19:45 GMT, Saturday 31st March, Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan (Seville, Spain) Sky Sports Football
Many eyebrows were raised by the appointment of Vincenzo Montella at the beginning of this season’s winter break. The Italian was ultimately a failure at AC Milan and faced the tough task of replacing the popular Eduardo Berizzo who had been controversially sacked following a period of illness. Sevilla have not made much of a resurgence in the league under their new manager and trail the top four by 14 points.
The Andalusians have lost three of their last five La Liga fixtures and are in danger of missing out on European football next season. They must retain their focus and finish the league season strongly if they are to ensure at least a top six placing in the final standings.
Barcelona are already Champions-elect this season and are showing few signs of slowing down. The Catalan giants are yet to taste defeat in the league all season and a first leg loss to Espanyol in the Copa del Rey remains their only loss since the Spanish Super Cup in August.
Ernesto Valverde’s men are 11 points clear of second-placed Atletico Madrid and a startling 15 points above their great rivals, Real Madrid. Messi and co have kept a clean sheet in their last four games, including tough fixtures against Atletico Madrid and Chelsea.
Historic status as ‘Invincibles’ awaits this squad and will provide them with enough motivation to keep taking the league seriously.
Last Time Out
Leganes 2-1 Sevilla (La Liga)
Sevilla appeared to be distracted by their recent victory over Manchester United in the Champions League and Leganes were more than happy to take advantage of their defensive sloppiness.
The visitors dominated possession, but were far less clinical in front of goal than their mid-table opponents.
Leganes took a lead into the break, thanks to a looping 41st minute header from Unai Bustinza.
The scoreline was doubled in the 69th minute, when Javi Eraso found himself unmarked in the middle of the penalty area to stroke home his side’s second.
Things went from bad to worse for Sevilla in the 84th minute as winger Pablo Sarabia received a second yellow card for a kick on Leganes’ Diego Rico.
The Andalusians did not allow their heads to drop, yet a 90th minute strike from Miguel Layun proved little more than a consolation goal.
Barcelona 2-0 Athletic Bilbao (La Liga)
Barcelona continued their unbeaten march with a comfortable victory over Athletic Bilbao.
The hosts outclassed their opponents in every aspect of the game, whilst the Camp Nou crowd were treated to yet another brilliant Lionel Messi display.
Paco Alcacer took his chance in a rotated Barcelona side well, calmy finishing in the eighth minute following some tidy interplay with Messi.
A trademark precise Lionel Messi finish from the edge of the box doubled the lead on the half-an-hour mark to put the match firmly within the home side’s control.
The visitors battled admirably in the second half but found their unbeaten opponents in no mood to slip up.
Vincenzo Montella will be pleased to pick from an almost injury free squad this weekend, with Tuesday night’s encounter against Bayern Munich of primary concern.
Winger Pablo Sarabia will miss out through suspension having been sent off in the last league fixture.
He will most likely be replaced by Joaquin Correa, who is himself returning from suspension.
Ernesto Valverde is likely to use his squad depth ahead of Wednesday night’s Champions League clash against Roma.
Midfielder Sergio Busquets (groin) is an injury doubt along with defenders Lucas Digne (thigh) and Nelson Semedo (hamstring).
Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique have both struggled with knocks during the international break, yet both will hope to start on Saturday night.
Key Battle: Ever Banega (Sevilla) vs Paulinho (Barcelona)
Central to Sevilla’s high-intensity approach is Argentinian midfielder, Ever Banega. The 29-year-old looked a class act in both legs against Manchester United in the Champions League and played a significant part in their progression to the quarter-finals.
Banega is the archetypal number 6, equally comfortable in a defensive role as he is in a more creative system. Combining the role of both enforcer and provider, he will be integral to Sevilla’s gameplan again on Saturday night.
Up against Banega this weekend will be Barcelona’s Paulinho. The Brazilian has been a revelation in Catalonia this season, transforming himself from a Tottenham Hotspur flop exiled to China into a World Cup starter for Brazil and a key part of an unbeaten Barcelona setup.
The 29-year-old has provided his new club with a more direct attacking outlet as well as adding more robustness to the midfield. Paulinho has scored eight goals this season and provided two assists. He looked comfortable on Tuesday night in Brazil’s victory against Germany and is beginning to raise his game to new heights.
The shadow of Bayern
Having won the UEFA Europa League three times in a row between 2013 and 2016, hopes were cautiously optimistic for Sevilla in this season’s Champions League. Eduardo Berrizo may have ended up losing his job as a result of his side’s flailing league form, yet he performed an impressive job in securing Sevilla’s progression into the Round of 16 in Europe.
A famous second leg victory at Old Trafford has seen them march onwards into the quarter-finals, where the great Bayern Munich await. Recent experience of European success will give the fans genuine belief in the possibility of unlikely success. One of Montella’s primary roles on Saturday will be keeping his players focused ahead of a truly gargantuan fixture on Tuesday night.
The big-money departure of Neymar in the summer was supposed to herald the decline of Barcelona as a European force and a shift in power towards Paris. Eight months later, it is Barcelona who are 11 points clear at the top of La Liga, facing a Champions League quarter-final against Roma and have secured a place in the final of the Copa del Rey. PSG, on the other hand, have already limped out of European competition this season.
The league has almost already been won by Barcelona and they have not yet had to break stride in their Champions League campaign this season. A Copa del Rey final against Saturday night’s opponents Sevilla should pose few problems. Ernesto Valverde has a famous debut season treble well within his sights.
Prediction: Sevilla 1-2 Barcelona
Vincenzo Montella’s chargers will believe that they can compete with Barcelona on Saturday and will draw a great deal of confidence from their performances in Europe’s elite competition this season.
Barcelona, however, are simply a cut ahead of the rest in La Liga at present and are tearing teams apart with some ease. The Catalans have a greater squad depth that Sevilla and will surely use that to full effect ahead of midweek Champions League fixtures for both sides.
Expect a fiercely fought encounter, with a potentially tight first half before the visitors cut loose in the final third of the match.
Will Barcelona maintain their unbeaten run?
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