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Barcelona’s quest for a historic back-to-back treble hit a slight bump in the road when Villarreal came from two goals down to earn a point in their La Liga clash.
Ivan Rakitic and Neymar put the Catalan club ahead in the first half but Cedric Bakambu and an own goal from Jeremy Mathieu earned a point for the home side at El Madrigal.
Luis Enrique’s men still hold a comfortable lead at the top of the table with the team nine points in front of Atletico Madrid and 10 ahead of their great rivals Real Madrid when this article was produced.
The Catalan club are in an extremely strong position as they pursue glory in all three competitions and earn their place in history.
They brushed aside Arsenal with ease in the round-of-16 stage in the Champions League, beating Arsene Wenger’s men 5-1 on aggregate without playing at their peak.
Barcelona now face a showdown against Atletico in the quarter-finals, which will feature a fierce contest between Spain’s most potent attacking force and its best defence. Meanwhile, only Sevilla remain as their final obstacle to clinch their 28th Copa del Rey crown.
The trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar have almost singlehandedly guided Enrique’s side to the Primera Liga title. They have scored 69 of their 86 goals, while also netting 15 of their 20 strikes in the Champions League.
They have been unstoppable since their formation as a three-pronged force after notching over 100 goals between them in the last campaign, which guided the club to their second major treble.
Although Messi has not scored the ridiculous amount of goals he did last season, the 28-year-old’s game shows no signs of decline and the form of Suarez and Neymar may extend his dominance at the top. The burden for him to fire every week has been eased by his fellow South American duo.
Suarez has been the leading man for Barca this season, firing 26 goals in his 28 appearances in La Liga trailing only Cristiano Ronaldo in the goal charts.
The Uruguayan has been in equally fine form in Europe with six strikes in seven matches as well as three assists, while Neymar completes the fearsome trio with 21 goals in La Liga and another three in the Champions League.
Not even the Bayern Munich duo of Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski can match the trio’s efficiency in front of goal, which is why the oddsmakers have Enrique’s men at odds of 1/200 in the La Liga football betting and 6/4 to secure a European crown for the second year on the spin.
One glimmer of hope for Barcelona’s opponents will be with their displays at the back, with their 2-2 draw against Villarreal hinting that fatigue may be beginning to take its toll on the Catalan club due to their heavy fixture schedule this season.
2 – Villarreal are the 1st side to come back from a 0-2 at halftime against Barcelona in La Liga since Real Sociedad on 2011 (2-2). Effort.
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) March 20, 2016
Atletico will – for once- be hoping their city rivals, Real, can produce a victory in El Clasico at the Nou Camp when La Liga resumes after the international break to give them a glimmer of hope in the title race.
However, should Barcelona prevail, it’s difficult see any side stopping them from recording a historic back-to-back treble.
It is difficult to believe that Thomas Vermaelen has now been a Barcelona player for some 14 months.
Snapped up for £15 million from Arsenal in the summer of 2014, the Belgium international was considered to be quite a coup, and a player who would slot seamlessly into the fold at Camp Nou.
Comfortable in possession and strong in the tackle, Vermaelen fit the Barca mould perfectly – with healthy competition provided to the likes of Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano.
His struggles in Catalunya since then have been well documented.
The 29-year-old arrived nursing niggles, but offered enough to Barcelona’s medical staff to suggest that he was worth spending big on.
A series of unfortunate fitness issues followed, preventing Vermaelen from making his competitive debut until the final game of the 2014/15 La Liga season – against Deportivo La Coruna.
He was, however, to work hard over the summer and returned better prepared to fight for a regular role this time around.
Luis Enrique has been prepared to offer him those opportunities, and the classy defender has impressed during his seven outings in all competitions.
He was, however, to be struck down again shortly after September’s international break, with an untimely calf complaint picked up during the first half of a meeting with Atletico Madrid forcing an early exit from that contest and preventing him from playing any part in Belgium’s final Euro 2016 qualifiers and subsequent rise to the top of the FIFA World Rankings.
A pause in domestic duties has given Vermaelen an opportunity to ease his way back to full health, though, and he has been a notable presence on the training ground this week.
He could now come back into contention for Saturday’s home date with Rayo Vallecano – a contest they are 1/7 to take maximum points from within La Liga betting markets.
His availability is likely to be welcomed by Enrique, with Barca having found it uncharacteristically difficult to keep the back door bolted of late.
You have to go back to August 29 to find the last clean sheet secured in all competitions, with seven fixtures having come and gone since then.
Vermaelen is no miracle cure, but he is a useful option to have at your disposal and is a player full of confidence again after coming through the most testing period of his professional career.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) October 15, 2015
He admits to feeling better about his game, life in new surroundings and the start he has made to the current campaign.
All concerned at Barcelona will be hoping that Vermaelen’s most recent setback proves to be his last for the foreseeable future, allowing him to show his true colours in a role that was seemingly tailor-made for him.
by Gerard Reyes
There is, rather unfairly, a feeling within football circles that once a player passes their 30th birthday their career is only going to head in one direction.
