Barcelona will look to get back to winning ways as they host crisis-riven Valencia at the Camp Nou on Saturday night.
The reigning champions have won just one of their opening three games to drop into a mid-table position in the early reckoning, and they badly need the boost of a convincing win ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League trip to Borussia Dortmund.
But it is also an extremely important game for visiting Valencia, whose shock midweek managerial change has left them riding stormy waters as they travel up the coast.
Let’s take a look ahead to what could be an explosive encounter.
VALENCIA IN CRISIS AFTER SHOCK SACKING
For once, Barca are heading into the game in the shadows of the media attention following a crazy week at visitors Valencia, whose manager Marcelino has been fired despite leading the club to consecutive fourth-place finishes and a triumph in last season’s Copa del Rey.
Valencia owner Peter Lim appears to have made the hugely controversial decision to dispense with Marcelino after a series of disagreements over the future direction of the club. Specifically, they fell out over transfer market policy, the use of youth team players and Lim’s demand that the cup should have been sacrificed to place an emphasis on La Liga.
The replacement for Marcelino is also a surprise choice, with former Spain Under 21 coach Albert Celades getting the nod despite having no prior club football management experience.
Celades faces an extremely stiff immediate task of re-motivating a squad which has been left stunned by the departure of the popular Marcelino, and the body language of the Valencia players as they step onto the Camp Nou turf will be fascinating to behold.
Will they come together in an ‘us against the world’ bond, or will they give a message of defiance to their owner by waving a flag of surrender? Either way, Celades will have his coaching debut meticulously scrutinised after a turbulent few days.
DO BARCA HAVE A MESSI PROBLEM?
Barca have also had their own controversies to contend with this week, with skipper Lionel Messi – who will miss this game as he continues to recover from a calf injury – granting a rare interview to a local newspaper and taking the opportunity to express his disappointment over the club’s failure to sign Neymar during the summer.
Although many of the subsequent headlines were overblown, Messi is savvy enough to know exactly the impact of his declarations and will have chosen his words carefully – when speculation was mounting that his club were planning to sign Antoine Griezmann in May, for example, he shut down that line of questioning with a decisive: “I have nothing to say.”
The fact that he chose a more verbose response on this occasion suggests he was fully intending to stir things up, and the question of whether Messi is unhappy at Barca is a valid one to ask. Ultimately, it could just be part of a sparring contest with the board in pursuit of a new contract, something he has not been given for nearly two years. But the state of his internal relationships will continue to be examined – especially if another bad result this weekend renders his absence on the field even more noticeable.
RAKITIC BACK IN FAVOUR?
Manager Ernesto Valverde’s biggest tactical issue is clearly in midfield, where he has experimented with a wide range of personnel and formations during the opening weeks of the season.
Seven different players have already been selected in the opening three league games, with Sergi Roberto and summer signing Frenkie de Jong named in all starting line-ups plus Sergio Busquets, Carles Alenya, Arthur, Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitic also appearing at various stages.
Of those players, the biggest surprise is that Rakitic has only played for 44 minutes so far despite being a virtual ever-present for the last few seasons. Until now, however, the Croatian international has been dogged by repeated rumours that he was being offered to Paris Saint-Germain in part-exchange for Neymar, which could explain his sudden downgrading.
With the transfer window now closed, however, there is no ulterior motive for Valverde to continue to overlook the experienced midfielder. If Rakitic is still on the bench this weekend, the only conclusion could be that he has suffered a permanent demotion for footballing reasons, and in that context Valverde’s configuration of his midfield for this game could have longer-reaching significance.
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