Barcelona will be hoping to continue inching closer towards winning the La Liga title when they welcome local rivals Espanyol to Camp Nou on Saturday.
The dreaded international break is finally over as clubs across Europe return to action. In La Liga, defending champions Barcelona resume their league campaign in a potentially mouthwatering clash, as they play hosts to Espanyol in the Catalan derby at Camp Nou on Saturday evening.
There has been no stopping Barcelona lately, especially in La Liga, where they seem to be cruising towards another title. While most of the talks in the upcoming month will invariably centre around their UEFA Champions League quarter-finals against Manchester United, Ernesto Valverde’s men could also wrap up the title in April, if things go their way.
Espanyol, on the other hand, have tailed off considerably after a spectacular start to the season, when they were going toe to toe with the bigwigs of the league. But, in recent months, inconsistency has ensued, with Rubi’s charges sliding down the table – they currently occupy the 13th spot, with 34 points.
The reverse fixture, played at the RCDE Stadium back in December, saw Barcelona cruise to a 4-0 win over their local rivals, with Lionel Messi leading the way with a brace. 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 have come through largely unscathed in the aftermath of the international break, with Jasper Cillessen the only player who is dealing with a fresh problem. But, the Dutchman, who is a backup option anyway, should be fully fit and available for the next game.
Apart from Cillessen, Ernesto Valverde will be without Ousmane Dembele (hamstring) and long-term absentee Rafina (ACL rupture). There had also been concerns over the fitness of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, both of whom had sustained minor niggles in the international break.
But, both the attacking superstars are fit and available, and are likely to be a part of the starting lineup to face Espanyol. Dembele’s absence, meanwhile, should continue to be filled by Philippe Coutinho, who has shown signs of regaining form in recent weeks.
In the middle of the park, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets are certain starters, with Valverde rarely resting his star midfield duo. The final spot in midfield should be taken up by Arthur, especially with Arturo Vidal returning late from international duty.
At the back, three of the defenders pick themselves, with the likes of Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet and Jordi Alba being in imperious form lately. Sergi Roberto should make up the numbers in defence, with the Spaniard usurping Nelson Semedo in recent weeks. In goal, there is no looking past Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Lenglet, Alba; Rakitic, Busquets, Arthur; Messi, Suarez, Coutinho
Rubi has a number of pressing injury concerns to deal with ahead of the visit to local rivals Barcelona. On Saturday, the Espanyol boss will be without four first-team players due to various fitness troubles, while key midfielder Sergi Darder is unavailable due to a one-match ban, after being sent off in the 1-0 loss to Sevilla before the international break.
But, the good news is that Victor Sanchez is available after serving his own suspension. The 31-year-old should replace Darder in the starting lineup, with Marc Roca and Esteban Granero being his partners in the middle of the park.
Meanwhile, the players who will miss out due to injury are Oscar Duarte (foot), David Lopez (ACL rupture), Facundo Ferreyra (hamstring) and Pablo Piatti (ACL rupture).
The absence of Duarte and Lopez means Naldo and Mario Hermoso pick themselves at the heart of the Espanyol defence, with Didac Vila and Roberto Rosales likely to complete the defensive line that will provide cover to former Real Madrid goalkeeper Diego Lopez.
The unavailability of Ferreyra and Piatti and Garcia’s recent return from injury is also forcing Rubi’s hand, as Borja Iglesias is the only striker fully fit and available. The 26-year-old should be complemented by Hernan Perez and January signing Lei Wu, with the duo tasked with providing the creative threat.
Probable Lineup (4-5-1): Diego Lopez; Rosales, Naldo, Hermoso, Vila; Perez, Victor Sanchez, Roca, Granero, Wu; Iglesias
- Barcelona are unbeaten in their last 19 La Liga meetings with Espanyol, having scored four goals or more nine times this decade across all competitions against their Catalan rivals.
- Barcelona are without a defeat in their last 16 La Liga matches (W13 D3), the best current run in the competition.
- Ernesto Valverde’s men have scored more goals from set-pieces than any other side in La Liga this season (18 goals).
- Lionel Messi has scored more goals (29), more goals from outside the box (7) and more direct free-kick goals (4) than any other player in the top five European leagues this season.
- Luis Suarez has scored eight goals in nine appearances against Espanyol in La Liga. Only against Real Madrid and Real Betis (nine) has he scored more often in the competition.
Player to Watch
A tough evening beckons for Espanyol on Saturday, with the defenders in particular, in for a long time on the pitch. And, if Lionel Messi is in as menacing a form as he was against Real Betis, the hosts could well make short work of their visitors. But, Mario Hermoso might have something to say on the matters.
Having broken into the Spanish national side over the course of this season, the 23-year-old is high on confidence. But, the challenge that beckons in the form of the in-form Barcelona side is quite a daunting one. However, it is also one that could be the making of the young defender, and it will be interesting to see how Hermoso takes up the responsibility of organizing the backline on Saturday.
Barcelona 3-0 Espanyol
Barcelona have started running rampant again, after a brief spell of poor attacking performances across all competitions. Their 4-1 win over Real Betis showed that they are in a hurry to wrap up the title as soon as possible before directing their attention towards the UEFA Champions League.
Espanyol, on the other hand, have continued their downward spiral, with qualification for European football next season highly unlikely. As far as the immediate task at hand is concerned, the Periquitos do not look like they can, in any way, shape or form, trouble their Catalan rivals, especially at Camp Nou.
Expect a comfortable evening for Ernesto Valverde’ men, which should see them increase their lead atop the La Liga table to 13 points before Atletico Madrid’s tricky away fixture at Alaves. The Hard Tackle predicts a 3-0 win for Barcelona, with Lionel Messi likely to affect the proceedings once again.