Certain goalkeepers are the obvious exceptions to the rule, with many of those competing at the highest level until well into their 30s, but many outfield performers are considered to be spent forces at a point in their lives where most professions would look upon their experience as invaluable and a commodity to be embraced.
However, modern day sportsmen and women are among the most highly-tuned performers on the planet and a willingness to embrace healthy eating habits and to work hard in training is delivering greater rewards.
No longer should a 30th birthday be looked upon as a downturn in the career cycle, with there every reason to believe that those at the very top of the game have many fine years ahead of them.
That is an approach recently adopted by Barcelona during lengthy contract extension negotiations with Dani Alves.
Admittedly there was never any talk, in public at least, of age or of the Brazilian suddenly becoming a piece of the puzzle no longer required.
Discussions dragged on, though, for longer than any of those concerned would have liked, with there a very real threat at one stage that he could depart Camp Nou this summer at the end of his previous deal.
There were no shortage of suitors willing to snap him up, with Manchester United and Paris St Germain among those to be heavily linked with a free agent approach, but they have ultimately been left to turn their attention elsewhere.
On the back of a Treble-winning campaign, which reached its climax in the Champions League final, Alves has committed to another two years in Catalunya.
Images of the smiling 32-year-old putting pen to paper suggest all is well in the Barca camp and that murmurings of discontent have been quickly forgotten.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) June 9, 2015
It is easy to see why both parties should be pretty happy with their lot, with Alves avoiding the need to pack his bags for pastures new – which would have resulted in another settling in period – while the reigning Spanish champions and general 8/11 shots within La Liga betting markets to defend that crown next term still have one of the finest attacking full-backs of his generation still on their books.
There appears to be no reason why the Brazil international cannot remain in that elite bracket through to 2017, with his numbers in 2014/15 actually showing an improvement on the recent past.
Last season saw Alves take in more minutes, both domestically and in Europe, than he has since 2011/12, suggesting that there is still plenty of fuel left in the tank, while his return of 29 starts in the league has only been bettered once in the last five years.
He also provided more assists, six compared to three, than he did last season, put in more tackles per performance, 4.1 compared to three, more crosses and enjoyed a higher pass completion rate, 88.5% compared to 87.3.
Alves’ career curve, it would appear, is on the rise, rather than the decline, and Barca can consider his contract renewal to be one of the shrewdest pieces of business they will carry out this year – even if he is the wrong side of 30.
Bayern Munich and ex Barcelona’s midfielder Thiago Alcantara didn’t only miss the DFB-Pokal final but also the FIFA World Cup™ for Spain with a knee injury. The German Bundesliga champions confirmed on Thursday that the defensive midfielder will be undergoing surgery on a knee injury he picked up in training. How far will they go this time, what are the odds on Spain to win Group B, it’s yet to see.
“It’s very bitter for Thiago and we’re really sorry for the lad,” said Bayern’s chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge on his club’s website.
“He’s a young lad who’s worked hard on his comeback and to be fit for the World Cup in the country where he was born, and suddenly both dreams are over. We’ll take care of him in the coming weeks and do all we can to make sure he’s fit for the start of the next season.”
Thiago, who joined Bayern from Barcelona last summer, missed the start of the season due to injury and had various ailments during his first season in German football.
He had been named by Vicente Del Bosque in his 23-man squad for the World Cup, but has now been forced to withdraw.
Barcelona have sounded a warning to their La Liga rivals by suggesting that the 7-0 drubbing of Levante on the opening weekend of the new season was just a taster of what they can expect to be competing against this year.
New coach, Gerardo Martino, has overseen some fairly serious action in the transfer market during his short time at the helm, the most eye-catching being the capture of mercurial Brazilian, Neymar, for the princely sum of £48.7m.
Much will be expected of him over the coming months but only time will tell if he can replicate his fabulous form at Santos on the biggest stage of them all.
Having finished a massive 15 points ahead of runners-up and main rivals, Real Madrid, last season, Barcelona opened the defence of their title with a typically devastating display, and Neymar completed the celebrations by making his debut as a substitute, a move that indicates that he has now fully recovered from the knock he picked up in pre-season.
The Catalan giants were praised after the match for their pressing and high-tempo play, both with and without the ball – but, whilst this provides rich pickings for attacking players, the argument will inevitably be raised over whether this approach will again leave them vulnerable in defence.
Sterner challenges lie in wait – the firepower of Real, Atletico, and Valencia will provide a far tougher test than that posed by Levante – which means that, somewhat conversely, their title hopes may eventually depend on Victor Valdes.
In his swansong season at the Nou Camp and, likely, at the World Cup, in which Spain are the reigning champs, Valdes will be desperate to repeat last year’s campaign when he conceded an average of just 1.06 goals per game.