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Liga leaders FC Barcelona face a difficult visit to fourth placed Villarreal on Sunday at 4.00pm CET in the last game before the international break, after which the Clásico at home to Real Madrid awaits.
The game comes the day after Barça’s main rivals in the Liga title chase, Atlético Madrid, lost 2-1 at Sporting, meaning that the difference at the top of the table could be stretched to a massive eleven points with a win at El Madrigal.
Barça manager Luis Enrique has decided not to include any of Masip, Vermaelen Douglas or Rafinha in his team, the latter being left out despite being declared match fit this week after a six month absence. Andrés Iniesta, due to minor fitness concerns, and the injured Sandro also miss out on the 4.00pm CET kick-off.
The full list is thus as follows: Ter Stegen, Bravo, Piqué, Rakitic, Sergio, Alves, Arda, Suárez, Messi, Neymar Jr, Mascherano, Bartra, Munir, Jordi Alba, Sergi Roberto, Adriano, Aleix Vidal and Mathieu.
Roberto Soldado is back in the Villarreal starting eleven after missing the Sevilla game last weekend through suspension. He is one of the key threats in a side that includes another formidable striker in Cédric Bakambu.
Speaking the day before the game, Luis Enrique said that “We can only take things one step at a time and see what happens. So the first thing we have to think about right now is Villarreal. We have to come away from El Madrigal with all three points … But they are one of the best teams in the league. They work together in a very clinical manner and have perfect command of the defensive zone.”
Rival manager Marcelino agrees that his team is capable of making things very difficult for the treble aspirants. “We’ll go out and compete to the death” he insists. “Nobody should doubt us.”
It would be hard to find any team in the history of football that has been in such strong form as Barça right now. Their unbeaten streak now stands at a Spanish record of 38 matches and following Atlético Madrid’s defeat at Sporting on Saturday, they could now stretch their lead to a huge eleven points on them and twelve on Real Madrid, who they play next following an international break.
With just one win from their last five games, Villarreal’s Liga form has slumped a little of late. They are still fourth in the table and hence on good course for a Champions League berth, but 4-2 defeat to direct rivals Sevilla last week narrowed the gap to five points. Their resources have been tested to the limit by playing Europa League fixtures midweek, where after seeing off Bayer Leverkusen midweek they will now meet Sparta Prague in the quarter finals.
Not so long ago, El Madrigal was one of the grounds where Barça had a habit of dropping points, but that trend has been reversed in recent seasons. The Catalans have won five out of their last six away league fixtures to Villarreal (there was a 0-0 draw in 2012) and also won 3-1 in the Copa del Rey last season.
When the sides met at the Camp Nou earlier this season, Barça won 3-0 with two goals from Neymar either side of a Luis Suárez penalty.
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