Barcelona will be aiming to consolidate their place atop the La Liga table when they welcome a faltering Real Betis side to Camp Nou on Sunday

International break beckons in the coming week. But, before that, Matchday 12 of La Liga will have some crucial matches on show on Sunday. One such game will feature league leaders Barcelona, who will have the chance to firmly lock down their place atop the table when they welcome Real Betis to Camp Nou.

Barcelona sit on top of the La Liga table heading into this weekend’s set of fixtures. Their nearest challengers are surprisingly Espanyol, with Real Madrid still in recovery mode. But, recent games have suggested a somewhat downturn in form, even though the Blaugrana have not been on the wrong end of a result since September.

Real Betis, on the other hand, are struggling to match up to the lofty standards they had set in their sixth-placed finish last season. Heading into Matchday 12, Los Verdiblancos are just four points outside the relegation zone, and have lost three of their last four games in La Liga.

The corresponding fixture last season had ended in a 2-0 win for Barcelona, with Sergi Roberto scoring for the hosts. Ahead of the latest meeting between the two sides, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at the La Liga encounter.

Team News & Tactics

Barcelona

Messi will be itching to return to the group when Real Betis come visiting to Camp Nou. (Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

Messi will be itching to return to the group when Real Betis come visiting to Camp Nou. (Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

There is more good news than bad heading into a game for Ernesto Valverde for a change. On Sunday, the Barcelona boss will be without just three first-team players, with Sergi Samper on the return trail. The major concern is the absence of Philippe Coutinho, who has showed some positive signs recently.

But, the big positive for Barcelona is the fact that both Lionel Messi and Samuel Umtiti are available and have been selected in the matchday squad by Valverde. The manager though, has excluded Ousmane Dembele, who reported late to training on Thursday, copping a lot of flak as a result.

With both Dembele and Coutinho unavailable, Valverde has just four attacking options at his disposal. While Luis Suarez and Messi are certain starters, especially with the latter regaining full fitness. The final spot should go to Malcom, who was a relieved man as he opened his account for Barcelona earlier this week.

At the back, Valverde might choose to continue resting Umtiti, especially with Clement Lenglet doing an admirable job in his absence. Jordi Alba is another player who has impressed in recent weeks, and the left-back should be in the mood to do some damage following his Spain recall. On the right flank though, Nelson Semedo could come back into the side, with Sergi Roberto being rested.

In the middle of the park, Arturo Vidal is one player who is itching for a start. And, with Ivan Rakitic in need of some rest, the summer arrival could replace the Croat, with Sergio Busquets and Arthur being his companions in the midfield trio. It will also be interesting to see if Marc-Andre ter Stegen is picked by Valverde after he was dropped from the Germany squad due to injury.

Probable Lineup (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba; Vidal, Busquets, Arthur; Messi, Suarez, Malcom

Barcelona

Real Betis

Quique Setien does not have many pressing injury concerns to deal with ahead of the trip to Barcelona. On Sunday, the Real Betis manager will only be without two first-team players, with Javi Garcia (thigh) and Francis Guerrero (knee) on the treatment table.

Two players, in particular, will be under the spotlight for the visitors. Marc Bartra returns to Camp Nou for the first time since leaving Barcelona, and will be keen to make an impact against his former employers by putting a lid on Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi’s outputs.

Pau Lopez is the other player under the scanner, with the former Espanyol goalkeeper being a pantomime villain for Barcelona fans following his stamp on Messi a few seasons ago. Lopez will man the goal for the Beticos while Bartra will have Sidnei and Aissa Mandi for company in the back-three.

Meanwhile, Guerrero’s absence means Antonio Barragan will likely be the right wing-back while Junior Firpo is nailed on as the left wing-back. In the middle of the park, Setien has a glut of options at his disposal. But, Andres Guardado and William Carvalho are usually the preferred pairing, with the duo providing a tenacious presence in midfield.

Up ahead in attack, Setien could go for traditional wingers to stretch the Barcelona backline and bring Loren Moron into the fray. With that in mind, Joaquin and Cristian Tello – another former Barcelona man – should start in attack, with Sergio Canales and Giovani Lo Celso missing out.

Probable Lineup (3-4-3): Lopez; Bartra, Mandi, Sidnei; Barragan, Guardado, Carvalho, Firpo; Joaquin, Moron, Tello

Betis

Key Stats

  • If they don’t lose, Barcelona will record their longest unbeaten run against Betis in La Liga (P14 W13 D1 L0).
  • In fact, the last time that Real Betis prevented Barcelona from winning at Camp Nou was all the way back in May 2007.
  • Barcelona have won more points from losing positions than any other side in La Liga this season (12 points).
  • Quique Setien has lost all his five La Liga managerial games against Barcelona, three as Las Palmas boss and two while in-charge of Real Betis.
  • Luis Suarez has scored in his each of his last three games in La Liga (six goals), his best scoring run in the competition. He is also the top-scorer in La Liga this season with nine goals.

Player to Watch

Malcom

After fulfilling his dream, will Malcom cement his place in the starting lineup? (Photo by Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images)

After fulfilling his dream, will Malcom cement his place in the starting lineup? (Photo by Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images)

It has been a tough start to life as a Barcelona player for Malcom, who has had to bide his time. But, things seem to be falling into place for him at just the right time. Sure, Messi’s return was threatening to send him back to the fringes of the first-team squad.

But, with Coutinho out injured, and Dembele not exactly in favour following his reported antics earlier this week, Malcom now has the perfect opportunity to cement his place in Valverde’s plans. Another game changing performance and we might just see that happen, which ought to put a rest to rumours linking him with a move away from Camp Nou.

Prediction

Barcelona 4-1 Real Betis

Barcelona may not have been completely convincing in recent weeks, owing to their suspect nature at the back. But, Real Betis are in a bad place at the present moment, with goals coming at a premium in La Liga – Los Verdiblancos have scored just 8 times so far this season.

Barcelona’s frailties in defence should keep the visitors interested for parts of the game. But, with Luis Suarez on song in league football and Lionel Messi set to return, Ernesto Valverde’s men might just run riot against one of their favourite opponents in La Liga. The Hard Tackle predicts a 4-1 win for the hosts.