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A dose of retribution is in order. It was just over five months ago on the first of November when a most unlikely scene unfolded at Camp Nou. FC Barcelona — coming off a painful 3–1 defeat to arch-rivals Real Madrid at the Bernabéu the week before — returned home only to fall in La Liga for the second straight time. That loss, by a score of 1–0 to a surging Celta, stung far worse than the previous one. Not only did it come against Celta, whose football was refined and polished by Barça’s very own coach, but it also gift wrapped first place for the Madrileños, leaving the Catalans searching for answers from a far less enviable second slot in the league table.
How things have changed. Barça are back in first place and will walk into Balaídos on Sunday night — having bested Real Madrid the second time around, 2–1 at Camp Nou two weeks ago — with hopes of extending a four-game winning streak and maintaining a relatively sturdy four-point lead in La Liga.
Upon beating Real Madrid, most of Barça’s top players vacated the Catalan capital for a mix of international friendlies and qualifiers while only a handful of squad members stayed behind to train in small-group sessions and enjoy some much-needed rest.
Although players were slowly trickling in from abroad this week, Friday morning was the first time everyone was back from the hiatus to participate in full-squad workouts at the Ciutat Esportiva. All hands were back on deck for Saturday morning's training session, after which head coach Luis Enrique released an 18-man squad list for the trip to Vigo.
The complete squad list for Sunday’s game: Marc-André ter Stegen, Claudio Bravo, Dani Alves, Martín Montoya, Gerard Piqué, Adriano, Jérémy Mathieu, Marc Bartra, Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Rafinha, Ivan Rakitic, Pedro Rodríguez, Neymar Jr, Lionel Messi, and Luis Suárez.
FC Barcelona skipper Luis Enrique is certainly one of the focal points of Sunday’s clash. Having led Celta last season — and also having lost to them at home earlier in this campaign — the first-year Barça coach is cognizant of the hurdle they represent. “Celta will be dangerous because they need points and the championship is getting near to the end,” he said in Saturday’s press conference.
Sunday’s clash in Balaídos is the first major test in what is shaping up to be an eight-match April gauntlet that will likely determine whether the season is a success or failure. In La Liga, the blaugranes have ten games remaining and may need to run the table to take the domestic crown. When asked about what he thought would happen, Luis Enrique was direct. “I think it’s highly unlikely that any of the four teams still in contention for the title will win all of their remaining games.” But he did offer one caveat: “Of course, I might be wrong, and if I am then I hope I’m wrong about Barça!”
FC Barcelona are four points clear atop the league table. The Catalans took over the top spot on 8 March after storming to a 6–1 home rout over Rayo Vallecano. In fact, ever since a disheartening 1–0 loss to Málaga at Camp Nou on 21 February, Barça have won five straight overall, including a pair of knock-out victories over Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals, a win eliminating Villarreal in the Spanish Cup semi-finals, and a gargantuan El Clásico triumph over Real Madrid at Camp Nou last time out.
Celta, tenth in the table, have only won two of their last five games. Solid road wins of 2–0 at Deportivo on 22 February and 1–0 at Levante in Celta’s last match two weeks ago have bookended a trio of sour results. After returning from Deportivo, Celta were held to a disappointing 1–1 draw at home against Elche. The Gallegos then went on the road and were blown out 4–1 by Villarreal before returning to Vigo where they fell 2–1 to Athletic Club Bilbao.
Although Barça are clearly in better form according to the most recent string of matches, Sunday’s clash comes after a two-week international break that threw a wrench into both teams’ — especially Barça’s — habitual routines. With a certain rust factor likely coming into play, all bets are off.
Ones to watch
For FC Barcelona it will be interesting to see how the players react to the time away. Some of them logged significant minutes for their national teams, depriving them of valuable rest that only a select few were able to enjoy. For a unit that has thrived on team chemistry both on and off the field, Barça will have 90 minutes to show everyone whether they have the ability to pick up where they left off. Messi, who didn’t play in either of Argentina’s matches with some swelling in his foot — the result of a hard knock in El Clásico — has been deemed healthy and will be aiming to both calm some nerves and add to his league leading tally of 32 goals.
UPDATE: Messi will now have to come through with a huge performace to keep his hand on first in the league goalscoring race. In Sunday's early game Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, who was one goal behind Messi heading into the weekend, scored five times in his team's 9–1 rout of Granada at the Bernabéu. As it currently stands Ronaldo leads the league with 36 goals to Messi's 32. Will this serve as added motivation for the Barça striker?
On the other half of the pitch, Celta’s 25-year-old central defender Andreu Fontàs — who was lured to Balaídos last year by Luis Enrique — will be facing his former Club with plenty of optimism. Fontàs spoke to fcbarcelona.com earlier this week and there is little doubt that plenty of culers will be fixated on how the Catalan will fare against his former club. Another name to watch is Nolito, the ex-Barça and Barça B forward who is second on the team with eight goals.
Since Celta returned to the top flight for the 2012/13 season, they have faced Barça twice at Balaídos, including a 2–2 draw their first year back in La Liga and a 3–0 Barça win last season … Four current Barça players — Messi (3), Neymar (2), Adriano (2) and Jordi Alba (1) — have scored at least one career league goal versus Celta … Two current Celta players — Borja Oubiña (1) and Joaquín Larrivey (1) — have done the same against Barça … In fact, Larrivey’s was the game-winner in Celta’s 1–0 win at Camp Nou in November.
Sunday’s match kicks off at 9.00pm CET and will be televised globally. When does it start where you are? Check out our guide to global TV coverage to find out.
In the United States, the game will be carried on beIN SPORTS CONNECT, Fubo TV and beIN Sports en Español. Coverage in the United Kingdom will be on Sky Go Extra, Sky Sports 5/HD, NOW TV and Sky Go.
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