Fond farewell for Mascherano and other key questions ahead of Barcelona vs Levante

Andy West 6/01/2018
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La Liga leaders Barcelona will play at home against Levante on Sunday.

Ahead of their La Liga clash, we take a look at the key questions.

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Fond farewell for Mascherano?

As one player prepares to join Barca from Liverpool, another ex-Anfield man could say his fond farewell to the club after several years of sterling service.

Javier Mascherano, who has made 332 appearances and won 17 trophies since swapping Merseyside for the Mediterranean in the summer of 2010, is poised to complete a transfer to Hebei China Fortune, with Barca’s attempts to keep him until the end of the season looking fruitless.

Mascherano has lost his starting place to Samuel Umtiti in the last couple of seasons and is even being overlooked in favour of Thomas Vermaelen at the moment, but he could receive a final outing this afternoon in his old central midfield position due to the absence of suspended Sergio Busquets.

The Argentine’s rugged style and all-out commitment have made him a popular figure among fans, and there are certain to be plenty of teary eyes at the final whistle if Sunday’s game does prove to be his last in Blaugrana colours.

Dembele back in business?

After a lay-off of nearly four months, Barca’s record signing Ousmane Dembele is set to finally return to league action after recovering from a thigh injury and appearing as a substitute in Thursday’s 1-1 Copa del Rey draw at Celta Vigo.

He will have to settle for a place on the bench because manager Ernesto Valverde is being extremely cautious over the Frenchman’s physical progress, and the Barca boss is also wary of unsettling a team which has established a nine-point lead at the top of the table with an unbeaten start to the season.

After making just one previous start at Camp Nou – the Champions League meeting with Juventus in September when Lionel Messi stole the show with two brilliant goals – Sunday’s game will effectively feel like a second home debut for Dembele, who looked rather out of place during his few games before his injury.

Dembele’s explosive style is a strong contrast to the careful possession-based play traditionally favoured by the team, and it will probably take a while for the former Borussia Dortmund man and his new teammates to adapt to each other. So although the game may well be already won by the time he comes on, any playing time he can accumulate will be a significant help to his settling-in period ahead of the decisive run-in to the season.

Can Levante offer resistance?

Levante have drawn more games than any other team in La Liga this season, with nine of their 17 games so far ending in stalemates, including three nil-nils in their last four league outings.

The Valencia-based club have desperately struggled going forward in recent weeks, with their only goal in the last five games actually being put through his own net by an opponent, Athletic Bilbao defender Aymeric Laporte.

So all the evidence strongly suggests that Juan Muniz’s team will attempt to pack their penalty area and play for a 0-0 draw as they go in search of a second famous scalp this season, having already drawn 1-1 at Real Madrid earlier in the campaign.

This, of course, is nothing new for Barcelona and the onus will once again fall upon Lionel Messi to prise open the visiting back line, but if the Argentine is feeling any rustiness after two weeks of inaction it could become a frustrating afternoon for the league leaders.

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Diego Costa scores and gets sent off on his first Atletico Madrid start

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Atletico Madrid unleashed Diego Costa in La Liga on Saturday and the controversial centre-forward scored the winner before being sent off in a 2-0 home win over regional rivals Getafe.

Atletico’s transfer ban ended last week and Costa was playing his first league game since rejoining the Spanish club from Chelsea.

The 2-0 win, in which France star Antoine Griezmann set up the opener for Angel Correa on 18 minutes, lifts Atletico into second, six points behind Barcelona who play Levante on Sunday.

It also took Atletico five points clear of third placed Valencia.

Costa had been lively the whole match and received a yellow card for a foul in the 62nd minute. Five minutes later he met a low cross to put his side 2-0 up and immediately earned a second yellow for leaping into the stands to celebrate with fans.

The brooding striker looked totally perplexed by the decision but his borderline style of play may inject some much needed bite to the Atletico forward line.

“His presence gives us speed and directness. And he frightens opponents too,” said Atletico Coach Diego Simeone after the game.

“The referee was unable to consider the emotional aspect (of Costa’s behaviour), the rules are the rules,” he said.

