A Match Made in a Monastery: Villareal-Barcelona PreviewBy: kage | January 27th, 2012
It must be a tough place to live in, Pep Guardiolaâ€™s head.
Pep quite frankly wants to win everything, and most of the time he has succeeded remarkably. But football life is an endless series of obstacles with sad emphasis on the word endless. Every week contains one or two difficult hurdles. But now, Pep, youâ€™re coming to what is, no way around it, a game apparently designed by Trappist monks. The trap called Villareal.
So youâ€™re Pep, and itâ€™s already a long season. Youâ€™ve already played 40 games since football resumed in July. Injuries are more plentiful than players.Â The most recent news is Pedro, who has a problem with his abductor muscle (you know what an abductor is, so I won’t explain it) and is out for this match.Â Alexis, who was gang-tackled in the last Real Madrid game by the gang named Pepe, has been included on the team at the last minute; I wouldn’t be surprised if Pep spared him.Â Keita is off representing Mali in the African Nations Cup. Affelay, Villa, and Fontas are hurt long-term.Â Over the course of the season youâ€™ve been literally hamstrung some ten times, most recently in the case of Don Andres Iniesta, out for three weeks now (his fourth injury of his season). Next thing you know Pintoâ€™s braid is going to get a hamstring pull.
So itâ€™s a lot for you to cope with, Pep, we realize that. Take the past couple of weeks. You just barely managed to pull ahead of Betis in the 73rd minute to win. Three days later, you managed to beat Real Madrid in their (large) house. Four days after that, you had to play up-and-coming Malaga away, and you beat them too. Three days later, you withstood the assault of the angry Madridistas again and eliminated them from the Copa del Rey. Now it’s just three days later, and you have yet another game. Fortunately, itâ€™s against Villareal. Phew.
Villareal is a little bitty team, dwarfed by their neighbor Valencia. Theyâ€™re called the Yellow Submarine because (in 1947) the son of the club president went to Valencia to buy white and black kits, but the store only had yellow, so thatâ€™s what he bought. This is not, incidentally, a joke. The team reached the first division for the first time in 1998. And now they sit, 17th in the league, just one point removed from 19th. Theyâ€™ve won four games all year, and just one of the past five. They score less than a goal a game. Their best striker, Giuseppe Rossi, is injured; their other great striker, Nilmar, is rumored to be headed to Sao Paolo, and heâ€™s not playing either. Their shirts will be partly in Chinese for this match, and thatâ€™s not a joke either.
But youâ€™re Pep, and youâ€™re not happy. Villareal has been a class act since its arrival in La Liga. Led by Forlan, Riquelme, and Pellegrini, they once reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. Forlan won the Pichichi another year. More importantly, they havenâ€™t finished worse than eighth in La Liga in the past eight years, and five times they were in the top five. The Yellow Submarine have beaten Barca eight times since their arrival in La Liga in 1998; only one team has more wins against us in that time, and it ainâ€™t, you know, Real Madrid. (Hint: itâ€™s Deportivo La Coruna, with nine.)
In short, there is an excellent team hiding here, being carefully closeted by those Trappist monks. Led by Marco RubĂ©n (six goals in eleven starts), the team has only lost once at home. And in its most recent game they blasted Sporting 3-0; Barca, you may remember, beat the same team by a solitary goal.
In this game, several injured players return for Villareal: Carlos Marchena, Mateo Musacchio, Javi Camunas, and perhaps CristiĂˇn Zapata. When they beat Sporting, Joselu was employed as a second striker. But Iâ€™d guess that they will play Ruben alone on top this time, probably in something like a 4-2-3-1. Iâ€™d also guess that Molina (who apparently was in attendance at the recent Clasico) will try pressure high up the field — until Barca learns to actually punish such pressure by breaking quickly downfield and scoring, most teams will give that a go. Many of them will exhaust themselves, but all of them will tire Barca out in return.
And what will you, the harried perfectionist Pep, do in response? Away from home, where your teamâ€™s record is by Barcian standards just plain not good? Against this good, underperforming, underrated team, coached by Trappist monks and sponsored by Chinese saboteurs?
The options up front are mighty slim. Youâ€™ve got Messi, and (surprise!) heâ€™s playing.Â Pedro’s out, but you have a few other folks whom you can use up front.Â You have Fabregas, who was underwhelming and apparently tired last game, and you have Cuenca, the chinless kid who will be great but isnâ€™t always just now. You pick Cuenca, because youâ€™ll need energy.Â On the other side, perhaps Adriano.Â In midfield you donâ€™t want to play Xavi again, but if you leave him out all you have is Busquets, Thiago (pencil both of them in), and Fabregas (letâ€™s let him rest). So your formation would be ye olde 4-3-3, with Alves Pique Mascherano (letting Puyol rest) and Abidal; Busquets, Xavi, and Thiago; Pedro, Messi, and Cuenca.
But you are Pep, and you know that unless you do something to mix things up, this game will be as dangerous as Pepe in an ill humor. You have seen the team â€“ even Leo â€“ come out flat, wilted, and without passion in several away games.Â So youâ€™re going to do something different. Now I donâ€™t know what different thing you’ll try, because Iâ€™m not Pep, and you are. Maybe youâ€™ll try the 3-4-3, with Alves on one flank and Adriano the other in midfield. Maybe youâ€™ll hope Alves after his amazing goal deserves a go at right wing, and Cuenca can sit.Â Â Or, most likely, something else: Pep’s surprise.Â Who knows.Â You know.