preview | 2017-01-13
Match Preview - La Liga Round 18 - Barcelona vs Las Palmas
Barcelona return to La Liga action on Saturday with Luis Enrique’s men aiming to put pressure on Real Madrid and Sevilla
Barcelona have won their last four home games in all competitions but they will face a tough test against a Las Palmas team that have been earning a lot of admiration for their attractive style of play. Quique Setién has done a great job since taking over from Paco Herrera in October 2015 and his side have averaged 57.7% possession in their league games so far which is the second best record in La Liga with Barcelona (62.7%) the only side to have enjoyed more of the ball than the side from Gran Canaria. Las Palmas are currently 8th in La Liga with 24 points from their 17 games and many observers consider them to be one of the best sides to watch in the top flight.
While Las Palmas have been doing well there is a clear difference in their home and away form which is somewhat unsurprising when you consider that their shortest away trip is over 1400 kilometres (Sevilla/Real Betis). In their eight away games in La Liga, Las Palmas have won just once (Valencia) and drawn twice (Osasuna and Alaves).Their home form is much better and they are yet to lose at Estadio de Gran Canaria (five wins and four draws). Las Palmas’ trip to Barcelona for this game will see them over 2400 kilometres from home which is the longest away trip in La Liga. As if travelling that distance isn’t tough enough Setién will also be without Pedro Bigas and Hernán while Dani Castellano, Sergio Araujo and David Simon are also doubtful for the game against the defending champions.
The biggest threats to Barcelona will come from Kevin-Prince Boateng (five goals), Jonathan Viera (four goals, three assists) and Marko Livaja (four goals, three assists) who have all been in good form for Las Palmas this season. Viera has been particularly impressive in central midfield and he is really thriving in the current system. Las Palmas’ biggest weakness is probably their defence and with Bigas already ruled out and Dani Castellano a doubt this is an area Barcelona can look to exploit in what is a must win game for Luis Enrique’s men.
Barcelona should come into the game with more confidence than they have in recent weeks after a morale boosting Copa del Rey win over Athletic Club on Thursday night. Pressure was building on Luis Enrique and his team after two disappointing results to begin 2017 but they bounced back in style with a 3-1 win which saw them reach the quarter-finals 4-3 on aggregate. The game itself started relatively slowly with Barcelona once again cautious in possession throughout the opening stages but once they got the opener the team settled down into a rhythm and even Barcelona born Enric Saborit’s (he qualifies to play for Athletic due to his Basque mother) goal that levelled the tie at 3-3 wasn’t enough to slow Barcelona down as they continued to push for a winner when it might have been easier to adopt a safety first approach as one more goal would have handed Athletic a big away goal advantage.
Perhaps the biggest thing to come from the win over Athletic was the performance of Rafinha. The Brazilian midfielder was full of energy throughout and provided the perfect foil for Lionel Messi to have a big influence on the game. The third midfield slot has been a big issue for Barça this season with Rafinha, Ivan Rakitic, André Gomes, Arda Turan and Denis Suárez all seeing time in the role and Luis Enrique seemingly undecided in who is best suited to playing there. Will he stick with Rafinha or will he give one of the others a chance? This writer is of the belief that Barcelona would be better served by working toward having a settled team for the remainder of the season as up to now no time has been allowed for any of the contenders to build a partnership with Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta which has at times led to a negative impact on performances.
At the moment it looks as though Luis Enrique will have the full squad at his disposal with Neymar the only player to miss Thursday’s recovery session after the Athletic game but the Brazilian star, who ended his recent goal drought on Wednesday night, is expected to be available for Saturday’s game. Unless Lucho decides to rotate some of his stars for the Copa del Rey quarter-final in midweek it is expected he will go with the strongest eleven with the only question marks being the areas he usually rotates (left back, centre back and central midfield). Jordi Alba and Samuel Umtiti both started in midweek against Athletic and should be retained after solid performances but if the manager decides to make changes the replacements will be Lucas Digne and Javier Mascherano.
Saturday’s game promises to be an intriguing one as La Liga’s two biggest ball hawks go head to head. Both sides are better with the ball so while the battle to take control of the game and dictate the tempo will be an interesting one it will be equally as important to work hard and play well when not in possession. Barcelona have struggled against similar opponents this season with Real Sociedad being the first team since Bayern Munich in 2015 to have more possession in a game than Barcelona. Barça really struggled in that game and in truth the 1-1 scoreline flattered Luis Enrique’s team. Las Palmas will come into this game in a similar fashion and Barcelona will have to be ready for that which means they will have to do better when it comes to pressing the opposition than they have in recent games. Las Palmas will be quite happy to pass the ball around all day in one of their toughest away games of the season and Barça will need to press them high up the pitch if they are to enjoy the bulk of possession in this game.
There’s little doubt that Barcelona will be favourites to win this game as the difference in quality between the squads is night and day but Las Palmas should not be underestimated as they have already enjoyed wins over Atlético Madrid and Athletic Club as well as drawing with Real Madrid this season. While Barcelona got the win on Wednesday night it wasn’t exactly comfortable and the team doesn’t quite have that swagger that they enjoy when they are at their mesmerising best. This is undoubtedly a must win game with Barcelona currently third in La Liga behind Real Madrid and Sevilla. At the moment the title race is very much in Real Madrid’s hands but they have a tough game against Sevilla on Sunday evening and if they are to slip up in that game it is crucial that Luis Enrique’s side avoid the potential banana skin that lies in wait on Saturday afternoon.
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WRITTEN BY: Gerry Johnston
Gerry Johnston is a 31 year old Civil Servant from County Antrim, Ireland. Gerry has been writing about football for various websites since Euro 2012 and he has been a Barcelona fan since the mid 90s.