Reborn Villarreal promises to be a test for Barca

Posted by Dermot Ledwith

Barca go into Saturday’s clash with Villarreal looking to build on their superb performance in the 6-1 thrashing of Celtic on Wednesday.

However, the "Yellow Submarine" also have a penchant for attractive football, sitting fifth in La Liga, and will be no pushovers at the Camp Nou.

- Martino wants more of the same from Barca
- Villarreal's Dos Santos upbeat
- Hunter: Villarreal's road to recovery

A fascinating game is in prospect that will go a long way to revealing how far both clubs have come this season. Newly promoted Villarreal have a young, talented side performing way ahead of expectations that is in a straight fight with Athletic Bilbao for the fourth Champions League place at the moment.

Villarreal traditionally do well at Camp Nou and have lost only six times in 13 outings since winning 3-1 there in their first season in La Primera in 1998. They have twice gone back and repeated that feat since with 2-1 victories in 2000-01 and 2007-08, so history says the team from the ceramics town north of Valencia has a good chance of getting at least a point.

Meanwhile, the first storm clouds that seemed to be gathering for Tata Martino after consecutive defeats in Amsterdam and Bilbao have been blown away by cup wins in the past week against Cartagena and Celtic that have allowed the atmosphere to settle in "Can Barca."

Indeed, it has been an eventful week at Barcelona. That performance against Celtic, including two goals proceeded by 26 and 40 consecutive Blaugrana passes, suggests Martino has resorted back to a more tried-and-tested tiki-taka passing game to get Barca back on track.

More will be expected from Neymar after his three goals, and the doubt will be where Cesc Fabregas is employed after serving a suspension against Celtic. Neymar was breathtaking against the Scots from a central position and should be allowed to continue with that freedom. That could mean Fabregas playing in a deeper role alongside Andres Iniesta, who watched the Celtic game from the bench.

Marc Bartra also missed out against Celtic, not even making the bench, but he is tipped for a return to the centre of defence next to Gerard Pique.

With a meaningless second leg of the Spanish Cup to come Tuesday before next weekend’s trip to Getafe, Martino has plenty of options to shuffle his pack. Jordi Alba is available again, and Dani Alves is back in training and could be back in time for the next week's games.

Villarreal will be more of a test than Celtic but could have their most important player missing. Ruben Gracia, professionally known as Cani, has an ankle injury that could see him miss the game, and that can only be a good thing for Barca.

Cani signed for the club the summer after Villarreal came so close to beating Arsenal in a Champions League semi for a place in the final against Barcelona in 2005-06. Since then, he has been a mainstay, making things tick in the centre of midfield, rarely missing a game and being one of the best current Spanish players to never get a chance at international level.

His absence would be key, but Barca will need to keep an eye on old boy Giovani Dos Santos, who finally appears to have found his perfect home at El Madrigal. The Mexican has seven goals this season, and his technique and speed are the perfect attacking assets to his side’s quick passing play.

Gio’s form and determination to hurt Barca will be a danger. The elder brother of Jonathan Dos Santos, Gio joined Barca at the age of 11 and made the first team in 2007-08 but was farmed out to Tottenham the summer after and played for a number of other teams before signing for Villarreal last summer. The quality was always there in his play, but now he is showing it on a regular basis.

On top of the two wins this week, there has been talk of new stadiums, a sponsorship deal with Intel that sees the brand name on the inside of the shirt and constant chatter about the absent Lionel Messi, who is fighting his way back to fitness in Argentina.

Rounding it off with a convincing victory over an above-average Villarreal side would be the icing on the cake; anything less and the storm clouds will gather once again. As always at Barcelona, there is little margin for error.


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