Barcelona travel to Real Sociedad on Sunday night, looking to extend their nine-point advantage over second-placed Atletico Madrid at the top of the La Liga table.
Here, we look at three key talking points:
IS OUSMANE DEMBELE CLOSE TO HIS BEST LEVEL ALREADY?
At 20, the world’s third most expensive player will only get better – and that’s a mouthwatering prospect for Barcelona.
Whilst the former Borussia Dortmund man is still finding his feet following a long lay-off with a hamstring injury, we saw glimpses on Thursday, in the Copa del Rey against Celta Vigo, that it won’t take the attacker a great deal of time to get fully back into his stride.
Three substitute appearances on the bounce have helped him settle back in to the La Liga leaders’ line-up and that 32-minute cameo just a couple of days ago lit-up the Camp Nou in the 5-0 second leg cup romp.
Late on, from a corner, Dembele put the ball on a plate for Ivan Rakitic to head home – showcasing his ability to deliver via his right foot, as well as his favoured left. Generally, he was a towering presence, down the right flank in particular, dribbling the ball at pace, winning five out of six individual duels and constantly looking for a killer pass.
Having recovered from a slight niggle it will be interesting to see whether Ernesto Valverde decides to give the France international his first start in a Barca jersey since September or bring his freshness on from the bench as Sergio Busquets looks like one man being likely to return to the midfield for more steal.
Either way, Dembele seems to have quickly got up to speed with the pace of the Spanish top flight, and from here, we should really start seeing the best of him.
CAN BARCELONA FIX WOEFUL RECORD AT THE ANOETA?
Quite remarkably, Real Sociedad have won five out of their past seven league meetings with Barcelona at the Anoeta Stadium.
You wouldn’t go quite as far to say the Basque country side are a bogey team for the Catalan club, but certainly, in San Sebastian, Sociedad hold a hoodoo over the visitors.
In fact, Barcelona’s last La Liga win in the north of Spain came in 2007.
Perhaps, over a decade on, the tables are about to turn though with Barcelona being in blistering form and Eusebio Sacristan’s men enjoying a steady, if not spectacular campaign in mid-table.
10/11 R.Sociedad 2-1 Barça ✅
11/12 R.Sociedad 2-2 Barça ➖
12/13 R.Sociedad 3-2 Barça ✅
13/14 R.Sociedad 3-1 Barça ✅
14/15 R.Sociedad 1-0 Barça ✅
15/16 R.Sociedad 1-0 Barça ✅
16/17 R.Sociedad 1-1 Barça ➖
— LaLiga (@LaLiga) January 10, 2018
PLAYERS PLAYING FOR THEIR PLACES
With Philippe Coutinho expected to be fit in a couple of weeks following his mega-money switch from Liverpool, the brilliant Brazilian is all set to be catapulted straight into the Blaugrana first XI midfield – which means one of Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Andres Iniesta and Paulinho are likely to come under pressure for a spot in the side.
The 25-year-old has been billed as the heir to club captain Iniesta’s throne, and while that may be a bit premature given the Spaniard is still influencing games, it seems like a natural transition between the two that could happen sooner rather than later.
While this fixture comes too soon for new signing Yerry Mina, who is expected to make his debut on Thursday during the first leg quarter-final Copa del Rey clash with city rivals Espanyol, the likes of Samuel Umtiti, when fit again, will have to battle it out for a centre-back position upon his return.
Competition at right full-back is healthy and Thomas Vermaelen is performing well, so there may well be a dual for one central defensive berth – especially if stalwart Javier Mascherano completes his switch to China during the transfer window.
Journalists from European Investigation Collaborations (EIC) claimed to have seen the details of the updated contract signed by Messi on November 25.
According to the report, Messi is guaranteed around €70million a year in salary and image rights with more coming from a €63.5million signing bonus and €70million “loyalty bonus” for the period of the contract which stretches to 2021.
The mind-boggling deal, revealed as part of “Football Leaks” was to offset an approach for the Argentine from great rivals Real Madrid.
The group claimed that in June 2013, an email exchange between the player’s lawyer Inigo Juarez and his father Jorge, explained that Real were prepared to shell out the €250million release clause that Messi commanded.
Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde has warned his side against complacency ahead of the deciding leg of their last-16 Copa del Rey tie against Celta Vigo.
Valverde’s team head into the second leg at the Nou Camp on level terms with their opponents following last week’s 1-1 draw at the Estadio Municipal de Balaidos.
Barcelona youngster Jose Arnaiz scored the opener – with Valverde fielding a weakened side – before Pione Sisto ensured Celta gave themselves a fighting chance to progress to the quarter-finals.
The visiting team will be full of confidence after drawing 2-2 with Barcelona’s rivals Real Madrid on Sunday and Valverde, who is likely to call upon Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez for the second leg, insists progression to the last eight must not be taken for granted.
🔊 Valverde: “Celta can play in several ways, not just on the counter. They have great players and it will be constant battle” #CopaBarça
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) January 10, 2018
“We can’t think that the result is in our favour because then there is the risk we will make a mistake,” Valverde said. “We won’t think like that. We want to win from the very first minute.
“The tie is slightly tilted in our favour because of the away goal but the advantage is minimal. We are going to try and win the game as if it was a league match, and that is how we have to approach it.
“We want to try and create chances because it is all or nothing as only one team will go through. It is a tie we have to win and it will be a good game to watch.”
Barcelona, nine points clear at the summit of La Liga, completed the finishing touches on Philippe Coutinho‘s British-record transfer from Liverpool, which could be worth up to £142million, on Sunday evening.
The 25-year-old Brazil international was paraded at the Nou Camp 24 hours later, but his debut will be delayed by three weeks due to a thigh injury.
Commenting on his arrival at the Catalan club, Valverde added: “He’s a great signing because he can adapt really well to the team’s style of play, he can play out wide or in the middle and he can score goals as well as creating them.
“We hope he will help us a lot and we are excited about his arrival. I am sure he will bring something different to the team.”
The likely presence of Messi in the line-up will not shift Celta’s tactical approach.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) January 10, 2018
Coach Juan Carlos Unzue, a former Barca assistant boss under Luis Enrique, told Marca: “I don’t feel like employing man-marking on him for 90 minutes, even though some coaches have tried it.
“In a given moment you could mark Messi to make him uncomfortable, but what do we do with the rest of them? With [Andres] Iniesta, Luis Suarez, [Ousmane] Dembele and others?
“That’s why I think more about teamwork.”