Liga Preview: Villarreal-Barcelona, Saturday 4pm ET, ESPN Deportes/ESPN3.com
I was optimistic about their chances going in. They had retained all but Santi Cazorla and Joan Capdevila over the summer (and that perennial goal-monster Jozy Altidore, of course), meaning they had the majority of their team intact. They were missing a playmaker, yes, and a very hit-or-miss left back–also true–and I wrote “Villarreal appears set for a dive down into the table, but the weakness I see in other teams is the ballast that will keep them up at periscope depth.” I was wrong only about one thing: Villarreal was not going to be buoyed by my terrible nautical terminology.
It turns out they’re terrible. They just defeated fellow relegation battlers Sporting Gijon (Preciado’s mustache must have been trimmed for the encounter), but that’s just they’re 4th victory of the season. Their other victories were against Mallorca, Rayo Vallecano, and Real Betis. All have been at home, where they’re a solid 4W-4D-1L (15GF, 10GA). It is virtually identical to Barcelona’s away record: 4W-4D-1L (16GF, 10GA). Roughly speaking, it’s an even match between the 2nd placed side and the 17th placed side.
With Real Madrid facing off against last placed Real Zaragoza at the Bernabeu in the match prior to their own encounter, Barcelona are likely to be facing another 8 point gap. I think it would be fair to say that anything less from los blancos could be fairly treated as an epic tropiezo. The La Liga equivalent of this. For Barça, though, there’s a match to be played regardless of that outcome (no doubt if they lose, Mourinho will ride in the ref’s car all the way home berating him).
Villarreal are no true slouches. Yes, they’ve lost a large number of games (8) and they have the T-15th worst defense in the league with 28 goals allowed, but they have the T-8th best defense at home (10). They drew with Valencia 2-2 at the Madrigal and before that they drew with Real Sociedad at home. They’re capable of stealing points, that’s for sure. Anyone thinking that their 17th place situation is going to stop them from playing their hearts out in front of their own fans is crazy or hasn’t been paying attention the last few years to what goes on in that stadium.
Villarreal’s squad is this: Diego López (GK), César (GK), Mariño (GK), Joan Oriol, Mario, Gonzalo, Ángel, Marchena, Zapata, Musacchio, Marcos Senna, Bruno, Cani, Camuñas, Borja Valero, De Guzmán, Castellani, Marco Ruben, Joselu.
That squad is missing even more key ingredients, including Nilmar as well as long-term injury Giuseppe Rossi. They’ve signed no one in the transfer window, but have also not let anyone go. They remain dangerous given that it’s Marco Ruben that’s their leading goalscorer with 6. Borja Valero comes in with the most assists (4) and holds down their midfield region alongside Marcos Senna. He’s not particularly goalscory this year with just 3 to his name, but he’s capable when the mood takes him, as it did last week with this stunner (better quality at 4:50 here).
Barça are down a few players, yet can still field a rather competitive starting 11. The squad sent to El Madrigal is thus: Valdés, Pinto, Piqué, Fàbregas, Puyol, Xavi, Messi, Thiago, Mascherano, Sergio Busquets, Adriano, Abidal, Alves, Pedro, Jonathan dos Santos, Isaac Cuenca, Sergi Roberto, Cristian Tello.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pep tinker with the lineup even though he knows it’s extremely risky. There’s Valencia on Wednesday in the Copa semifinals, after all. Yet losing any more points to Madrid is, as it was before, an invitation to losing the league, even this early. 5 points is surmountable, but 7 or 8 points seems extremely unlikely. So why not start a solid 11 and get the points? Then bother about Valencia on Wednesday. We’re already missing Iniesta and Alexis from this past Wednesday, so tinkering is a must, but not the point of starting, say, Pedro, right?
Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Adriano, Busquets, Xavi, Thiago, Cesc, Messi, Pedro
Official Prediction: 1-2. A very hard game that wears the team down even more and causes a loss in Valencia on Wednesday. Which is okay if we beat Real Sociedad on the rebound. Goals by Adriano and Messi.