Saturday’s home meeting with Valencia was one that Barcelona simply needed to win.
After the hammer blow of the hugely unexpected Champions League exit against Roma a few days earlier, for the sake of morale the Catalan giants just had to get back on track in its next outing, and it was therefore understandable that coach Ernesto Valverde selected his strongest possible eleven.
Although many of his players will inevitably have been feeling fatigued after the physically and mentally draining loss in Italy, that was more than outweighed by their professional pride, compelling them to get back out on the pitch as soon as possible to right some wrongs.
And that task was duly completed with a 2-1 win over Valencia, allowing Valverde’s men to run off some of their frustrations as well as maintaining their 11-point advantage over Atletico Madrid with just six games remaining.
Now, though, Valverde must make Saturday’s Copa del Rey Final against Sevilla his overwhelming priority, and Tuesday’s league trip to Celta Viga should be relegated to the status of an uninteresting afterthought.
Of course, mega-clubs like Barcelona can never afford to lose a game, but this midweek journey north-west is as close as it gets. In the context of their season, the trip to Celta really does not matter in the slightest, and Valverde should treat it effectively as a reserve game in his team selection.
Even if Barca lose and Atletico win at rejuvenated Real Sociedad on Thursday night, the current leaders will still be eight points clear with five games remaining – and that lead is effectively worth nine points considering Barca’s ownership of the head-to-head advantage.
La Liga, therefore, is already won barring a near unthinkable sequence of results, and it’s almost certain that a loss against Celta would count for nothing by the end of the season.
A loss against Sevilla on Saturday night, however, would be an entirely different matter. A few days ago Barca were in hot pursuit of the treble, so for that ambition to become reduced to just one trophy would be close to a calamity, inevitably leading to serious calls for Valverde to be fired at the end of the season.
That may sound like an overreaction, but it’s not. Barca have extraordinarily high standards, and silverware is taken for granted. Losing a final against Sevilla would be a disaster, giving further weight to cynics who are already arguing that Valverde does not know how to manage big games.
The only reason for Valverde to take Tuesday’s game in Vigo seriously, in fact, is Barca’s pursuit of becoming the first team in Spanish top flight history to go through an entire season without defeat.
But that piece of trivia is nothing compared to the opportunity to land a trophy, and Valverde must not allow his quest for an unbeaten league campaign to compromise the Copa del Rey Final this weekend.
And that quest surely would be compromised if Valverde once again insists upon selecting a full strength team against Celta.
Several of his squad are obviously physically and mentally jaded, and would benefit hugely from having a couple of days off. Nine of his players have already started more than 30 club games this season, not to mention the additional strain of their international commitments leading up to the World Cup Finals.
All that effort is starting to take its toll. Many of Barca’s star players have been well below their best in recent weeks, and it looks beyond question that Samuel Umtiti, Sergi Roberto, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez would greatly benefit from a free midweek ahead of Saturday’s cup final while Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta have already been omitted from the squad. None of them should play on Tuesday night though.
Of course, the quality of the team will be seriously affected at Celta if all those players are rested, but the likes of Thomas Vermaelen, Yerry Mina, Aleix Vidal, Andre Gomes, Ousmane Dembele and Paco Alcacer – all of whom are full internationals – have been waiting for long enough for an opportunity to show their capabilities. And if they fail, it really won’t matter one iota.
For inspiration, Valverde can look to his counterpart at Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane, who omitted Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and Rafael Varane from his squad, and then left Marcelo and Toni Kroos on the bench, for the irrelevant trip to Malaga on Sunday, knowing that more important battles lie around the corner.
That is the right approach to take at this time of the season. In Monday’s pre-game press conference Valverde said he will make changes tonight, without specifying how many. It’s straightforward: he shouldn’t make two or three, but eight or nine. Squad rotation, all in.
If he doesn’t and Barca lose the cup final on Saturday, he will be in big trouble.
The Catalan giants, who are 11 points clear at the top of the table with six games remaining, have endured a tough past week.
Barca crashed out of the Champions League after a 3-0 loss at Roma last Tuesday and then claimed a hard-fought 2-1 win with a full-strength side against Valencia on Saturday.
“There will be change as I think the team needs it,” said Valverde at a press conference covered by the club’s website, www.fcbarcelona.com.
“We are in an important week and we are coming off the back of a game three days ago, and we have the cup final.”
The key changes could come up front as Valverde considers whether to rest Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. Gerard Pique could also sit the game out.
Valverde, however, insists he will not take anything for granted against Celta, who are ninth in the table and still in contention for a Europa League spot.
“We have faced Celta three times already and it will be a tough game,” said Valverde, whose side are looking to extend their LaLiga record unbeaten run of 39 games.
“They are having a great season and are fighting for a European place. Celta manage games well and will put a lot of pressure on us.”
Celta held Barca to a 2-2 draw when they played at the Nou Camp in December and the first leg of their Copa del Rey tie in January also ended 1-1. Barca, however, thrashed the Galician side 5-0 in the second leg.
Celta coach Juan Carlos Unzue, who was assistant manager at Barca under Valverde’s predecessor Luis Enrique, wants to avenge that loss and is setting his sights on a shock win.
Barca’s last loss in LaLiga came at Malaga on April 8 last year.
Speaking at a press conference reported by ABC Internacional, Unzue said: “We cannot set out to draw, we need to win. We have to go out and win, to stand up.
“Playing against a big team is always an extra motivation for the rest, even if subconsciously.”
Unzue does not believe the Copa del Rey final will affect Barca’s attitude.
He said: “They are used to playing important matches every three days.”
Lenglet has been one of Sevilla’s stand-out players this season, with Barca reported to be interested in signing the 22-year-old this summer.
Samuel Umtiti is yet to extend his contract at the Camp Nou while Lenglet’s release clause, reported to be set at around €35 million, is relatively modest in today’s transfer market.
Barca will get a closer look at Lenglet when the clubs face each other in Saturday’s Copa del Rey final and on Monday, Montella hardly dampened rumours of a transfer.
“He is a champion mentally even more than he is physically on the field – in the future he can play for a big team like Barcelona,” Montella said.
“I hope that at some point it happens for him but I also hope that Sevilla will enjoy him for some years yet. The rumours don’t bother me, absolutely not.”
Before this weekend’s showpiece at the Wanda Metropolitano, Sevilla travel to struggling Deportivo La Coruna on Tuesday in La Liga and Barcelona are away to Celta Vigo.
While Barca, 11 points clear at the top of the table, can afford to rest players, Sevilla are in a race for Europa League qualification, sitting seventh, a point behind Villarreal in sixth.
But Sevilla’s Champions League exit to Bayern Munich was followed by a pulsating 2-2 draw at home to Villarreal on Saturday, games Montella says have taken their toll.
“Some of the players need to rest because they made a big effort on Saturday, Wednesday and the other week – not because we have the final,” Montella said.
Provided by AFP Sport