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Graham Hunter La Liga: Barcelona are toughening up whilst Ronaldo will be toughing it out

Li Liga expert Graham Hunter gives his expert opinion on this weekend's top La Liga games

by Graham Hunter | September 12, 2014

Barcelona v Athletic Club, Saturday 3pm

Ten straight defeats at the Camp Nou and 27 goals conceded plus Leo Messi scoring against them in each of the last six times the sides have met in Barcelona doesn’t present a statistic which suggests there’s any real threat to the Catalans here.

But that ain’t how Luis Enrique sees it. The Barça playing legend hasn’t even tried to return this side to the brand of football it played under Pep Guardiola – their visions are similar but not identical.

However, like Guardiola did in his day, he has taken football’s equivalent of a cattle-prod and galvanised a completely different attitude around the Camp Nou and the Joan Gamper training ground. Not only is there a greater intensity and ferocity about daily work it’s beginning to show that everyone, Messi included, realizes that this coach will drop anyone who’s not fully committed and concentrated. Witness Messi racing back, robbing the ball and starting the move which led to him creating the goal-assist for Sandro two weeks ago in Villarreal.


More, Luis Enrique fears the FIFA/UEFA virus as much as Guardiola ever did. Most managers worry about injuries and jet lag being the main ‘hangover’ effects from the international break. Enrique and Guardiola view it differently. They fear that things are more relaxed with the national teams, that concentration and intensity can be reduced and those ‘lower’ standards can be brought back to the first Liga game after national team appearances. In the brief training sessions with all his forces re-united he’s hammered home the idea that victory against Athletic is utterly vital. The concept of a Madrid derbi draw and three more points for Barcelona to open a healthy lead over the pair of them is what’s on his mind.

Mascherano returns and while Vermaelen is close to playing Mathieu may miss out so that the Argentinian partners Piqué at the back. Andrés Iniesta’s two week break to help him recover from knee pain should leave him in optimum shape so that Barcelona line up: Bravo: Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba: Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta: Pedro, Messi, Neymar.

Real Madrid v Atlético Madrid, Saturday 5pm

The fact that Madrid absolutely battered their city rivals three times last year may sink a little further into the background than would be normal ahead of a massive ‘Derbi Madrileño‘. That was in a brutal 5-0 aggregate Copa semi final win earlier this year – a tie which Álvaro Arbeloa’s attempt to physically intimidate Diego Costa probably cost the former his World Cup place once Vicente Del Bosque announced his displeasure at what he’d seen – plus the 4-1 Champions League final victory.

The reason all that might not be taken as the definitive guide is that Atleti, under Diego Simeone, have become a regular thorn in the side for Los Blancos. Jose Mourinho’s last game in charge was the Copa final, at the Bernabéu in May 2013 and Simeone’s men won 2-1. Last season the first Madrid derbi was at Madrid’s stadium and Atleti won 1-0 [Diego Costa scoring in both those triumphs] while this season a late Raúl Garcia goal, from yet another ball into the box which Madrid couldn’t defend, gave Los Rojiblancos the 1-1 platform to go on and win the Supercopa in the second leg at the Calderón [1-0] a couple of days later.

Post that defeat where Mario Mandzukic started what’s become something of a scoring run [two more for his country during the international break] of four in his last four games Sergio Ramos admitted that not only he but all the Madrid team went out [against Atleti!!!] not as focussed, not as ‘up for’ the opening minutes as they should have been. A shocker.

How Madrid cope in midfield, after being completely overrun there in the last hour at the Anoeta, last time out is a key. Will Gareth Bale be dropped back into a three with Kroos and Modric? Will Ancelotti opt for the 4-2-3-1 formation which his squad seems to be crying out for?

