It is fitting that Barça are playing at the Stadium of Pottery on Super Bowl Sunday, and if like me you’re planning to watch the Chiefs beat the Eagles with Patrick Mahomes winning MVP to officially enter the GOAT conversation, this could not be a better appetizer. Barça come into this one with a perfect record in 2023 and begin a 40-day stretch that could have up to 11 matches if they advance past Manchester United in the Europa League playoffs, and they’ll also face Real Madrid twice in two competitions before the March international break. It is a make-or-break month and a half for the Blaugrana, who can take massive steps towards winning La Liga, show that they are ready to compete in Europe and try to eliminate their biggest rivals on their way to a second domestic Cup Final. The run of results and the quality of the performance against Sevilla last week suggests they are ready to continue their dominance, but one bad night can change everything.
And the visit to Villarreal could easily turn into a bad night. Simply put this is one of the toughest away matches in Spain for anyone, and the Yellow Submarine have been especially impressive since former Barça manager Quique Setién took over. Setién brought an intense, attack-based style to a team that needed an exciting new voice after the departure of Unai Emery, and the group responded in a big way. The last two weeks haven’t been exactly amazing as Villarreal have won only one their last five in all competitions, but they outplayed Real Madrid in both meetings between the two last month at El Madrigal and should have knocked Los Blancos out of the Copa del Rey if not for a somewhat inexplicable second half collapse from the home team. They’ve lost their last two in the league, but are no less dangerous coming into this one. Setién will relish the opportunity of getting some payback against Barça, and the front three of Samuel Chukwueze, Yéremi Pino and Gerard Moreno has been unplayable at times, especially on the counter.
They’ll fight with Barça for possession and play a high defensive line to try and win the ball in the final third, and they can also be a massive threat on the counter if the two wingers are given space to run at the Barça backline. This promises to be a high-energy battle filled with chances for both sides, and the team that wins midfield probably wins the game based on how the two coaches set up their sides. Barça fans remember Setién for the 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich and his baffling decisions during his short tenure at Camp Nou, but it’s easy to forget just how much trouble he caused the Blaugrana while in charge of Las Palmas and Real Betis over the years. If you think this will be easy, you’re fooling yourself. Villarreal will come to play, their fans are amazing and very close to the pitch, and Barça cannot afford any mistakes. The Catalans can go 11 points clear for at least three days at the top of the table, and while Madrid can cut that deficit back to eight points with a home game against bottom of the league Elche, the pyshological effect of being up double digits on your biggest rivals is almost as important as how long the lead lasts. It’ll prove Barça’s dominance over the league and continue to put massive pressure on Madrid to just stay alive in the title hunt.
A win is huge, especially considering the opponent and the tough ground. Barça must be at their very best, expect a real fight and be clinical with their chances to get all three points. Barcelona will be aiming to make it six La Liga victories in a row and open up a 11-point lead at the top of the table when they head to Villarreal on Sunday night. The Catalan giants are currently in pole position to reclaim the title, while Villarreal are sixth in the division, four points behind fourth-placed Atletico Madrid in the battle for a Champions League spot. Villarreal won four of their five league matches between November 9 and January 22 to leave themselves in a strong position in the table, but the Yellow Submarine have now lost their last two against Rayo Vallecano and Elche, becoming the first team to be beaten by the latter in La Liga this term. The 3-1 defeat at Elche was certainly a shock and a real setback for Quique Setien’s side, but they will now have the chance to bounce back against the best team in La Liga, according to the league table at least.
Villarreal are still firmly in the battle for the top four, currently sitting sixth in the table, four points behind fourth-placed Atletico, but they are only three points ahead of 10th-placed Mallorca, so a slide down the table could occur if their disappointing run of form continues. Setien’s team have largely been strong at home this season, picking up 19 points from nine matches, which is the fourth-best record in the division, but they will be welcoming a Barcelona side with the best away record, having picked up an impressive 27 points from 10 matches on their travels. Villarreal, who have not finished fourth in La Liga since 2015-16, have lost six of their last seven league games against Barcelona, but they did famously win 2-0 at Camp Nou last season.Barcelona’s failure to qualify for the knockout round of the Champions League was a huge blow, but aside from the European disappointment, it has been a hugely positive campaign for the club thus far.
Xavi won his first trophy as Barcelona manager last month, beating Real Madrid to win the Spanish Super Cup, while the Catalan outfit are chasing success in the Copa del Rey and Europa League. Blaugrana will face Real Madrid in a two-legged semi-final in the Spanish Cup, while they will take on English giants Manchester United over two legs in a Europa League knockout round playoff, with the first fixture between the two teams set to take place at Camp Nou next week.