Fresh off of a bustling week, what with Champions League qualification and being drawn into a fierce Group A, Villarreal have finally been able to turn their attention to the strike-altered La Liga season. And because of that strike, rather than getting a (comparative) warm up against Sporting Gijon, Villarreal takes the first steps in this fledgling campaign against defending champions Barcelona in the Camp Nou.
Barcelona have been quite busy over the last few weeks, knocking off Real Madrid over two matches for the Spanish Super Cup, and not satisfied, taking down Porto (sans Falcao) for the European Super Cup. Two major trophies in two weeks, before the season even gets started. Ah, it must be nice.... But on the subject at hand, Barcelona is still a long way off from picking up a 4th consecutive La Liga title, and the blaugranas will be a bit anxious to boot, having seen prime competitors Real Madrid smash out a 0-6 thumping of the Ayala-Goats (that is, Zaragoza).
Of all the days to go to the Camp Nou, Villarreal might have just landed on the perfect day. Barcelona is essentially without a defense. The list of injuries and suspensions is impressive. Gerard Piqué. Carles Puyol. Adriano Correa. Maxwell. Dani Alves (because of a 5th yellow card in the finale last season against Málaga that no one knew about until 2 days ago - I did not see it, and have no memory of it, but I can guarantee (a) that the card was for some typical Alves BS, and (b) that he deserved at least 2 or 3 other yellow cards in that match alone for his nightly performance that would get him booed off the stage of my cousin's 4th grade Christmas pageant). That group could provide a starting back 4 for just about any team in La Liga. Without them, Barcelona will be stretched a bit thin - even to the point of calling up Martín Montoya, a youngster who couldn't stop Villarreal's B team from scoring 2 at the Mini Stadi in Barcelona on Saturday.
Also, Barcelona, although coming off a win, is also coming off only two days' rest, having competed in Monaco on Friday against Porto. While it is early in the season, and legs shouldn't be a problem, 2 days' rest is 2 days' rest, no matter how you slice it. And finally, going against Barcelona, are the reasonably hideous new shirts they are sporting this year. It looks like the designers were so overstressed over their meandering attempts at pulling in Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas that they vomited on the design board and called it a day. But I digress.
All joking aside, this match is still going to be ultimately perilous for Villarreal. Villarreal will be hungry to improve on its 4th place finish of last term in the new season. The squad is a realistic pick to finish 3rd (assuming we can fill in that last roster spot to give the necessary depth of quality), but now must contend against an improved Sevilla, a much-improved Málaga, a possibly-improved-but-come-on,-probably-not Atlético Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, who is probably on par with last year's squad, and Valencia, who with the sale of Juan Mata, is probably about the same as they were last year as well (i.e., a 3rd-place squad). In other words, points are going to be even more vital this year than they were last year if competing in next year's Champions League is the priority.
Villarreal have some defensive squad issues of their own. Primarily, they have no right back. Mario Gaspar has been out sick and misses this match because of yellow card accumulation, and Ángel López is just not quite back from his knee issues from last year. They are also missing backup keeper César Sánchez, also to yellow cards from last season. All things considered, I will happily lose out on Mario and César to lose out to Alves in return!
Keepers: Diego López and Diego Mariño.
Defenders: Cristián Zapata, Gonzalo Rodriguez, Mateo Musacchio, José Manuel Catalá, Joan Oriol and Carlos Marchena.
Midfielders: Marcos Senna, Bruno Soriano, Borja Valero, Hernán Pérez, Ruben Cani, Wakaso Mubarak and Javier Camuñas.
Forwards: Marco Ruben, Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi.
My guess as to how we can expect Barcelona to line up:
And to counter that, my thoughts on Villarreal:
Patience is going to be key in this match. Villarreal will have to use Borja and Bruno in the middle at their absolute best to maintain a reasonable amount of possession, and to build pressure on Barcelona's makeshift back line. Barcelona will also be forced to suffer a bit in their typical possession numbers, with the need to shift one or both of Busquets and Mascherano out of defensive midfield roles.
If Zapata can handle the right side - a position he has played regularly in the past, Villarreal should have as skilled a group as is possible on the field. The problem is, those four guys haven't played together yet in a competitive match, and communication might become an issue. Zapata is my man to watch for the night - if he plays well, the match could well have a positive result for the Yellow Submarine.
Playing in the Camp Nou is going to be intimidating - after all, we've
never won there only once (March 2008 - thanks shabani18!). But we have some inspiration, in the form of the MiniSub, who went into Barcelona and defeated a team of future Barcelona stars by a 0-2 scoreline to start the Segunda season off with a bang. Villarreal A will hope to accomplish a similar feat. I already gave a prediction on the podcast, but will repeat it here - 2-2, with the sides splitting the points.
Want to get in a great frame of mind for the match? Check out this flattering piece from the good folks over at spanishfootball.info. ENDAVANT VILLARREAL!