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In between the first and second leg of Barça’s Champions League semi-final with Liverpool comes the third-to-last game of the Liga campaign. As far as points are concerned, the game is a mere formality. The 1-0 defeat of Levante last week was enough to lay to rest any chance of Atlético Madrid closing the gap on the leaders.
But there are plenty of reasons to take this game as seriously as any other.
Celta have only lost one of their last seven matches, and although that has pulled them out of the relegation zone, they are still only two points clear of the dreaded drop.
In Iago Aspas they have the sixth highest goalscorer in the league. The Spanish international has a knack of coming good against the blaugrana, scoring the last three times the teams have met at Balaidos. Despite a shoulder injury, he is expected to play.
With 12 goals, Maxi Gomez is also among the top 20 scorers this season, and Brais Méndez is eighth in assists.
Balaidos has not been a happy hunting ground for the Catalans in recent seasons. The last four visits, three in the league and one in the cup, have resulted in two Celta victories and two draws.
Celta have also picked up points at the Camp Nou, but not this year. Ousmane Dembélé and Leo Messi scored the goals in a 2-0 win in the last game before the Christmas break.
With the trophy already in the bag, and a trip to Anfield on his mind, Ernesto Valverde has decide to rest several key players for this clash. Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Gerard Piqué, Luis Suárez, Leo Messi, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto all stay at home, as do the suspended Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets.
After being handed senior debuts, and impressing, against Huesca prior to the crunch fixture with Manchester United, Moussa Wague, Jean-Clair Todibo and Riqui Puig have all been given places, and attacking midfielder Alex Collado has also been called into action.
It all gives the coach a wonderful chance to experiment, and us a chance to see some of the less regular players in action, with Kevin-Prince Boateng and Malcom in the running for a go up front, and Jeison Murillo a probable starter in defence.
It also means a start for Jasper Cillessen, with Barça B’s Iñaki Peña as reserve goalie.
Ernesto Valverde: "We made a lot of changes against Huesca and the team was highly motivated. I’m not saying it’ll be the same eleven tomorrow, but the intention will be to go out and win.”
“Some of the less regular players will get a chance, but I want us to keep competing as hard as we can. We have a cup final ahead of us and we need to be prepared. So even if I mix things up a bit, I want to field a competitive side.”
Fran Escribá: “It’s only logical for Valverde to leave some players behind, he knows what he has to do, but they will still make us work hard.”
“I’m glad that Messi has stayed at home. I think he’s the best player I have ever seen. He’s been playing extraordinary football for more than ten years, He’s going to leave a huge void when he retires and will be very difficult to replace.”
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