La Liga table-toppers Barcelona travel to Real Betis on Sunday night, looking to bounce back immediately from seeing their unbeaten run go up in smoke on Thursday against Espanyol in the Copa del Rey.
Here, we assess three key talking points ahead of the clash.
Is Valverde running out of players?
Barca’s lengthening injury list is starting to become a concern for manager Ernesto Valverde, who would find his resources severely stretched if he saw any more players forced into the treatment room.
Ousmane Dembele, Paco Alcacer, Philippe Coutinho, Paulinho, Javier Mascherano and Andres Iniesta have all been sidelined, while midfielder Rafinha is on the verge of completing a move to Inter Milan after returning from injury. Samuel Umtiti though could return after six weeks out after being passed fit
Valverde can still call upon his team’s key central core, with Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Gerard Pique (who agreed a new contract this week), Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez all available and in excellent form.
But during a busy run of games leading up to the decisive phase of the season, the former Athletic Bilbao boss must be concerned that his current lack of options is limiting his ability to rest and rotate, forcing those key players into an overload of work which could prove damaging in the weeks ahead.
Valverde would love to be able to consider making a few changes to his side on Sunday night, but that’s not a realistic option considering the absentees, and all he can do is cross his fingers and hope for no more injuries.
Can Barca bounce straight back?
Barcelona suffered a rare loss in mid-week, being upset by a Lionel Messi penalty miss and a late goal to lose 1-0 in the Copa del Rey quarter-final first leg against local rivals Espanyol, setting up an intriguing return match at Camp Nou on Thursday night.
Losing was a feeling Barca’s players had become entirely unaccustomed to, having remained unbeaten in all competitions ever since the Spanish Super Cup loss to Real Madrid way back in August.
With that five-month run broken, now the challenge for Valverde’s men is to show they have not been psychologically adversely affected by that setback and that they can bounce straight back into a positive dynamic against Betis.
Many fans were strangely happy about the loss against Espanyol, reasoning that defeat had to come sooner or later and that the perfect manner to do so was a narrow first leg cup loss with several players rested against a local rival who can now be a bit more relaxed about their obsession with beating Barca in the future.
But if one loss leads to another it could quickly become a rut and a mini-crisis, and with the resumption of the Champions League looming that’s the last thing Barca need.
Will confident Betis claim another scalp?
Hosts Real Betis are an extremely dangerous opponent: the Seville-based club have already claimed one major scalp this season by ending Real Madrid’s long unbeaten run with a 1-0 victory at the Bernabeu in September, and their confidence could barely be higher after gaining a famous 5-3 away win at hated city rivals Sevilla a couple of weeks ago.
Manager Quique Setien is one of the game’s great purists, insisting on an attack-minded passing approach which leads in equal measure to fabulous flowing football and infuriating defensive inconsistency. But on their day Betis can be a match for anyone, and Barca will have to work particularly hard in midfield to prevent the home team from establishing their passing rhythm.
Setien’s attacking options have recently been boosted by the return of club icon Ruben Castro from a brief stint in China, and the goal-poaching veteran made a dream start by netting a late penalty winner in last weekend’s exciting 3-2 victory over Leganes, further adding to the feelgood factor which is currently flowing through their atmospheric Benito Villamarin stadium.
Betis might not be the most high-profile team in the world, but Barca must not underestimate them.
Which have been the top 5⃣ goals we’ve scored against @FCBarcelona at Villamarín? 😯💥🎯
Refresh your memory in our @Dugout page! 👀👇
— Real Betis Balompié (@RealBetis_en) January 19, 2018
A Barcelona club statement has confirmed that the La Liga leaders do not have an agreement in place to sign Atletico Madrid hitman Antoine Griezmann.
Speculation has strongly linked Blaugrana with a move for the Frenchman in the January transfer window but the club’s hierarchy have dismissed rumours.
In a statement made via the official Barcelona website on Saturday, the Spanish giants reiterated that they will not be signing the striker.
“FC Barcelona strongly denies the information that has appeared over the course of the last few hours in different media regarding Atlético Madrid player, Antoine Griezmann, and an alleged deal with our club,” it read.
“FC Barcelona expresses its objections in the face of these events and reiterates its full respect for the institution of Atletico Madrid.”
Barcelona defenders Sergi Roberto and Gerard Pique both have bigger contractual buyout clauses than the club’s two record buys, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele.
Roberto and Pique penned new extensions this week – keeping the defenders at the Camp Nou until least 2022 – with the Catalan club revealing €500m clauses were included in the fresh terms for each.
While these clauses are naturally inflated tenfold in Spanish football with it being all but impossible for any club to meet astronomical valuations, it’s intriguing that both Coutinho and Dembele weren’t rated as highly by Blaugrana.
Coutinho, who became the world’s second most expensive player ever when he moved from Liverpool for €145m during the January window, has a €400m release agreement stipulated in his contract – €100m less than the two defenders.
Meanwhile, Dembele, who Coutinho pipped to second spot in the transfer charts, is reported to have a value between €380-400m following his €127m summer switch from Borussia Dortmund.
Of course, there’s one man who we haven’t mentioned yet that tops the list for Barca – Lionel Messi.
The Argentine legend, who penned new lucrative terms with the Catalan giants in November, has a mega release clause – in the region of €700m – which dwarfs any other player at the club and is only bettered by the €1bn releases clauses for Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benezema at Real Madrid.
Barca’s movement to tie down their most valuable assets to big-money contracts perhaps goes to show the scale of the rebuilding and restructuring job going on under boss Ernesto Valverde and club president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
So far, the financial outlay off the pitch has been met with success on it this season.