Barcelona will attempt to protect their three-point lead at the top of La Liga by overcoming Real Betis at the Camp Nou on Sunday afternoon, and a certain someone is available to aid their cause after being passed fit following injury.
Let’s take a look at the big issues ahead of what should be an attractive game.
MESSI AND UMTITI BACK… BUT WILL THEY START?
Barca boss Ernesto Valverde is able to welcome back two key players, with Lionel Messi and Samuel Umtiti returning after three and six weeks out respectively.
Of the two, Messi is the most likely to start. The nature of his injury – a fractured arm – means that he was able to maintain his general fitness during his relatively short spell on the sidelines, and Valverde has also emphasised that his captain does not have any mental issues with the injury in terms of feeling the need to protect himself or avoid a fall.
With the international break coming up, there would be little sense in selecting Messi in the squad if he wasn’t going to start, so we can expect to see the Argentine lining up alongside red-hot Luis Suarez, who has five goals in his last two games.
Umtiti’s case is somewhat different. He has been out for much longer, and his knee injury prevented him from taking part in any meaningful training for a number of weeks so his match fitness is lacking.
With fellow Frenchman Clement Lenglet performing perfectly well alongside the rejuvenated Gerard Pique in the heart of defence, there’s no need to rush Umtiti back too quickly and he will probably have to wait until after the international break to return to action.
WHO FILLS THE VOID ON THE LEFT?
Messi’s likelihood of starting is even greater considering the fact that both Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele have been omitted from the squad, leaving Valverde short of attacking options.
Coutinho is out for two or three weeks with a hamstring strain, but Dembele’s situation has been attracting far more attention after the Frenchman missed two days of training through illness and reportedly initially failed to notify the club of his absence promptly enough.
Valverde did nothing to dispel the notion that Dembele has been excluded from this game as a disciplinary measure, and the local media is reporting that the club’s patience with the French winger is being tested to the limit.
Whatever will happen with Dembele in the long-term remains to be seen, but for the short-term it leaves Valverde with a selection dilemma because he has no natural option for the left-sided attacking role.
Munir El Haddadi, Rafinha or midweek goalscorer Malcom could be asked to fill an unfamiliar role on the left of Barca’s front three alongside Messi and Suarez, with fringe players Denis Suarez and Carlos Alena providing other options.
Valverde could also give a starting spot to Arturo Vidal, fielding either the veteran Chilean or Ivan Rakitic on the left-hand side of a narrow midfield four.
BETIS FEELING THE AFTER-AFFECTS?
Valverde’s approach to the game will be further conditioned by the unique playing style of visiting Betis, who are arguably the strongest proponents of purist passing principles in La Liga.
Manager Quique Setien, who has been linked with a future move to the Camp Nou, is wedded to a 3-4-3 formation with a determined insistence upon passing out from the back and playing through midfield, creating a team which is always enjoyable to watch but often lacks cutting edge.
The biggest question facing Betis for this encounter is whether they will be prepared to take on the league leaders, just three days after going toe to toe with AC Milan in an emotionally-charged Europa League contest.
The game, which finished with a 1-1 draw, was treated far more seriously than most games in that competition by Betis fans and Setien, who picked a full-strength eleven rather than indulging in squad rotations as generally happens in the Europa League group stage.
Finding the mental, physical and emotional energy for another high-profile occasion less than 72 hours later is a major challenge for Betis, and it wouldn’t be surprising if their recent exertions catch up with them in the second half.
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