With Barcelona hosting Athletic Club on Tuesday, which line-up should Quique Setién pick for matchday 31 of La Liga?
After two crucial points dropped against Sevilla in the race for the La Liga title, Barcelona need to get back to winning ways on Tuesday against Athletic Club de Bilbao. It will not be easy, though. The Camp Nou will host a tense and high-intensity clash that now is a classic duel in Spanish football’s history. Barça will need to win no matter what this time.
With injuries to Frenkie de Jong and Sergi Roberto, manager Quique Setién will have to continue implementing changes, even if they already missed out the last game. With such absences, the dense schedule and the necessities in mind, what should Barça’s line-up be tomorrow night?
Marc-André ter Stegen
After securing four consecutive clean sheets in a row, Barcelona’s saviour in goal would be anxious to extend this unfamiliar record. Marc-André ter Stegen, for his marvellous services during build-up plays and unequalled flexibility, would be a crucial figure in Quique Setién’s starting XI. Unquestionably, one of the easier picks for the coach.
Marc-André ter Stegen searches for his fifth consecutive clean sheet | Photo by Imago
Gerard Piqué’s inclusion is bound to spark a massive debate. However, with Barcelona’s demanding schedule, there’s isn’t enough room to be able to provide rest to key players. Against a side like Athletic Club, who pose a massive threat aerially, Piqué’s services would be desperately required. In the air and on the ground, Samuel Umtiti and Ronald Araújo simply cannot match Piqué’s presence. Nonetheless, the ideal scenario would be to bring him off after a certain extent of time.
Clément Lenglet has started two out of the three league games so far and is yet to show any signs of fatigue. His partnership with Piqué has been nothing less than sublime. The Frenchman has earned himself some appreciable numbers with his solid performances giving Barça an enormous edge at the back. And, to be able to keep Athletic’s skillful forwards at bay, Lenglet’s inclusion would be decisive.
Nélson Semedo will once again be expected to start after Sergi Roberto was excluded from the 24-man squad list. The Catalan’s injury paved way for Semedo to start the last game and it’s fair to say that he did not disappoint one bit. The Portuguese international was a constant threat during the first half and displayed a commendable performance in defence. He would be looking to continue his fine form.
Jordi Alba’s addition in the line-up seems like another no-brainer with his incredible display against Sevilla helping his side maintain a 0–0 draw, which could have turned out to be worse. Considering he was suspended in the clash against Leganés, the Spaniard seems to be in good shape and will not require time off in tomorrow’s high magnitude fixture.
Rest for the ageing veteran Sergio Busquets is long overdue, but he is one of the few Barcelona players capable of making a positive impact on the field. Carrying plays majestically from the back, he is pivotal to the azulgranas‘ tranquil build-ups. Against a sturdy opposition like Athletic Club, Busi‘s assistance in midfield would be essential.
The inclusion of Riqui Puig would undeniably be a gamble given his age and inexperience, but taking risks like these are necessary at a club like Barcelona. If there’s one missing piece in Setién’s puzzle, it is lack of creativity and verticality on the field. Frenkie de Jong’s loss through injury could be made up for as long as Riqui is given the opportunity to start and express his dynamism on the field. The youngster is component enough to work in tight areas and progress forward.
“Anything is possible”
on whether Riqui Puig could start against Athletic Club
Before football’s interval, Iván Rakitić was a measly shadow of his former self. But lately, the Croat has brought a resurgence in his form, bringing flexibility and tactical awareness in his gameplay. After a successful outing against Leganés and Sevilla, he would be an influential figure to partner alongside someone as lively and forward thinking as Riqui Puig. The two midfielders would complement each others needs effectively.
Four in four, Lionel Messi has played every single game and every single minute for the Catalans so far. Notwithstanding, resting him on an occasion such as this one could prove to be detrimental for Barcelona. The dependence on him has woefully increased lately and without him on the field, the side is likely to malfunction. Despite the burden on him increasing, he is Barça’s glimmer of hope during this rough schedule.
After an incredibly silent performance from Luis Suárez at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, the Uruguayan has by no means earned the right to start for the second consecutive time. Returning from injury, it was evident that he wasn’t fully fit to be able to complete the full 90 minutes. Antoine Griezmann is also yet to leave a solid mark but, at the very least, he makes up for his inactivity in the final third with his defensive contributions. If Griezmann is able to rediscover his form, he could be an asset in many ways.
Ansu Fati’s electrifying performance against Leganés makes him the ideal contender to start this clash. He not only provides the team with ample width, but is also a clinical striker who spares nobody in goal. The youngster could add flexibility and energy on the left flank, something Barcelona frequently lacked against Sevilla.
