Barcelona return to La Liga action on Sunday evening with a trip to El Madrigal to take on high flying Villarreal. The trip down the East coast is the first of two games in four days that could really shape the clubs campaign in 2017. Sunday nights game is a must win as Barcelona currently trail Real Madrid by six points after Real’s win over Granada on Saturday so it’s crucial that Barça close the gap at the top of the table. On Wednesday Barcelona host Athletic Club in the second leg of the Copa del Rey with the Basque side holding a 2-1 lead after Thursday’s first leg at San Mames. Should Barcelona lose these games they would essentially be playing for just the Champions League with over four months of football left this season. With the talent in the squad such an outcome would be completely unacceptable.

Villarreal will come into the game full of confidence as they came into this weekend sitting fourth in La Liga. They have an excellent home record with six wins, a draw and one defeat in their eight home league fixtures so far this season. Defensively they have been sublime and they have the best defensive record in La Liga with just 11 goals conceded in 16 games. In their last home game they beat Atlético 3-0 and they have every right to feel confident that they can get a result against this Barcelona team.

Villarreal had a difficult start to the season after surprisingly sacking Marcelino just ten days before their opening league game. Fran Escribá was named as his replacement a day later and in truth the appointment was criticised by most observers. Escribá started with no wins in his first four games which included losing home and away to Monaco in the Champions League Playoff Round but after that poor start he has got to grips with the job and the team are now well placed to push for another top four finish in La Liga.

Coming into this games Escribá will have to make do without Denis Cheryshev and Roberto Soldado who are injured as well as Cédric Bakumbu who will represent DR Congo in the Africa Cup of Nations that starts next weekend. Escribá should have Brazilian striker, Alexandre Pato available but should he miss out Santos Borré will be ready to take his place in attack alongside this season’s top goal scorer, Nicola Sansone.

Barcelona come into the game with almost a full squad at Luis Enrique’s disposal with only backup goalkeeper, Jasper Cillessen unavailable. Everyone else is available but it remains to be seen what lineup Luis Enrique will go with. Based on Thursday night’s performance against Athletic Club the manager would be wise to make some changes as the performance simply wasn’t good enough regardless of some big mistakes from the referee. Jordi Alba and Ivan Rakitic seem to be the most likely to miss out with Lucas Digne and André Gomes likely to replace them. Another doubt could be Andrés Iniesta with the veteran midfielder finding his minutes being heavily managed this season, and after playing 90 minutes on Thursday he could find himself on the bench although this writer is of the belief that this would be a big mistake such is the importance of the captain to this team.

It’s difficult to know exactly what’s going on or what to expect with Barcelona this season with the only consistent factor being their inconsistency. Thursday night’s 2-1 defeat to Athletic in the Copa del Rey was hugely disappointing after a strong finish to 2016 but in truth no major damage was done with the tie still in a manageable position. However, should Barcelona slip up here it would be increasingly difficult to imagine clawing back the gap at the top of La Liga. At present Real Madrid have been on an excellent run and deservedly top the table but Barcelona need to keep putting the pressure on them so that when they eventually do drop points the gap becomes manageable with one more league Clásico still to come later in the season. On their day, Barcelona can beat anyone in the world but the truth is those days haven’t come often enough this season and even when they have they have often been restricted to a half here and there which is a real worry for the club.

There can be no doubt that a large number of Barcelona fans are growing increasingly frustrated with results and once again there has been criticism of Luis Enrique. The situation is similar to this time two years ago when the team underperformed against Real Sociedad and lost their first game after the winter break. On that occasion things worked out very well and Cules would love to believe that something similar is just around the corner but at the moment there are more questions than answers. Why has movement off the ball ground to a halt? What has happened to Ivan Rakitic? Why do Messi, Suarez and Neymar look like three strangers? We can only hope that Luis Enrique and the team know the answers to these questions and El Madrigal on Sunday evening would be the perfect place to start answering them.

Referee

Sunday nights game will be refereed by Iglesias Villanueva. Barça have won four and lost one of their last five games under the gaze of Villanueva. In those five games he has booked seven Barcelona players and gave the team one penalty.

In Villarreal’s last five with Villanueva in charge they won once, drew twice and lost twice. He has booked nine Villarreal players and sent off two off. He has awarded Villarreal one penalty.

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