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Barça ended their 2016 league programme on a winning note | VÍCTOR SALGADO - FCB

Following the valiant but unsuccessful bid to get the year off to a winning start at San Mamés, Barça’s first Liga outing of 2017 brings a tricky trip to high flying Villarreal. The Catalans are going to need to break down the meanest defence in LaLiga to prevent any widening of the gap between themselves and leaders Real Madrid, who beat Granada 5-0 on Saturday.

Team news

The only change with respect to the game in Bilbao is Ivan Rakitic being replaced by Denis Suárez, who will be looking forward to returning to the club where he played 48 matches last season. Aleix Vidal and Jeremy Mathieu miss out, as does injured goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen.

The full squad of that will be travelling to El Madrigal is therefore as follows: Ter Stegen, Masip, Piqué, Sergio, Denis Suárez, Arda, Iniesta, Suárez, Messi, Neymar Jr, Rafinha, Mascherano, Paco Alcácer, Jordi Alba, Digne, Sergi Roberto, André Gomes and Umtiti.

Villarreal, meanwhile, have been cheered by the news that Brazilian Pato is over a bout of flu in time. Centre back Víctor Ruiz has recovered from his fitness concerns, and Bruno Soriano is on the mend too and may well feature on Sunday.

Coaches’ verdict

Speaking ahead of the game, Luis Enrique said that “Villarreal play well and create attacking opportunities as well as being solid defensively. It will be hard as they want possession just as much as we do. The key factor is having control of the ball against a team like this.” Click here for the full story.

His Villarreal counterpart Fran Escribá, who hasn’t beaten Barça in six attempts, commented that "it is very important for us to focus on their goal. The game could end 0-0, but you’d expect there to be goals. So we need to defend as well as we can but also with an eye on scoring ourselves. We know how to score and the idea is to win the game. It’s as hard as things get, but I think we can cause them damage.”

Form guide

Barça may have suffered defeat at Athletic Club in the cup this week, but they will have home advantage for the second leg on Wednesday. That result brought an end to an unbeaten run of ten matches in all competitions, but on the plus side it is now more than a quarter of a year since the Blaugrana last lost a Liga fixture.

Villarreal are also entering the game on the back of a Copa del Rey reverse, 3-1 at Real Sociedad, the first time this season that they have conceded that many goals in a single game. In fact, they have the best defensive record in LaLiga, especially at home where the ball has only landed in their net five terms in total. The Yellow Submarine is still afloat in the Europa League too, with AS Roma next up in the round of 32.

And for collectors of curious stats, Villarreal is the only team so far in LaLiga not to have conceded a single goal from outside the area. The game also brings the chance for Jonathan dos Santos to face his former club – and after scoring in his last two Liga games, the Mexican seems to have hit form just in time.

History

Games between these clubs have a history of being lively affairs, but things generally end up going Barça’s way. They’re unbeaten in 14 meetings in all competitions, the last defeat being a 2-1 reverse way back in 2008. In games at El Madrigal, the record stretches back even further – where the Catalans have won six and drawn three on their last nine visits.

A man to watch in the Barça ranks is Neymar Jr. This could be the perfect moment to end his dry spell in front of goal, for Villarreal is the side against which he has scored more times than any other. In five meetings, the Brazilian has only failed to find the net once.

Coverage

Wherever you are in the world, we have you covered. You can keep up to date with all the news at arrives on our social networks as well here at the official website. And for live English language commentary, look no further than Radio Barça. A link will appear on the homepage shortly before kick-off.

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