??Barcelona will host Girona at the Nou Camp on Saturday, with a victory needed to keep Atletico Madrid at bay in second place. The Spanish leaders have seen their advantage cut to just seven points in recent weeks, so a slip up here could blow a title race – which Barca have controlled since gameweek three – wide open. Or, as the Spaniards would simply put it – Hay Liga.
Manager Ernesto Valverde is expected to heavily rotate his squad after the exerting Champions League clash with Chelsea on Wednesday – which came on the back of a gruelling start to 2018, having played 14 games already – offering a ?rare chance for fringe players to convince him of their value.
Girona, meanwhile, have been this year’s surprise package (although their partnership with Manchester City somewhat cheapens the fairytale) and are currently sitting in an admirable eighth position in the league, in their first ever outing in Spain’s premier division.
With this weekend’s clash being only the second time the pair have come across each other on the pitch, we are left with their classic encounter rather insincerely amounting to their first fixture last September.
On that occasion, the Blaugrana proved too much for their Catalan counterparts, with Luis Suarez adding to own goals from Aday Benitez and Iraizoz, in what was a stereotypically comfortable steamroll for the boys in blue and red.
If that hasn’t exactly satisfied your quench for all things classic, then perhaps take heart from Girona’s commendable record against Barcelona B, with three wins and three draws from their 10 encounters, the most recent of which was a 4-2 drubbing in the Gironistes favour.
Lionel Messi v Christian Stuani
First comes up against fourth in La Liga’s scoring charts this weekend, and the potency of the two strikers will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the game.
Despite Messi’s goal midweek, (his first against Chelsea, if you didn’t know) and seniority in the top scorers list, it is Stuani who comes into the encounter in the richer vein of form domestically.
The former Middlesborough man has netted three times in his last three La Liga games, with Lionel scoreless in the same league period.
Philippe Coutinho v Pablo Maffeo
The €120m Brazilian has settled in nicely to life in Spain, and will be looking to add to the goal he scored in the Copa Del Rey against Valencia earlier this month.
Likely operating on the left of a midfield four or attacking front three, filling in for Andres Iniesta who will get a well earned rest, Coutinho will be up against Manchester City loanee Pablo Maffeo.
The 20 year old has impressed so far in a white and red shirt, and has been a virtual ever-present, clocking up the fourth most minutes in the squad. Whether the versatile Spaniard is deployed at right-back or right midfield, he will be charged with containing Coutinho, and his success in this task will be integral to the result.
Barcelona will go into Saturday’s game with a full strength squad. Their only absentee is the young defensive midfielder Sergi Samper, whose loan spell at Las Palmas was cut short in January when he sustained a Malleolar injury that is set to keep him out until June.
Girona are in a similar position of squad prosperity, with centre-back Pedro Alcala their sole concern, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he garnered back in September.
Potential Barcelona Starting Lineup: Ter Stegen; Digne, Umtiti, Vermaelen, Semedo; Coutinho, Gomes, Rakitic, Dembele; Messi, Alcacer
Potential Girona Starting Lineup: Bono; Juanpe, Bernardo, Ramalho; Mojica, Granell, Garcia, Amagat, Maffeo; Stuani, Portu
While significant starting eleven upheaval can sometimes be a recipe for disaster, you would imagine Barcelona’s squad depth will be sufficient to counter any threat Girona may pose, especially considering
Combine this quality with Girona’s veritable goal-shyness away from home – only 13 of their 34 scores have come on the road – and there seems an inevitability about the final result.
Prediction: Barcelona 4-0 Girona