Simeone’s side looked as hard to beat as ever – with just eight goals conceded and one defeat in 18 league games – but they have scored only 27 with Griezmann struggling to find the net, hitting just five league goals so far.

Atletico haven’t won La Liga since Costa left for London, where he won two Premier League titles in three years after rifling the Madrid club to their tenth league championship with 27 goals. 

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Ousmane Dembele could produce attacking spark or create imbalance for Barcelona on return from injury

Andy West 6/01/2018
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Dembele made his return to action in the Copa del Rey on Thursday night.

Although Philippe Coutinho is the talk of the town as Barcelona return to league action with Sunday’s home game against Levante, the more immediate focus will be on the progress of another hugely expensive signing: Ousmane Dembele.

This might be a strange thing to say about a player who cost a club record €147m, but the young French winger has become something of a forgotten man since suffering a hamstring injury in September’s meeting with Getafe.

But now he is back in action, playing for 25 minutes in the midweek cup draw against Celta Vigo and likely to receive a similar amount of playing time against Levante.

Of course, the return to fitness of a record signing is good news for Barca, and Dembele – even more than Coutinho – could help provide an attacking spark that has been missing for much of the campaign, which could prove especially important during the latter stages of the Champions League.

However, it’s equally true that being forced to accommodate Dembele could result in Barca losing the balance that has made them so successful, and the possibility that he will actually end up weakening the team – particularly in the short run – will be a significant concern for manager Ernesto Valverde.

Barca’s most important game of the season so far, and the contest which can be seen as the encapsulation of their brief Valverde era, was clearly the 3-0 Clasico victory over Real Madrid just before the Christmas break.

With the exception of injured centre-back Samuel Umtiti, Valverde fielded his strongest possible eleven in that fixture, with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in front of a midfield four containing Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic in the middle, narrowly flanked by Andres Iniesta and Paulinho and most of the attacking width coming from full-backs Sergi Roberto and, especially, Jordi Alba.

Looking at that line-up, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to see how Dembele could fit in without significantly altering the shape and structure of the team.

The only slot he could really fill is the place currently occupied by Paulinho, but the powerful physicality of the Brazilian has been a key role in giving Barca the defensive stability which has seen them concede just seven goals in 17 league games so far.

Dembele would not be able to carry out anything like the same amount of defensive work as Paulinho, and he would also be hard pressed to quickly develop the same kind of understanding that the former Tottenham man has quickly struck up with Messi.

Barcelona's French forward Ousmane Dembele (C) controls a ball next to teammates during a training session in Barcelona on January 5, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)

It will be interesting to see where Dembele fits in upon his return.

The versatility of the former Borussia Dortmund man provides options for Valverde, who noted at the youngster’s unveiling during the summer that he can play effectively through the middle or on either flank.

But that could also initially count against Dembele because at the moment even Valverde probably doesn’t know how he intends to use the 20 year-old, who could fit here, there and everywhere rather than commanding a specific position.

The best news for Dembele is that he is coming into a team with a commanding lead at the top of La Liga, so there is some margin for error and room for experimentation – if it takes a while for Valverde to work out how to get the best out of Dembele, and for the new arrival and his teammates get used to each other, a few dropped points can be tolerated.

But the pressure will really be on the winger to deliver the goods in the Champions League, with next month’s two-legged meeting with Chelsea providing the first major opportunity for him to start paying back his huge transfer fee.

So far this season, Barca have been effective but also pretty predictable, meaning that tactically minded managers like Antonio Conte wouldn’t have many problems in working out a plan to counteract them.

Dembele, however, is an unknown quantity for opponents as much as he is for Barca. With his ball skills and dribbling ability, he is the kind of player – like Neymar – who can destabilise an opposition defence by offering penetration into the penalty box, and his ability to deliver a sense of the unexpected will be a vital asset for a team which otherwise largely lacks that quality.

It’s possible, then, to see two sides of the coin. Dembele could prove to be an expensive misfit who unbalances the team’s previously solid structure, or a dynamic x-factor who transforms Barca’s attacking potential.

In fact, there’s every chance he could prove to be a bit of both.

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