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After a big win at home to Sevilla, while none of the chasing pack were able to win their own games, FC Barcelona are in a stronger position than ever in La Liga. They are already eight points clear of the closest chaser, Real Madrid. And with the all-whites not playing this weekend, they could extend that difference to a massive 11 points with a win at the Estadio de la Ceràmica on Sunday at 9pm CET.
Last year's Champions League semi-finalists are sixth in the table. Around the time of manager Unai Emery's shock departure to Aston Villa, things started to go wrong at Villarreal, but his replacement Quique Setién eventually managed to steady the ship. But after a good run of results, they have just lost at home to Rayo Vallecano and then become the very first team to lose to Elche this season.
Barça have a staggeringly strong past record against one of La Liga's strongest sides in recent years. Until they lost 2-0 at home to the Yellow Submarine in the final game of last season, they had gone an amazing 27 games without defeat to the side. Earlier this season, they returned to winning ways against Villarreal with a comfortable 3-0 win at Spotify Camp Nou, with two of the goals netted by Robert Lewandowski and the other by Ansu Fati.
And it's all happening with a huge game on the horizon. On Thursday at 6.45pm CET, European football returns to Spotify Camp Nou with the visit of Manchester United.
As well as Ousmane Dembélé's hamstring injury, Barça are now also without captain Sergio Busquets, who picked up an ankle injury in the first few minutes of last week's encounter with Sevilla. Ferran Torres, Gavi and Ronald Araujo are all one yellow card away from a suspension.
The squad for the game is as follows:
Reunited with Quique Setién
This will be the first time that Barça have faced Quique Setién since he departed as blaugrana manager on 17 August 2020. Prior to his stint in the Barça dugout, the Cantabrian faced the Catalans seven times, winning just once. After leaving Barcelona, the now 64-year-old went for two years without managing anyone before accepting the Villarreal job on October 25 of last year.
Xavi chasing a record
Xavi Hernández has led his team to a spectacular run of ten straight wins in all competitions, and since defeat in El Clásico prior to the World Cup break, that's now 15 games without defeat. The only dropped points came in the 1-1 draw with Espanyol on New Year's Eve. Avoid defeat on Sunday and Xavi will set a new personal best since joining the club of 16 games without a loss.
"Villarreal are a great side. Setién is doing a good job getting them to play the way we do ... I don't think Gerard Moreno will play but they have very good players to take his place ... This will be a very difficult trip but if we can put 11 points between us and Madrid, it'll put them under a lot of pressure."
"The Europa League game makes no difference tomorrow. I won't change any plans for the game because of that."
"I don't know anything about Setién when he was here. I was in Qatar. A coach is all about results, and if don't get them here, then I'll have to go too."
"I don't understand why people are talking about Ansu Fati leaving. The transfer market is closed and there is no reason to believe he is going anywhere. He's an incredible player and we have blind faith in him ... People expect too much too quickly from young players. I spent three years with number 26 on my back, but I got there in the end."
"I have spoken to Balde and he wants to stay here and has no concerns. I think we have a player with a lot of years in him."
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