LaLiga leaders Barcelona will play host to Sevilla on Sunday.
Here, we take a look at all the talking points ahead of the high-voltage clash.
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Barca’s defensive record is getting plain silly. Tuesday’s clean sheet in the Champions League 0-0 draw at Olympiacos means that they have now gone 361 minutes without conceding since the Greek team grabbed a late consolation in their 3-1 loss at Camp Nou last month.
And that’s not an isolated achievement because Barca have been defensively supreme throughout the season, allowing just four goals in 15 games – a very large reason, it goes without saying, for their position at the top of the table.
Occasionally, such as in last weekend’s win at Athletic Bilbao, maintaining that record has been down to heroic goalkeeping from Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who has recovered from his occasional jitters of early last season to provide a truly commanding presence between the posts, especially when you add his excellent ball distribution skills to his shop-stopping abilities.
But there have been plenty of other games where ter Stegen hasn’t even had that much to do, thanks to a very solid defensive block based on the increasingly convincing partnership between Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti, who has probably been Barca’s second best outfield player (behind you-know-who) this season.
Although their overall play is lacking fluency, there’s not too much wrong with Barca’s defensive set-up and if they maintain this form, they can even afford for Luis Suarez to continue to miss chances every week.
Barcelona have been hit by a mini-injury crisis in midfield this week, with Sergi Roberto and Andre Gomes both suffering injuries during the Champions League stalemate at Olympiacos which will keep them out of action until December, while captain Andres Iniesta is a doubt after only just recovering from injury.
That could open up a space in the midfield for coach Ernesto Valverde to fill, and in the absence of any other options it will probably be taken by Denis Suarez, who could finally get a chance which many fans believe he should have been granted long ago.
Denis, who had a year on loan at Sevilla in 2014/15, has played less than three hours of league football so far this season, but he has made the most of those minutes by scoring two goals and registering two assists, leaving many fans perplexed why he has not been granted more opportunities.
Valverde still has another option in the form of talented but inconsistent Gerard Deulofeu, but at the very least Denis must now be the first option from the bench to finally establish himself as an important player for the team. And with Gomes, Roberto, Rafinha, Arda Turan and possibly Iniesta all out injured, if he can’t do it now he probably never will.
It’s been a strange season for Sevilla, who started off the campaign by picking up a series of decent results without playing well but then absolutely collapsed, losing three consecutive games including a 5-1 Champions League thrashing at Spartak Moscow and a 4-0 demolition at Valencia.
That trauma even sparked speculation that coach Eduardo Berizzo, a summer appointment from Celta Vigo, was in danger of being fired despite only being a few weeks into his new job.
Since then, however, Sevilla have mounted something of a recovery and they come into this weekend’s game at Camp Nou on the back of three straight wins, culminating in Wednesday’s much-needed 2-1 Champions League victory over Spartak.
Even more encouragingly for the Andalusians, they seem to be starting to find their feet under Berizzo, looking a more complete and compact team with versatile midfielder Pablo Sarabia and playmaker Ever Banega, who scored the second goal in midweek, particularly coming to the fore.
Nothing could help Sevilla further build up their growing confidence than causing an upset against the league leaders, and Barca can certainly take nothing for granted.
Barcelona duo Sergi Roberto and Andre Gomes will be sidelined for around a month after picking up hamstring injuries in Tuesday’s 0-0 draw at Olympiakos, the club confirmed on Wednesday.
Roberto, who has featured more often at right-back than his preferred central midfield role under Ernesto Valverde, hobbled off at half-time in Athens, whilst Portuguese international Gomes only featured for the final 15 minutes.
“The midfielder from Reus (Roberto) has a torn right hamstring which will keep him out for approximately five weeks,” Barca said in a statement.
“(Gomes) with an injury in his right hamstring will be sidelined for around three to four weeks.”
Both players will miss league games against Sevilla and Leganes, as well as a Champions League trip to Juventus.
However, Gomes could be in contention to face his old club Valencia in a top of the table La Liga clash on November 25 or 26.
Despite drawing a blank in a Champions League group game for the first time in five years, Barca remain well on course to reach the last 16 as they hold a three-point lead over Juventus with a point in Turin enough to also guarantee top spot in Group D.
On Saturday night, the best playmaker in the world sparked an attack for his team by stroking a perfectly weighted pass perfectly into the path of the overlapping full-back.
When the cross came into the middle, the best goalscorer in the world was in the right position to finish off the move with a crisp and decisive finish, catching out the opposition goalkeeper by imparting so much pace on the ball despite meeting it so early.
What a great goal it was, and all made possible by the brilliance of two superb players.
Oh, wait a minute…it wasn’t two players. It was one player.
The best playmaker in the world, the man who delivered the initial pass for Jordi Alba, was Lionel Messi. And then the best goalscorer in the world, lurking in the box to beat home keeper Kepa with his adroit finish, was…Lionel Messi.
Of course, watching Messi score goals is nothing new. He’s been doing so at a rate of 50+ per season for the last decade, and the sight of Barca’s talisman wheeling away in delight after netting a crucial match winner for his team is nothing new.
However, the increased responsibility he is taking for creating chances – playing in the traditional ‘number ten’ role – is a relatively new development, and has three main explanations.
Firstly, there is the necessity. Pep Guardiola’s Barca teams were orchestrated by the relentless control over possession exerted by Xavi and Andres Iniesta, but since Xavi left and Iniesta entered into age-related decline, nobody has really stepped up to fill their boots in midfield.
Of course, directly replacing a player like Xavi is impossible but by allowing Thiago Alcantara to join Bayern Munich and failing to recruit stellar playmakers such as Isco, Barca left themselves with a massive hole in the role that Xavi and Iniesta used to fill. So Messi is having to do it himself.
Secondly, along with the necessity Messi also had the opportunity to become a goal-maker as well as a goal-taker when he played in the now-defunct ‘MSN’ front three alongside Luis Suarez and Neymar.
Being part of a forward line with scintillating chemistry alongside two superb players who were both capable of finishing off the chances he created, Messi – after his move to the right wing – became more and more adept at delivering perfectly weighted and angled balls into the penalty box, where he knew they would be met by his hungry teammates.
Of course, that triumvirate has now been broken up but it accelerated a shift in Messi’s approach to the game, which has been retained now that he has returned to his ‘false nine’ position as a deep-lying forward with the freedom to drop into midfield.
The third and final reason for Messi’s evolution into a playmaker is personal: his age.
Now 30, Messi knows that he cannot forever continue to make darting runs all over the pitch and in behind defenders, and he will have to adapt his game in response to the inevitable slowing down of his body.
Playing in the hole in front of a solid midfield block and behind a striker like Suarez rather than leading the line himself, Messi can reduce the physical workload he undertakes and therefore – let us all hope – extend his career by at least another couple of years.
It’s similar to the change in position adopted by Cristiano Ronaldo, who is no longer a flying winger surging from end of the pitch to the other, and instead contents himself with playing almost exclusively in and around the opposition penalty box.
Messi can be seen as currently going through a similar transition as he becomes an attacking midfielder, chiefly responsible for building his team’s attacking moves rather than finishing them off.
Because he is close to superhuman, however, at the moment he’s able to do both those things: starting moves and then scoring goals he has helped to create.
But even Messi can’t continue to do that forever, and in the coming years it’s likely we’ll see a gradual decline in his scoring figures as he focuses more on creation than execution.
The good news is that he’s more than capable of doing so. In fact, he’s already the best in the business.