Villarreal visit the defending champions FC Barcelona this weekend and will have to do it without the services of its two talismans, Bruno Soriano and Ruben Gracia 'Cani'. Bruno is suspended for accumulation of yellow cards and Cani picked up a knock on his knee in the Copa del Rey game vs. Elche.
The Yellow Submarine is a point off of Champions League spot 15 games into the season. Villarreal has enjoyed a surprisingly good run away from El Madrigal although Camp Nou is a different proposition altogether.
Villarreal is also one of the few teams that have a decent record play at Camp Nou. 3 Wins, 4 Draws and 6 Losses in the thirteen La Liga games they have played there. That record is unlikely to mean much tomorrow but it gives an idea that Villarreal has had their moments at the home of the Catalan giants.
FC Barcelona have had a very eventful ride in the past 2 seasons ever since Pep Guardiola left. Lots of transition. Some of the talisman players like Xavi Hernanradez and Carles Puyol are ageing and have been plagued by injuries and fatigue-induced niggles. However after a serene start to the season, undefeated in any competition up until a few weeks ago, they've had a "slump" when they lost two games (at Ajax and at Athletic) within a week. Looks like they are out of it now as they have scored 10 goals in their last two games! (so much for the slump!)
Tactics and style of play
Few things in Spanish football come under more scrutiny than the style of play of Barcelona. They have been going through a lot of transition with a more direct approach first under Tito Vilanova and now with Tata Martino. Some of the change is also forced due to players like Xavi, Iniesta, Pique Puyol receding from their pinnacle, new personnel likesNeymar as well as the how opponents are setting up tactically to neutralize their strengths.
On their day they are as good as any team in the world but they dont play at that level as consistently as they used to do in the past. Longterm injuries to Messi and Valdes havent helped their cause either.
The importance of Valdes
While Messi is arguably the most decisive player of the current generation and his loss is being felt, I think Barcelona is suffering more from the absence of Valdes. Valdes plays like a 11th outfield player for Barcelona and is very key for their possession game when they quickly cycle possession around if they are pressured in the midfield. He is also great in 1v1 situations with opposing strikers. While Pinto is not a bad keeper, the drop-off in level from Valdes to Pinto is much bigger than the drop-off from Messi to Neymar/Cesc.
The false 9 and true 9 conundrum
Barcelona have been mostly using Cesc Fabregas in place of Messi as false 9 and two of Neymar/Alexis/Pedro playing alongside him upfront. They havent had a huge amount of success with this setup. Against Celtic on wednesday Neymar played at false-9 and scored a hat-trick. So it is quite likely that Neymar will play at false-9 tomorrow.
The other issue with the current squad is that Barcelona doesnt have a true centre-forward in their squad. Which isnt necessarily a bad thing as they have been doing fine without one for years. But the transition to a more direct approach than what they used to do with Pep they are a tad inefficient in how they are playing vis-a-vis their personnel.
Having said that they still average around 4 goals/game at home, so there is that. :-)
What can Villarreal do to get a result?
The soft spot of this Barcelona is at the back. Their defence and the GK. Pique - Mascherano combo have been beatable and are susceptible to errors. It seems like Jordi Alba will be back this game after a long injury layoff. Pinto is slow and doesnt move well. If Villarreal forwards and wingecan get into 1v1 with Pique or Masche, they can do some damage with their speed. The key will be to take our chances (which we havent been very good at, so far this season).
Aquino and Hernan (or Moi) will have their handsfull to help their fullbacks defending Jordi Alba who loves to go forward. Montoya doesnt go forward as much as Alba but is still a threat. c
If we can find a way to get enough possession to Giovani Dos Santos and Uche, good things will happen.
Our defence and central midfield will be tested with their forwards and midfielders, all of whom are very very good. Big test for Tomas Pina and Manu Trigueros in the absence of Bruno
Villarreal needs to stay patient because they might be chasing the ball for long periods of time. As long as they dont let the likes of Neymar, Alexis etc., run and dribble at you, they will probably be ok.
I think this is a game where we might see a different formation from Villarreal. We need an extra man in the midfield to help cope with the 3-man midfield of Barcelona as well as track whoever is in the false-9 when he drops deep. It could be a straight 4231 or even a 4-1-4-1 with Pina sitting deep to provide cover for centerbacks and Trigueros play higher in attack to get the ball quickly to our wingers.
Pinto, Olazábal, Montoya, Piqué, Fàbregas, Puyol, Xavi, Pedro, Iniesta, Alexis, Neymar Jr, Mascherano, Bartra, Sergio, A. Song, Jordi Alba, Tello i Sergi Roberto.
Pinto; Alba-Pique-Puyol/Mascherano-Montoya; Iniesta-Xavi-Busquets; Alexis-Neymar/Cesc-Pedro
This is the one of the toughest road-trips in La Liga. I think we will play well and keep the game close. The biggest positive is that Barcelona is missing Messi and Valdes and are in flux in terms of their style of play. Slaying a giant is always a long-shot but we may never get a "better long-shot" at this.
Endavant Villarreal! A Guanyar!