19:45 GMT, Saturday 24th February, Camp Nou (Barcelona, Spain) Sky Sports Football
Barcelona have looked untouchable for much of this season in La Liga. Ernesto Valverde’s chargers have built up a seven point lead at the top of the table and are yet to taste defeat in the league. Their halo of invincibility has, however, waned in recent weeks as they have struggled in games against supposedly inferior opposition.
They escaped with a draw against Espanyol by the skin of their teeth at the beginning of this month and were held by Getafe to a scoreless draw at Camp Nou. Barcelona still have a sizeable lead over Atletico Madrid but have dropped four points in the last month and are in danger of slipping into a genuine title-race.
At the beginning of this season, Girona would surely have settled for maintaining their top-flight status. 25 games later, their ambitions are far higher. The Catalan minnows are in 8th position, only four points behind sixth-placed Villarreal. With seventh-place often enough to secure European qualification in La Liga, they are now starting to believe that they can compete at an even higher level.
Girona are on good form, losing only one of their last six fixtures and conceding only two goals in that period. After humiliating Real Madrid earlier in the season, they will have the confidence to take on Barcelona on Saturday.
Last Time Out
Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona (UEFA Champions League-Last 16-First Leg)
An enthralling encounter saw Barcelona struggle to break down a resolute Chelsea side, despite having almost 75% of possession.
Lionel Messi found himself effectively contained by N’Golo Kante and Pedro, leaving him without the space that he is used to exploiting.
Chelsea looked the more dangerous of the two sides in the opening exchanges and Willian was unlucky not to score, hitting the post twice.
Eventually Willian got his just reward for a lively display and gave the home side the lead with a long range effort in the 62nd minute.
Barcelona kept pressing the Chelsea defence to no avail until Lionel Messi took advantage of a loose pass across the defence from Andreas Christensen, levelling the score heading into the second leg.
Girona 3-0 Leganes (La Liga)
Girona secured their third win in six games with an impressive victory over Leganes. The home side were composed in defence and clinical in attack, outclassing their opponents in all areas of the game.
Pablo Machin’s men started brightly and took the lead through a penalty from top-scorer Cristhian Stuani in the 23rd-minute.
The lead was doubled after 36 minutes thanks to a wonderful strike from Portu, scoring from a tight angle.
A fine header from Juanpe with five minutes left to play secured the win in a match where Girona were never under any real pressure.
Ernesto Valverde will be delighted to be able to pick from a completely fit squad this weekend.
Having played in a tough away fixture in midweek, several rotations to the starting lineup are expected, with Philippe Coutinho likely to start.
The only major injury concern for Pablo Machin ahead of Saturday’s clash is centre back Pedro Alcala, who is still recovering from an ankle injury.
There are some doubts over the fitness of Johan Mojica, but he is expected to make the starting lineup.
Influential midfielder Pere Pons should make his return after missing out last week’s game with injury.
Key Battle: Lionel Messi (Barcelona) vs Cristhian Stuani (Girona)
For the majority of Tuesday night’s clash against Chelsea, Lionel Messi looked uncharacteristically devoid of ideas in attack. His opponents were quick to congest the areas of the pitch where he usually finds the space to flourish and he cut a frustrated figure for much of the match.
It was still no surprise to see the Argentinian pop up to score the equalising goal with a typically clinical finish. The 30-year-old had not scored for five games in all competitions and will have been relieved to get on the scoresheet.
Messi is by no means suffering a dip in form, having scored 20 goals in 23 La Liga starts this season. Girona will, however, take some encouragement by how well he was marshalled at Stamford Bridge.
Cristhian Stuani is currently the fourth highest scorer in La Liga and is enjoying his best top-flight season to date. The 31-year-old has been central to Girona’s unexpected success and many of his 13 goals have been winners in tight games. Stuani has scored four times in his last four games, including a man-of-the-match display in a win against Athletic Bilbao.
There are few better finishers in the air than the Uruguayan and he will provide a constant aerial threat on Saturday. Chances will be few and far between for Girona against their more illustrious Catalan opponents, but with Stuani on form they could give themselves a chance of a result.
Is Paulinho beginning to tire?
Summer-signing Paulinho has been a revelation at Barcelona this season. The Brazilian international has given the Catalan giants a different, more direct dimension. When teams are able to resist Barcelona’s patient passing approach, the 29-year-old has often opened gaps with his more physical approach. His form has, however, dropped off a little in recent weeks and he looked particularly poor against Chelsea in midweek.
The Chinese Super League season begins in March, so Paulinho has now played for almost a year without any significant break. If he is to remain effective towards the end of the season then it may be best for Valverde to leave him out of more winnable La Liga fixtures. There is indeed depth in this Barcelona squad, yet no other player can replicate Paulinho’s direct role as effectively as the Brazilian.
Are Girona no longer intimidated by La Liga’s elite?
Having secured automatic promotion by the skin of their teeth last season, Girona could be forgiven for setting up negatively against the more celebrated teams in La Liga. They have, however, appeared to relish high-profile encounters and enjoyed the experience of testing themselves against top-tier opposition.
When Girona beat Real Madrid at the end of October, it was celebrated as a one-off historic achievement. They have since backed up that performance, holding Atletico Madrid to a draw and losing by only one goal away at Valencia.
Barcelona have struggled in their fixtures against city-rivals Espanyol recently and Girona will take confidence from how their fellow Catalan club were able to scare the league-leaders. Pablo Machin’s chargers should use their positive experiences against bigger sides this season and adopt a positive approach on Saturday night.
Prediction: Barcelona 2-1 Girona
Barcelona have found themselves involved in some tight fixtures of late, and Saturday’s game should be no different. They may not be at their fluid best, as a result of several necessary changes to the lineup, and will need to maintain focus if they are to avoid a slip-up. Girona have already demonstrated their ability to cause a shock this season, yet the home side have enough quality in their squad to secure the win.
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