Ronaldo celebrates

Ronaldo missed the first half of the defeat to Atleti last month and was excused international duty because of knee pain. But his rehab work has included six hours a day every day and he’ll start, refreshed, for the European Champions. Carvajal is out and that may allow the potentially incendiary return of Arbeloa at right back. Atlético profile as: Moyá: Juanfran, Miranda, Godín, Siqueira; Tiago, Gabi; Koke, Raúl García, Arda; Mario Mandzukic

Ernesto Valverde (Athletic Coach):

“It’s great to have a team which believes it can go anywhere and win. We have all our guys who went away for internationals back fit and only [striker] Guillermo’s back pain is a problem for his fitness. Barcelona might be [as you say] a team which concedes goals from dead ball situations and we are good at scoring from them to the point that our keeper [Gorka] headed in from one this season! “But to score you have to win lots of corners and attacking free kicks which means playing well and earning them. “That’s our goal”.

The Best of the Rest

Celta Vigo v Real Sociedad, Saturday 9pm

La Real deserve to be the team on everyone’s lips this weekend. 2-0 down to 4-2 up against Real Madrid last time out … can they reproduce the last 60 minutes of form in that match at the Balaidos. They’ve lost there once in nine visits and drew 2-2 last season. Coach Jagoba Arrasate and several of his players have hinted sufficiently at a problem that it becomes the main theme. Over the last few days they’ve all talked about needing to show the confidence, aggressive mentality and intensity which can, by hook or by crook, bring away wins.

The idea is pressing high up the pitch and using a four-man ‘diamond’ midfield. Their big money summer signing, Alfredo Finnbogason, has recovered from his shoulder injury but won’t be ready for this match. Carlos Vela, in theory their star player, is finally training fully and is a likely starter in Vigo. Rising star David Zurutuza, superb both in their curtailed Europa League campaign and in the defeat of Madrid, and a valuable source of goals, has a knee problem and will be a doubt until just before the game.


Celta have only lost two of their 11 home games in 2014 so far and it’ll be interesting to see how new coach Eduardo Berizzo copes with the fact that [already missing Oubiña and Augusto] nine of his men are coming back to the club after international duties of one kind or another. A plus is that one of those, the Dane Martin Krohn-Dehli, trained fully and seems to have overcome knee pain stemming from his performance against Armenia.

Valencia v Espanyol, Sunday 4pm

Even during an international break we’ve had the chance to get to understand Los Che’s new coach Nuno Espírito Santo better. After his promotional visit to Singapore, with Rodrigo and Dani Parejo, to help new [nearly all signed now] owner Peter Lim promote the club the Portuguese insisted on a number of brutal training sessions. A week ago the Valencia squad put in a two hour shift which ended with bleep test sprints. Every last millilitre of water laid out for the training session was drained.


His concept is that Valencia must become La Liga’s most athletic team, in pressing and in the speed of their attacks. However Thursday’s session couldn’t start until 18.30 because of the 40 degree heat in Valencia and tactics, not stamina, were the priority. Rodrigo should return on the right in a 4-3-3 formation of Alves: Gayá, Otamendi, Vezo, Barragán: André, Fuego, Parejo: Rodrigo, Alcàcer, Piatti. Alcàcer should be on a high, debut goal for Spain and a new contract on the horizon, while Gayá was kicked a number of times on duty with Spain U21 and if he starts he may not play 90 minutes. There’s a real buzz of optimism around the Mestalla now and it’ll be a surprise if Los Che don’t win … although will the last period of match evidence some leg weariness?

Granada v Villarreal, Sunday 8pm


The absence of Uche up front for Villarreal is now compounded by the fact that Gio Dos Santos picked up an injury in a friendly with Mexico during the international break and will now miss up to seven games given that he’ll be out for three or four weeks. During the break The Yellow Submarine’s 22 year old Catalan striker Gerard Moreno hit a hat trick against Celtic in a charity friendly [4-2 win] and looks a shoe-in to make his La Liga debut. Unfortunately Granada have the same problem as striker El Arabi returned from Morocco duty injured – Ortuño is likely to be his replacement. While coach Caparrós has been working on correcting defensive errors with Dimitri Foulquier and Allan Nyom, the former missed training on Thursday with a high temperature. New signing Luis Martíns is a likely debutant so long as he passes his delayed club medical.

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