Messi in scorching form but Barca have issues at other end of the pitch

Andy West 22:52 21/12/2018
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Lionel Messi looks unstoppable at the minute.

Barcelona will seek to head into the winter break by securing their place at the top of La Liga with a home win over dangerous Celta Vigo on Saturday evening.

With Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez both in outstanding form, Barca will be confident about their chances of inflicting damage to the visiting defence…but as we discover with our three key storylines ahead of the game, their chief concerns lie at the other end of the pitch.

Murillo on board but not ready

Barca surprised their fans with an early Christmas present on Thursday, signing Colombian central defender Jeison Murillo on loan from Valencia, but this game is too early for coach Ernesto Valverde to name the new recruit among his substitutes.

Murillo has been snapped up as cover following injuries to Samuel Umtiti, who has been ruled out indefinitely with an ongoing knee problem, and Thomas Vermaelen, whose latest absence in an injury-plagued spell at the Camp Nou is expected to last a month.

Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet will undoubtedly continue as the first-choice central defensive pairing, and as Murillo – who has only played three games for Valencia so far this season – is not ready for action this weekend, the elevation of untested youngster Chumi or the repositioning of a midfielder such as Sergio Busquets or Ivan Rakitic would be the only options open to Valverde if anything happens to the starting duo.

Another concern is the right-back position, where Nelson Semedo and Sergi Roberto missed last weekend’s win at Levante to force Valverde into selecting a 3-5-2 formation. They both returned to training on Thursday but there will be an element of risk in fielding a player so soon after injury, and Valverde will be crossing his fingers and toes that more physical setbacks are avoided.

The clash has come too soon for Barcelona's latest recruit.

The clash has come too soon for Barcelona’s latest recruit.

Aspas and Gomez ready to pounce

If Barca’s defensive injury problems make them more vulnerable at the back, they are coming up against an opposing side perfectly placed to exploit that weakness in the form of Celta Vigo.

The Galicians are among several mid-table La Liga sides who have produced excellent football at times this season without finding the consistency required to climb into a higher position. But the quality of their front two Iago Aspas and Maxi Gomez cannot be doubted.

Aspas (10 league goals) and Gomez (8) have been the deadliest front duo in La Liga except Messi and Suarez, helping Celta achieve the third-highest number of goals in the league with 28 from their opening 16 games.

Celta have been rejuvenated by the recent appointment of coach Miguel Cardoso, collecting seven points from their last three league games. And with rising star Brais Mendes – whose outstanding start to the season was last month recognised by selection into the senior Spain squad – ready to provide the ammunition from midfield, Celta are more than ready to inflict an upset at the Camp Nou if Barca are below par.

Aspas has already bagged 10 La Liga goals this season.

Aspas has already bagged 10 La Liga goals this season.

Messi on fire to finish the year

Whatever Aspas, Gomez, Murillo or anyone else might do, however, ultimately the contest could easily be decided by one man.

Lionel Messi is in sumptuous form by even his own mesmerising standards, delivering consecutive masterclasses to register five goals and three assists in away victories over Espanyol and Levante in the last couple of weeks.

Now he is aiming to dazzle his home fans to complete a bittersweet 2018, which has seen Messi win another Golden Boot as Europe’s leading scorer and inspire a league and cup double with a series of brilliant performances, but also suffer heartache in the Champions League and the World Cup Finals before going through the personal indignity of only finishing fifth in the Ballon d’Or voting.

Messi’s performances since the award was presented to Luka Modric have made a mockery of the idea that he is not the best footballer in the world. And if he hits that kind of form again Celta might as well spare themselves the journey and head into their Christmas break a couple of days early.

Five Golden Boots and counting now for Messi.

Five Golden Boots and counting now for Messi.

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