As we reach the business end of the season, there’s a familiar trend developing across the continent. Easter weekend usually represents what Sir Alex Ferguson called “squeaky bum time” – the period of the season in which clubs have to hold their nerve during the final run-in.
But in most major leagues that’s not the case. European football is by characterised this year by unassailable leads and Champions League positions wrapped up. April will probably see Barcelona, Manchester City, Bayern Munich and PSG officially lift the league trophies that have looked inevitable for months.
That’s great for the Champions League – it gains an extra level of focus and importance. How the final few rounds will probably define how a club’s campaign is judged. Of the eight clubs remaining in the competition, only Juventus have a great deal to fight for in the league.
But the league competitions suffer as the final few weeks resemble a procession and matches suffer from teams prioritising continental fixtures.
This Saturday’s La Liga meeting between Barcelona – Sevilla is a prominent example of that, as both teams will surely be thinking about their midweek excursions.
One eye on Bayern for Sevilla
Having deservedly triumphed over Manchester United at Old Trafford in the last round, Sevilla will play in their first European Cup quarter-final in 60 years. The upcoming visit of Bayern Munich ranks amongst the biggest matches in the history of the club – and this for a team that have contested five European finals in the last 12 years.
Despite their cup successes this season, they now trail Valencia by 14 points and will not be in the Champions League again next season. Their remaining La Liga games are relatively inconsequential and this is a game they can afford to lose.
In terms of their line-up, disciplinary issues will force manager Vincenzo Montella into changes. Pablo Sarabia, one of Sevilla’s most talented attackers, was sent off in their last outing against Leganes so will miss this, and be kept extra fresh for Bayern Munich’s visit. Inversely, Ever Banega – so vital in the win against Manchester United – has a European suspension, so there’s no reason to rest him here.
Barcelona is always a glamour fixture, so Montella will probably opt for a strong side – but certain selections might tell us something about how they will approach Bayern. For example, would Luis Muriel up front mean Wissam Ben Yedder is being saved? Is Nolito starts here, should we expect to see Joaquin Correa midweek?
Regardless of the strength of the line-up, it’s likely that the far more consequential fixture in four days time will weigh heavily on the minds of the players and affect the full-bloodedness of their approach. It’s only natural, consciously or otherwise, that they won’t put their bodies on the line. That’s usually vital in defeating giants.
Not ideal timing for Barcelona.
Sevilla have only won one of their last 20 fixtures against Barcelona though the Sanchez Pizjuan is one of the most difficult stadiums to visit in Spain. This can’t be taken for granted.
It’s often forgotten that Ernesto Valverde has experience of winning titles – as he did winning three consecutive leagues with Olympiakos between 2009 and 2011. It appears a relentless approach, taking every game seriously and rarely rotating, is doing the trick – not only will Barcelona almost certainly win the title, but it keeps them unbeaten.
No team has ever completed an unbeaten campaign in the history of La Liga, and with the historical record tantalisingly close, it must be tempting to go for it. But as European fixtures increase in significance that contrasts with La Liga fixtures – an 11 point lead has the league effectively won. His resolve will be tested.
There’s never been a stronger case for rotation than now.
Roma can cause Barcelona problems and should not be taken lightly. It makes sense to keep the most important players as fresh as possible.
The vast majority of the first-team squad has travelled around the world with their national teams, including Luis Suarez playing in China and Ivan Rakitic playing in the United States. Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique are carrying injuries. Star man Lionel Messi missed both friendlies with Argentina with muscle fatigue – is it worth bringing him back for this?
There is depth in this squad. Yerry Mina has clear quality but has barely featured, and having played twice for Colombia, is clearly match fit. Paco Alcacer has shown an ability to contribute and has years of experience in La Liga. Andre Gomes, Aleix Vidal, and Paulinho can help rest the load in midfield.
Coutinho can make himself useful.
When Barcelona broke their transfer record to sign the Brazilian midway through the season, it was expected that he would help both Messi and Iniesta manage their minutes carefully, as he possesses an ability to play in either role.
Cup-tied in the Champions League, he is perfect for tricky La Liga encounters such as this. Not only does he possess the quality to help defeat quality teams, but his presence can automatically give vital players a rest.
However, what was logical hasn’t been the case so far. He has often featured in a team alongside both Messi and Iniesta. The latter especially is at an age where he can’t play two games a week, but Valverde opted for him in Barcelona’s trip to Eibar, just three days before they played against Chelsea.
Iniesta produced a vintage display against Germany, playing a brilliant through-ball for Spain’s goal. It was a clear response to anyone that says he’s finished. Such quality is a real asset for the latter stages of the Champions League – but he should be carefully produced such performances.
With Coutinho unable to play against Roma, it should be a certainty he’ll start against Sevilla. With Iniesta best rested and Messi recovering, he should be played instead of (at least one of) them, rather than alongside them.
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