Barcelona need Messi and Dembele's relationship to flourish

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After securing Champions League progress against PSV Eindhoven in midweek, Barcelona refocus their attention on La Liga.

Last week’s 1-1 draw away to Atletico Madrid saw the Catalans lose top spot to Sevilla and they will host Villarreal at the Camp Nou on Sunday.

Here are our talking points ahead of the encounter.

MESSI-DEMBELE PARTNERSHIP MUST TAKE CENTRE STAGE

Barcelona have struggled to find their rhythm in far too many games this season. Ernesto Valverde has scrambled around to find the right system and personnel to breed some level of consistency and so far all that can be relied on is the individual ability of their attacking stars.

Lionel Messi‘s match-winning powers are constant and the five-time Ballon d’Or winner has helped Barca paper over the cracks for some time. However, with partner in crime Luis Suarez sidelined through injury, the Argentine joined forces with current Catalan anti-hero Ousmane Dembele in midweek to edge past PSV 2-1 and secure their spot in the Champions League round of 16 as group winners.

The Spanish giants were far from their best but when you have a player who can jink past a couple of opponents in a confined space and squeeze an impossible shot through a sea of bodies and past the keeper at the near post, cohesion isn’t always a necessity.

Messi does need ‘some’ help though and Dembele was there to lend a hand. The Frenchman’s reputation has taken a beating in the press over the last couple of weeks but he’s responded on the pitch with a dramatic late equaliser away to Atletico Madrid and another fine display in Eindhoven.

Valverde alluded to the link-up play between Messi and Dembele in his post-match interview and while Suarez is unavailable, Barca can only hope the relationship between the duo will carry them through.

Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele (r) impressed against PSV.

Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele (r) impressed against PSV.

MORE DEFENSIVE WOES

A whopping 19 goals have been conceded by a porous Barcelona defence in La Liga this season, only Levante (21) have let in more among the top 14 teams. Gerard Pique in particular has come under heavy criticism for his form but has had to do without his regular centre-back partner Samuel Umtiti for much of the campaign so far.

The French defender was superb for the Catalans last season but has been plagued by injury this term. He missed two months due to a knee problem before returning for the clash at Atletico last weekend in what proved to be one of Barcelona’s and Pique’s best defensive displays this term.

However, Umtiti was forced to withdraw from the PSV game as the issues with his knee resurfaced and now, according to reports, surgery may be required. The defender is a doubt for the match with Villarreal – although he may soldier on for now – but if he does go under the knife, he may be ruled out until the closing stages of the season.

Clement Lenglet will continue to fill in and Thomas Vermaelen is nearing a full recovery but Barcelona remain short in central defence, an area which is likely to suffer if Umtiti endures another spell out of action.

Samuel Umtiti

VILLARREAL MUST BE FEARLESS

Now is as good a time as any to play the La Liga champions. They have conceded seven times in their last three league games and haven’t kept a clean sheet in the Spanish top-flight since August 26.

If Umtiti is not risked, their defence will be on crutches and Villarreal should approach this contest like they have nothing to lose. Barca have already dropped points to Girona, Athletic Bilbao and Real Betis at the Camp Nou this term, losing their 42-game unbeaten run in the process.

Villarreal are in 16th place but are only four points off the top half of the table while they’ve been excellent on the road. The Yellow Submarine will be looking for their third consecutive away win when they face Barca. The visitors have scored in each of their last five away games so if they can offer enough resistance at the back, they could come away with a result.

Javier Calleja

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