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Barça return to La Liga action on Sunday (10.00pm CEST) and points are needed more than ever after back-to-back 2-2 draws have allowed Real Madrid to move ahead in the title race with just five games left to play.
And the fixture list is not being kind at all, for this game involves a trip to one of the most in-form teams in the post-lockdown period.
Villarreal, from a city that lies just under 300 km down the coast from Barcelona, have been an almost permanent feature of La Liga since they appeared in the top flight for first time in 1998. They’ve reached the dizzy heights of the Champions League on two occasions, going all the way to the semi-finals in 2006, which is astonishing for a team from a place that has just 50,000 people.
Around half of those could fit into its Estadio de la Cerámica, although none of them will be getting that opportunity today as games continue to be played behind closed doors due to Covid-19.
They’ve been having an up-and-down season under Javier Calleja (assisted by former Barça player and youth coach Quique Álvarez). Some runs of good results have alternated with others that haven’t been so good, but they are currently on one of the former.
Last five results
Villarreal 1-0 Mallorca
Granada 0-1 Villarreal 1
Villarreal 2-2 Sevilla
Villarreal 2-0 Valencia
Real Betis 0-2 Valencia
They have won five, drawn one and lost none, and all five of those wins came without conceding a goal. It’s seen them move up to fifth in the table, just three points away from a place in next season’s Champions League. So motivation is very strong right now.
Most of the goals this season have come from Gerard Moreno (13) and the highly experienced midfielder Santo Cazorla (12).
Head to head
24/09/19 FC Barcelona 2-1 Villarreal
02/04/19 Villarreal 4-4 FC Barcelona
02/12/18 FC Barcelona 2-0 Villarreal
09/05/18 FC Barcelona 5-1 Villarreal
10/12/17 Villarreal 0-2 FC Barcelona
Villarreal may have been one of the typically strongest sides in la Liga in recent years, but Barça are on an extraordinary run of 23 games without defeat to the Yellow Submarine, going all the way back to a 2-1 defeat at Camp Nou in 2008.
This fixture last year was a most extraordinary one. Barça went into a quick 2-0 lead but Villarreal turned things right around and led 4-2 at the end of 90 minutes. And then in injury time, Leo Messi and Luis Suárez both scored late to snatch a 4-4 draw.
Barça won 2-1 at Camp Nou earlier this season. Antoine Griezmann and Arthur both scored early on, but Cazorla pulled one back for the visitors.
Samuel Umtiti has been having trouble with his left knee and joins his compatriot Ousmane Dembélé, and Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong among the absentees for this one. With 24 names allowed in the squad, once again there is room for a number of Barça B players too.
Did you know?
Leo Messi might be top goalscorer in the competition with 22, but Villarreal’s Gerard Moreno is not doing too badly either. He’s third in the Pichichi chase with 15 goals.
And when it comes to chances created, Santi Cazorla is second in the league with 64, ten shy of the leader – Messi again, of course!
Former Barça striker Paco Alcácer, after two and a half very good seasons at Borussia Dortmund, became Villarreal’s most expensive signing ever in January, joining the club for €25 million.
Ivan Rakitic played alongside all of Alberto Moreno, Iborra and Bacca in his days at Sevilla.
Villarreal: "It’s one of the teams that has returned from lockdown in best shape and they’re doing this very well.”
Away form: "We’ve dropped points that we didn’t deserve because as unit the team has played well. In Vigo it was great finish by Aspas that cost us. But we are still alive and will keep battling.”
Umtiti: "He’s having trouble with his knee and isn’t fit to play. We’ll have to see how things develop.”
Riqui Puig: "He has made great progress and has won his place in the team. But I tell him not to be happy with what he has, but to work on improving. He is aware that he has won a regular place, now we have to watch and see how things go.”
La Liga situation
After beating Getafe 1-0, Real Madrid are now four points clear at the top of the table, which is effectively five because they have a better direct head-to-head record against Barcelona. And there are just five games to go…
For the first time since lockdown, Madrid are playing first, and it’s a tricky trip to Athletic Club (2.00pm CEST). Barça obviously need to hope that the Basques can do them a favour… Fingers crossed…
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