Villareal, with the best defense in La Liga, hosted Barcelona, with the best offense in La Liga, on Sunday. The match was complicated from the beginning, but it proved to be even more so as the game went on.
Saturday will mark the 265th Clásico meeting between these two teams, the best in Spain for many years now. For Barça, this particular match is crucial, as Madrid sit six points ahead of them in La Liga standings. Cutting their lead to three would be a great result if Barcelona can get a win. Despite their bad play of late, it’s not impossible. In fact, Gareth Bale, Toni Kroos, and Alvaro Morata are now definitely out for Madrid while Andrés Iniesta might make a return from his knee injury suffered against Valencia.
Barcelona have walked away with a win in each of their last 22 home games against Granada, and today’s match was no exception. Rafinha Alcántara’s goal was the difference as Barça won 1-0 in a game where both sides played uninspiring football. Granada played good defense which, added to the lack of finishing up top, led to a single goal and not much else for Barcelona.
Disclaimer right away: This article is by no means a criticism of Javier Mascherano. He is a living legend at the club and one of my favorite players ever. The six years he’s been a member of the team have been fruitful – 18 trophies – and he’s been a great contributor to winning. He’s not afraid to get down and dirty defensively and has brought grit to our back line. But he’s essentially been playing out of position for six years. Which is why it’s not blasphemy, in my opinion, to suggest he ought to be replaced by Samuel Umtiti.
Barça’s 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao was an interesting game, and an exciting one to watch. It was a rainy night at the San Mamés, a night when Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez weren’t at the top of their games, missing several chances to score. Their defense was having some trouble with the high pressure Athletic Bilbao were playing with, and Barça’s midfield had to help break the pressure. Arda Turan lifted a cross into the box for Ivan Rakitić to head home, and Barcelona left the stadium full of 50,000 fans with an away victory. But that wasn’t the biggest statement made on Sunday night. That would be the play of Marc-André ter Stegen.
Here’s the thing. Even if Barcelona didn’t already beat Manchester City two years ago with basically the same exact team they have now, and even if they hadn’t beaten Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich team in the Champions League, there’s no reason to worry. Because they did, and they will again. There’s no reason to fear City.
The selection of Barça’s first eleven isn’t all that complicated if everyone’s healthy. Rarely on a team as talented and full of quality as Barcelona is any position really in doubt. The team is stacked from top to bottom, with depth that wasn’t present last season. In this respect, the team is probably better than it was last year.
There’s a big difference between this team and last year’s, though. Dani Alves, the first choice right back for years, has left to join Juventus, leaving a hole at right back and a conundrum for Luis Enrique and the coaching staff. While they bought good new players, they didn’t buy a right back. Alves is a player that can never be replaced, but Aleix Vidal and Sergi Roberto are the choices at Barça’s disposal, and while the right back position might come more naturally to Vidal, there is a better option.