Barcelona Vs Villarreal
Monday, 28th August 2011 (20:00 Kick-Off, GMT)
Nobody has been able to get anywhere near Pep Guardiola’s charges for a few years now, with only a resilient, well-organised Jose Mourinho Inter Milan side getting anywhere close. But after watching the recent Spanish SuperCopa final between the Catalan giants and Real Madrid, who are, of course, managed – if you can call it that now – by Barca’s Portuguese nemesis, the ‘Special One’, I’m beginning to sense a change in the guard.
In spite of their 5-4 aggregate defeat in the Spanish Super Cup, I’m of no doubt that Madrid have closed the gap. There is, however, still some daylight there, but the deficit is now small enough for Jose Mourinho’s men to be serious La Liga challengers this season. It is, of course, easy to claim that they weren’t last season with the benefit of starring intently at the final standings from last season; although Los Merengues finished a mere four points behind Barca, they only ever applied pressure in the first quarter of the term. However thereafter it was plain sailing for the Catalans, who could even afford a lousy finish by their ridiculously high standards of just two wins from their last five league games.
I strongly suspect it will be a different story altogether this season now that Barcelona themselves, after being pushed hard in their SuperCopa victory and having seen the progress Mourinho’s team has made over the summer, know full well the challenge from their Madrid rivals will be far stronger and more sustained over the course of the next nine months. The pressure which comes from knowing any slip-up can and will be punished should lead to the team who have been dubbed the greatest ever by pundits, universally, justifying Mourinho’s decision to plug away at the Bernabeu – that this current crop of Catalunia legends are still human, after all.
Before April, 2010, which was basically when Barcelona had La Liga wrapped up, Guardiola had guided his team to 24 victories, just three draws and one solitary, shock defeat to Hercules. So irony being then that in a season where pretty much everyone else bar the top-two – who are so far ahead it’s unbelievable – appear slightly weaker on paper than they were a year ago, I believe the two El Clasico encounters won’t be as influential on deciding who takes the coveted La Liga title.
There will be slip-ups now that Real are genuinely breathing down Lionel Messi & Co’s necks, as the latter now know full well that their arch rivals can up their level of intensity and performance in the Derby duels, meaning dropping points elsewhere has never been so critical.
Even after all my Hollywood hype, pinpointing actual fixtures where either could come a cropper in isn’t straightforward. Atletico Madrid are certainly interesting. Sergio Aguero has gone while it would appear Diego Forlan, who was on the wane anyhow, is on the cusp of joining Inter Milan, but in return the club have brought in Turkey winger Arda Turan and last season’s Europa League top-scorer, Radamel Falcao.
Sevilla will also be dangerous so long as Alvaro Negredo spearheads their attack. Valencia may have parted company with Juan Mata but their squad, in terms of quality, is probably the third strongest in Spain. While Malaga’s mass spending over the summer, bringing in the likes of Jeremy Toulalan, Joaquin, Santi Cazorla and Ruud Van Nistlerooy is exciting even though I don’t expect them to land the top-four finish they are being touted for.
The one oversight there is Villarreal, and that could be a common occurrence this season, people overlooking the fact that The Yellow Submarine, despite losing Santi Cazorla and full-back Joan Capdevila without adding great deal in the form of replacements, are still a very tidy outfit that will remain a side everyone in La Liga will dread playing for three reasons: El Madrigal, and their formidable strike-force of Brazil’s Nilmar and Italy’s Giuseppe Rossi.
Between them, Rossi and Nilmar notched 50 goals in all competitions last season. They’re a prolific front duo! And while the club is a little light on creativity, especially in midfield, so long as they can keep their ruthless forwards happy off the pitch but on their toes on it, then I see no reason why they can’t hold their own this season, and by that I mean compete against the big teams over 90 minutes but also retain their top-four status.
The reason I highlight Villarreal is that they are first to visit the Camp Nou this season. Those fortunate so-and-so’s. It will, as it always is, be a massive ask for Javier Garrido’s boys to take anything from this game, a feat they last managed just two seasons ago interestingly, but they have been one of only a select few to regularly trouble Pep Guardiola’s men in Catalonia.
Villarreal, who will be spearheaded once again by Nilmar and Rossi, the latter having netted twice in last week’s Europa League play-off win over Odense, have scored on each of their last four visits to the formidable home of Barcelona, while two of those aforementioned encounters ended in draws (2008/2009: 3-3, 2009/2010: 1-1). To even take points off Barcelona may be asking too much of my Yellow friends, but it’s about the only thing worth backing in a fixture where the hosts are unsurprisingly well odds-on to win, that and Villarreal maintaining their trend of scoring.
I’ll also have some of the action on Rossi, who rarely misses an opportunity in and around the opposing 18-yard box and does crucially take penalties. It helps that he does convert most of those too, something which is a rarity in the Barclay’s Premier League at the minute.
2011/2012 La Liga Tips