15:15 GMT, Saturday 14th April, Camp Nou (Barcelona, Spain)
Despite Barcelona’s shock exit from the Champions League at the hands of Roma, the Catalan club still have the potential to make this an historically successful season. They remain unbeaten in La Liga and have established a lead of 11 points over second-placed Atletico Madrid.
There are signs that Ernesto Valverde’s limited squad depth is being put to the test and his players are struggling to dominate games as they did so comfortably in the first half of the season. Nonetheless, the prize of ‘invincible’ status remains within their grasp and they will be keen to ensure that they can put their recent Roman nightmare firmly behind them.
A poor run of form in January saw Valencia slip out of the title-race. They are still, however sitting pretty in third place, 12 points clear of fifth and a point ahead of European Champions Real Madrid in fourth.
Los Che have found themselves in spectacular form of late and have won their last five games in a row, including an impressive 0-2 away win over Sevilla. A few recent slip-ups from second-placed Atletico Madrid have even given Valencia hope of a securing a remarkable runners-up medal.
Last Time Out
Roma 3-0 (4*-4) Barcelona (UEFA Champions League-Quarter Final-Second Leg)
A memorable night in Rome saw Barcelona crash out of the Champions League, throwing away a three goal lead in the process.
The home side were more than happy to allow Barcelona the lion’s share of possession as they employed a highly effective counter-attacking game, earning them double the number of shots on target of their opponents.
Roman hopes began to rise after only six minutes, with the inspiration Edin Dzeko popping up to score his side’s opener.
Some clumsy work from Gerard Pique allowed Daniele De Rossi to convert from the spot in the 58th minute to bring the hosts firmly back into the tie.
The dramatic comeback was sealed through a header from Greek defender Kostas Manolas and when Lionel Messi scuffed a chance from 8 yards out, fans at the Stadio Olimpico must have felt the gods were on their side.
Valencia 1-0 Espanyol (La Liga)
A focused and structure performance from Valencia produced their fifth consecutive victory. The spine of Neto, Gabriel, Kondogbia and Rodrigo operated seamlessly and were to much for Espanyol to cope with.
The visitors had far more shots on target and also edged the possession, yet found the home side’s defence and goalkeeper Neto in determined mood.
A back post header from Rodrigo following some fine wide play from Goncalo Guedes proved enough to secure all three points for the hosts.
Ernesto Valverde will most likely be without midfielder Ivan Rakitic (broken finger) but will be boosted by the timely return of Sergio Busquets.
Left back Lucas Digne (thigh) is also a fitness doubt and unlikely to make to matchday squad.
Philippe Coutinho should return to the side after being ineligible to face Roma in the Champions League.
Marcelino has a relatively injury-free squad to pick from at the moment.
He will, however, have to deal with the absence of the impressive Francis Coquelin (achilles) who is out for the remainder of this season.
Defender Javier Jimenez (cruciate ligament) has return to training, but Saturday’s game may yet come to soon for him.
Key Battle: Phillipe Coutinho (Barcelona) vs Goncalo Guedes (Valencia)
Having found himself cup-tied in the Champions League for Barcelona, Coutinho was unable to help prevent his new side’s second leg collapse on Tuesday night. He should, however, play a significant part in Barcelona’s quest to record an unbeaten season and will be more fresh than his tired-looking colleagues who have been competing on all fronts with a relatively small squad.
The 25-year-old has made a decent start to life in Catalonia, scoring three goals and providing three assists in nine starts in all competitions. He provides the Barcelona midfield with much-needed pace which proved the difference in their comeback against Sevilla at the end of March. The Brazilian may well have proved the difference in the Champions League. He must now ensure that his debut season still ends in glory.
Goncalo Guedes has been one of the players-of-the-season and is once again playing at his very best, having recovered from his mid-season injury woes. The Portuguese international brings a refreshingly direct approach to proceedings and often forces teams into playing deep defensive lines.
The winger has, however, failed to score in the league since January 13th and has only four goals to his name all season. His eight assists have been invaluable to his side, yet if he is to progress his game to the next level then he must strive to become more clinical in front of goal.
Have Barcelona ever been more reliant on Messi?
There is very little shame in building a team and style around a player widely considered to be the world’s best. For many years Barcelona have benefitted from Lionel Messi’s singular ability to provide moments that turn games on their head and they owe much of their success to the way in which they have been so willing to accommodate his genius.
In previous iterations of Barcelona, however, Messi was supported by the likes of Xavi and Iniesta before, and more recently, Neymar. Absent of a plethora of those able to step into the Argentinian’s role when he is having a difficult day, Barcelona simply crumble as they did against Roma in midweek. They may still secure an unbeaten season on the back of his brilliance, but he requires more support if they are to compete in Europe.
Job done for Valencia?
At the beginning of the season, many of the Mestalla faithful would have been satisfied by the notion that they might finish the season without having changed the manager more than once. As it happens, not only has Marcelino retained his position all season, he has guided Valencia to third-place in the league and all but ensured a place in next season’s Champions League.
Valencia hold a seemingly unassailable lead of 12 points over fifth-placed Real Betis so a top four finish appears inevitable. There is, however, plenty to play for in the final seven games. A third-place finish would not only provide them with the glory of finishing above Real Madrid but also help them avoid the potential banana-skin of a Champions League qualification play-off. The status of being the only side to beat Barcelona in the league all season is also on offer.
Prediction: Barcelona 3-1 Valencia
Complacency was arguably Barcelona’s biggest problem against Roma, yet that will not be an issue this Saturday. Bolstered by the presence of Coutinho, expect the Catalan giants to produce a fine attacking display which should be enough to cause Valencia serious concerns.
The visitors are in fine form themselves, however, and will travel to Camp Nou with genuine belief of causing an upset. On this occasion they may find themselves up against a side desperate to prove a point, yet they certainly have it within them to at least match the league-leaders.
Is it time for Barcelona’s unbeaten run to come to an end?
Let us know in the comments section below…
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