3 things we learnt from Barcelona 3-0 Elche — A one-man attacking unit
On the back of a two-game winless run, which saw Barcelona mauled at the hands of PSG as well as drop points against Cádiz in the Camp Nou, the Catalans recorded a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Elche in the Nou Camp. Thanks to a brace from Lionel Messi and two assists from Martin Braithwaite, third-placed Barça kept up the pressure on their rivals up top.
It was, in many ways, a game of two halves for the hosts. In the opening 45 minutes, they struggled to generate any real chances on goal, and if not for a mistimed effort from Lucas Boyé, they easily could have been a goal down. Overall, a poor showing from the hosts in the first period.
Following a few structural changes from Ronald Koeman, the team’s shape improved and thus too their propensity to win. Elche were far more open defensively than in they were in the first half, and searching for blood, Barcelona took advantage of the slightest of spaces to punish their opponents. Their second-half performance should serve as a confidence boost ahead of their crucial league tie away at Sevilla this weekend.
1. A weary Messi seals all 3 points
Despite having scored a brace and played a large part in the creation of the third goal, Lionel Messi was far from his usual best for a large chunk of the match. Either due to a lack of motivation or fatigue due to the tight fixture schedule, his passing was off, and he lost plenty more balls than he usually would.
Following Ronald Koeman’s tactical adjustments, most notably with the entry of Ousmane Dembélé following Miralem Pjanić’s exit, the Argentine was a far more liberated figure in attack. By partnering up with Martin Braithwaite centrally, he became much more involved in play as he had all of zone 14 to himself.
Two minutes after the restart, he opened, scoring off a phenomenal backheel assist from the Dane and sealed his brace with a moment of individual brilliance as he slots the ball home past a helpless Badía. As the cherry on the top of the cake, La Pulga played a delightful dink into the Barça number 9, who then set up Jordi Alba for the third and final goal.
Even at 75% capacity, Messi was the best player on the pitch. His presence on the pitch, as always, was invaluable to the side.
2. Pjanić seals his fate
Miralem Pjanić has often been the first to complain about a lack of game-time, perhaps under the impression that there is a supposed conspiracy against him by the Barcelona manager. Offered an opportunity to prove himself against one of them minnows of La Liga, he once again proved to the Dutch manager precisely why he sits out so many games.
His first half was one of his individual worst in a Barcelona shirt, and possibly his most lethargic performance in years too. Tasked with playing in the pivot role, the Bosnian was meant to act as an anchor from which the team could find balance, but rather than give it, he took it away.
Either due to a misplaced pass, poor positioning, slow and poor releases of the ball — or all of the above —, barely anything went right for the 30-year old. Despite having periods in which his influence was helpful, many other actions he made took their toll on the team, and so much so that he had himself withdrawn from the team at the break.
It is rather unfortunate that he played in such a woeful manner, as given the sheer magnitude of Barcelona’s next three or four games, a good performance here could have earned him a spot. He did seal one, though, on the dugouts rather than on the pitch.
3. Back to midfield dominance?
Despite a myriad of problems under Ronald Koeman, the midfield has gradually taken back the importance bestowed upon it by legendary managers from Johan Cruyff through to Pep Guardiola. While Miralem Pjanić was a far cry from what one would call exceptional, his replacement in Sergio Busquets with 30 minutes to go as well as the two interiors in Pedro González and Frenkie de Jong were absolutely sensational.
When it comes to this Pedri, next to anything seems possible. On the night, bar his usual creative duties, the 18-year old was all over the pitch. As an artist with a paintbrush, his actions were skin to streaks of acrylic on a canvas to form the most majestic artwork. He desired to get as involved as he could with as many individuals as possible, also making up for others whenever in need. His pressing game was through the roof, as despite being designated the right halfspace, he was more than open to helping out up forward and out wide too.
As for De Jong, he reverted to his new-usual self. Contrary to the old, more conservative yesteryear version, the Dutch midfielder was a constant threat to the Valencians’ defence through his unmatchable dribbling and in-game awareness. Through his differential dexterity in this particular trade, he attacked the holes that Elche would leave behind, and it was in this was that he quite brilliantly set up Messi for his second of the game. Quite a commendable performance from him.
While nothing more than a cameo performance, Sergio Busquets offered all that Pjanić couldn’t and more. It seems as though he is gradually returning to his former self, with yet another exemplary performance. With him, ball circulation was a notch faster, and with it at his feet, there was a prevalent sense of security that could be sensed with every pass to and from him.