Barcelona play their first game of the new year tonight knowing that no matter how good 2010 is, it will struggle to match the accomplishments of 2009. A bus containing the six trophies which Barca won last year is doing a 110-stop tour of Catalonia, with each destination representing one year in the club's 110-year history. While the players maintain that they want to keep winning trophies, they are at the mercy of factors such as luck, or much improved rivals in the shape of Real Madrid. Their fans are starting to feel more hopeful, especially after Cristiano Ronaldo stated that "Madrid will be the best team of 2010".
Similar optimism is less misplaced at Barca, where defender Dani Alves returned early from the Christmas break to train of his own accord. The Brazilian is confident of another great year. "We want to write more pages to our story," he said. "We can't just stop after one page. I know what our coach is like and he will not let us relax. He has told us that we will only keep on winning if we maintain our ambition. With the experience we have, I honestly think that Barca can improve."
While the rest of football would shudder at such a prospect, Barca fans are content to celebrate their successes. The trophy bus will not travel as far south as Villarreal, home of tonight's opponents at Camp Nou. Alarm bells were ringing at El Madrigal following their worst start to a Primera Liga season, in which an injury-hit side failed to win in their first seven matches. Villarreal may be from a town of just 42,000 and lost their coach Manuel Pellegrini to Real Madrid in the summer, but more is expected of a club who have become Champions League regulars. Their season has improved of late with six wins from eight league games following their first win against Malaga in October.
Ernesto Valverde's team have managed just a solitary away victory, at Atletico Madrid, but the Yellow Submarines have climbed from bottom to ninth. Given the talent and strength of their squad, they are expected to continue rising into the European places they are used to occupying, though a victory at Barcelona against a side who have a 100 per cent home record may be beyond them. Villarreal are obstinate opponents who have beaten Barca several times in recent years and only narrowly lost 2-1 in the corresponding fixture last season, while drawing 3-3 at home to the Catalans in May.
Lionel Messi and Rafael Marquez will be absent as they have been given extra leave to spend time with their families in Argentina and Mexico respectively. They will have plenty of opportunities when they return; Barca have nine games in January, including three against an always strong Sevilla. Barca will also be without Yaya Toure, who has joined his Ivory Coast teammates ahead of the African Cup of Nations which starts next week. Several Spanish clubs will lose key players for the tournament and Sevilla will be without the Ivorian Didier Zokora and the Malian Freddie Kanoute for their game at Atletico Madrid tonight. Barca's Seydou Keita is hoping to overcome injury and join up with the Mali squad.
Another Malian, Real Madrid's Mahamadou Diarra, will be absent for their game at Osasuna tomorrow. The concerns of the Spanish clubs pale into comparison with France's Ligue 1, who will lose 56 players to the tournament, including 14 from Nice. firstname.lastname@example.org Barcelona v Villarreal, 11pm, Aljazeera Sport +2