x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

No respite for battered Barcelona

Barcelona face another big test tonight as Villarreal are on a roll and have eyes on a Champions League place.

Villarreal's Joan Capdevilla, right, and Mateo Musacchio double team Sevilla's Luis Fabiano.
Villarreal's Joan Capdevilla, right, and Mateo Musacchio double team Sevilla's Luis Fabiano.

BARCELONA // Barcelona's difficult week is not likely to get any easier tonight. The Catalans, bruised and battered after their midweek Champions League elimination by Inter Milan, have a difficult away game at a much-improved Villarreal. Following a poor start to the season which led to coach Ernesto Valverde's replacement by Juan Carlos Garrido, who used to manage the club's B team, Villarreal have risen steadily up the Primera Liga table to sixth place. Garrido had made their reserves the best in Spain, a position they still hold, and they are two points off automatic promotion to the Primera Liga. Unfortunately, league rules would prevent Villarreal B from playing alongside their first team in the top flight next season. Seldom has so much quality football been lavished on so few as it has on the people of the town with a population of just 42,000 between Barcelona and Valencia on Spain's Mediterranean coast.

Villarreal's first team are similarly well positioned. With their eyes on the fourth Champions league spot, they have won five of their last six matches and are ranked third in the form table over the past two months. They sit just four points off that coveted fourth spot, held by a Real Mallorca, and two behind Sevilla. Barca do not got a good record at El Madrigal. They have won four, drawn one and lost five of their visits and drew the equivalent game 3-3 last season.

To worry the Catalans further, Villarreal's form at home is formidable. Only Barca, Real Madrid and Mallorca have better records, with the Yellow Submarines having lost just twice in 17 home games. Diego Godin, the 24-year-old centre-back, has been a surprise goalscorer in their last three victories and the Uruguayan international is a threat in the air from set-pieces. He is playing in a team in transition, but Villarreal can thank several of their ageing stars for their recent rise. Joan Capdevilla, 32, the left-back, has played the most games this season, while his Spanish international teammate Marcos Senna, 34, remains crucial. Others have more uncertain futures. Javi Venta, 35, at right-back, will leave at the end of the season and Robert Pires, 36, the French World Cup winner, is out of contract.

The older players have featured more than they might have expected because of injuries to key men such as winger Santiago Cazorla and striker Joseba Llorente. "Barcelona need victory and we hope to take advantage of their anxiety and nervousness," Senna told reporters. "We are going for a win because we need three points too." Despite the unruly scenes which followed Barca's midweek elimination, the Catalans have been magnanimous in defeat, with both coach Pep Guardiola and outgoing club president Joan Laporta congratulating Inter.

"We have to win all four league games and make sure that we are champions," Laporta told the media. "The players are devastated but I offered them words of pride and encouragement. I told them to look ahead and get over the setback. They have to play out of their skins to win the league. They are better placed than anyone right now." Barca have a one-point lead over Real Madrid, who have a home game against mid-table Osasuna tomorrow night.

"We have to regroup," said Barca defender Gerrard Pique. "We are disappointed not to be going to for the final [of the Champions League], but we have to know how to lose as well as win. We need to raise our heads and concentrate on winning the league, starting the Villarreal game." sports@thenational.ae Villarreal v Barca, midnight, Aljazeera Sport + 2