LaLiga: Rotation key for FC Barcelona as battle for Europe heats up; all eyes on the Luis Suarez derby
The battle for the European places in LaLiga is heating up and it’s set to be a bumper weekend with mouth-watering clashes across the league, no more so than Real Betis’ trip to Villarreal on Sunday night, which is crucial for both sides’ European hopes.
Gerard Moreno’s return for Villarreal is vital, and this is a must-win game for them if they’re to maintain serious ambitions of qualifying for the Champions League.
Last week they were 2-0 up at half-time away to struggling Elche and it was disappointing they couldn’t win that game, as they have the squad to push for the top four. They qualified for the Europa League last season and after appointing Unai Emery they want to improve, so top four must be the aim.
There’s a pattern emerging that sees Villarreal let their leads slip away, and this is why they’ve drawn 12 times already this season, the most in the division.
Real Betis were impressive despite losing late on to Barcelona last weekend. They continue to show good form in 2021, with Borja Iglesias scoring once again and a positive performance going forward.
I’m really intrigued to see how this game pans out with Manuel Pellegrini coming up against his former team. And how will Emery set his side up if they do score the first goal – will they attack to extend their lead or sit back and try to hold on? – so it should be a fascinating watch.
On Saturday afternoon it’s a Luis Suárez derby, as Atletico’s Uruguayan striker comes up against his namesake at Granada, the Colombian striker. Strangely, they’re quite similar in style; both are known for their tenacity and are good finishers.
The Atleti striker is in blistering form and, as they say in England, ‘he scores when he wants’ this season. He has an extraordinary record of 15 goals from just 21 shots on target this term. While the Granada man hasn’t been as prolific as that, he has been a real handful for defenders, and I expect both defences to fear Luis Suárez on Saturday.
Granada is a well-run club, with excellent infrastructure, one of the best training grounds in Spain and arguably the brightest young manager in LaLiga, but they are still punching well above their weight.
At the start of the season, I thought a successful campaign for Granada would’ve been to stay up because they overachieved last year. However, they’re doing the same this year and knocking on the door of European football.
Another team with European qualification in mind is Sevilla, and they certainly won’t have it all their own way this week as they host SD Huesca – who have shown a revival in recent weeks and have more hope of survival. I have no doubt they’ll make this a difficult task for Julen Lopetegui’s side.
But in attack, Sevilla should be too dangerous, and their front man Youssef En-Neysri is a player that continues to prove me wrong. He’s on fire right now and is having the best season of his career, which attracted interest from West Ham in January.
He can be quite frustrating at times with his decision making and his first touch, but mentally he is phenomenal. Last year, he missed an open goal in the Super Cup defeat to Bayern Munich but bounced straight back with a goal in the league.
Another striker who’s known for his mental fortitude is Harry Kane and I remember playing against the Spurs striker when he was on-loan at Leicester in the Championship. Even then, you could see the talent there, in the first touch and the finishing.
So far, I am yet to have the same feeling watching En-Neysri, but he continues to prove me wrong and if he can find consistency, who knows what level he can get to.
Sevilla further strengthened their attacking options with arguably the signing of the January window, picking up Papu Gómez from Atalanta. Gómez provides something that was missing from their side – flair and creativity – and he’s a very exciting addition to LaLiga and should start this game.
Barcelona suffered defeat to Sevilla in the first leg of the Copa Del Rey semi-final in midweek, which will have dented their confidence and halted their momentum.
Recently, Barcelona have been making individual errors in defence and they don’t look solid without the ball. But with the ball, and in attack, they’re arguably the most dangerous team in the league. In LaLiga they have been on a great run and must keep that same belief that’s got them to where they are now.
Squad depth has not traditionally been an issue for Barcelona, but with the amount of games and injuries they’ve had recently, their options were limited in midweek and it was Sevilla who were able to bring players off the bench to change the game.
Squad depth and rotation will play a key role in a crucial month for Barca. We’ve seen Pedri and Araújo already step up this season and it was promising to see Francisco Trincão score the winner against Real Betis last Sunday. We’ve always known Trincão has the quality, but he needs to build his confidence, so hopefully this will turn it around for him and I expect to see him start against Alavés. Barcelona will need their young players to step up with big fixtures coming thick and fast this month, one of them being the Champions League fixture against Paris Saint-Germain next week.
I spoke to Trincão recently and he has the right mentality, he knows he needs to keep improving and take his chance when it comes, and he was able to do that at Betis. Even though Barcelona didn’t pay any money for me, I know how difficult the pressure can be at that age, but he knows where he can improve. He’s a wiry winger who has a fantastic shot on him and he will be important in squad rotation.
Sevilla imposed themselves on the ball in the cup victory in midweek and that didn’t suit Barcelona – Alavés will need to do the same on Saturday night if they’re to have a chance to win. Lucas Pérez was back in the side in their win over Valladolid, and his partnership with Joselu will be crucial for them avoiding relegation.