Gerard Pique is among seven players unavailable for Ernesto Valverde as Barcelona prepare to take on Valencia at Mestalla on Sunday.

The La Liga title race could be blown wide open on Sunday as Valencia play hosts to Barcelona in a clash between the top two sides in the Spanish top flight at Mestalla. Ahead of the game against one of his former sides, Ernesto Valverde has quite a few problems to contend with, especially in defence.

Gerard Pique picked up his fifth yellow card in the win over Leganes last weekend, and has incurred a one-game ban to miss the trip to Mestalla. With Javier Mascherano sidelined due to a hamstring injury, Valverde is down to his bare bones at the heart of defence.

With the two players unavailable for the crucial tie, Thomas Vermaelen is set to be handed a rare start on Sunday, and the Belgian centre-back should line up alongside Samuel Umtiti. Valverde addressed the problem in his pre-match press conference, insisting that he trusts the duo to be up to the task.

“When you have two left footed central defenders, everybody thinks it’s strange, but when you play with two right footed central offenders, it doesn’t seem so strange at all. We are talking about two first rate international players. Tomorrow is an important match, and I have trust in both Vermaelen and Umtiti.”

Meanwhile, the other six absentees for the Barcelona boss are Rafinha (knee), Ousmane Dembele (hamstring), Andre Gomes (thigh), Arda Turan (ankle) and Sergi Roberto (hamstring) – each likely to return at some point in December.

Lionel Messi is expected to return to the starting lineup on Sunday after starting on the bench against Juventus on Wednesday, while Paco Alcacer is also likely to start against his former side. Valverde talked at length about Messi, in particular, congratulating him on his contract renewal.

“We are all calmer now that it’s done, mainly because of the atmosphere outside. We already knew that he was fully committed to the club. Managing Messi is a unique experience. Sometimes the player has to adapt to the manager and sometimes the manager has to adapt to the player. It’s exceptional.”

Valencia boss Marcelino has just three players on the treatment table, with Javier Jimenez (knee), Nemanja Maksimovic (back) and Jeison Murillo (groin) unavailable. The likes of Simone Zaza, Carlos Soler and Goncalo Guedes are expected to return after starting on the bench against Espanyol last week.

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