday.
As is so often the case with Villarreal, the squad isn’t packed with star names, although some sensible recruitment and smart coaching has manifested as a well functioning side. The organization of the XI this year, in particular, has been superb, with their 11 goals in division the least of any team.
The defensive work done by centre-backs Victor Ruiz and Mateo Musacchio in front of goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo has been important in that excellent record, although the middle of the park is where Villarreal have been brightest this term. Experienced skipper Bruno remains a colossal presence at the hub of the team, while the all round energetic contributions of Manu Trigueros have caught the eye too.
It’ll be fascinating to see how Escriba approaches this one. Against Atletico he stuck with his preferred 4-4-2 system, matching up Diego Simeone’s side and winning individual battles all over the pitch. However, the manner in which Barcelona pack midfield and move the ball quickly may prompt a rethink.
Either way, expect the same mantras we’ve seen from Villarreal this season to be on show. They’ll keep play compact, play in vertical lines and seek to isolate and expose any hesitancies in what has been a brittle Barcelona defense this season.
2017 didn’t get off to the best beginning for Barcelona, as they fell to a 2-1 defeat at the San Mames in the Copa del Rey against Athletic. Those tied to the Catalan giants will be hopeful that represents a wakeup call before the league action gets underway.
In their last La Liga match, Barcelona did seem to rediscover some of their attacking ingenuity. The Blaugrana’s offensive stars, in particular Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez, were irresistible in spells against Espanyol in a 4-1 win.
Although other areas of the side have failed to function during certain segments of the season, the wonderful form of Messi has been a constant throughout 2016-17. At times, he’s hauled Barcelona through difficult stints in matches, dropping into deep positions, hurtling forward with the ball and making vital contributions in terms of goals and assists.
Barcelona will be looking toward their talismanic attacker once again on Sunday in order to break down a determined opposition defense. Manager Luis Enrique will want to see more from Neymar, though; the Brazilian’s last goal in a league match came against Celta Vigo in October, but he did show signs of his best in the midweek defeat.
Real don’t look like dropping too many points at the moment, as they continue to grind out important results with Zinedine Zidane at the helm. It’d be easy for a side like Barca, so used to being on top in recent seasons, to become demoralized as a result, but they must ensure they’re within striking distance when the capital club do inevitably slip up.
After a difficult run of fixtures towards to back end of 2016 and a very testing one to start 2017 in La Liga, Barcelona’s calendar looks a lot more favorable for the majority of January and February. A win here would not only reaffirm their title aspirations, but shift some of the pressure back on to their bitter rivals.
Key battle – Manu Trigueros vs. Sergio Busquets
One of the main factors in Barcelona’s mini-slump late in 2016 was the struggle for balance in the centre of midfield. Given just how well functioning Villarreal are in the middle of the park, this will be a big litmus test for the Catalan club to see if progress has been made.
Trigueros is the man who has made Villarreal purr from this position this term. The 25-year-old, as aforementioned, is multifaceted in his playing style, putting in the work needed to make a 4-4-2 setup flourish and also pushing forward to make an impact in the final third; his shooting from distance, in particular, is a huge asset.
He’ll be in close proximity to Sergio Busquets for a lot of the match. While the onus may fall on one of the Villarreal forwards to try and stem the Barca man’s influence on the ball, Trigueros must evade Busquets if he’s to knit together Villarreal’s attacking patterns.
With Iniesta back at full fitness, Enrique will hope the chemistry at the core of his team between the two Spain internationals and Ivan Rakitic starts to fizz at El Madrigal. But that process will not be assisted by the all-action presence of Trigueros and his wily midfield partner, Bruno.
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