Sevilla v Barcelona stands out as the most eye-catching game of the weekend, not least because the stakes appear so high for both sides and neither team can afford to be content with a draw. The visitors, Barcelona, must travel to the Sanchez Pizjuan looking for a win if they are to maintain the pressure on league leaders Real Madrid and will be eager to close the gap to just three points, for 24 hours at least.
Frank Rijkaard will know that defeat to Sevilla will most likely hand the momentum to his rivals in the race for title, as Real Madrid host 12th placed Real Valladolid at the Bernabeu on Sunday. Unfortunately for the Catalans, where a victory in Seville looks unlikely, the Madrilenos will be confident of increasing their lead at the top of the table by registering another victory at home where they are unbeaten this season and have not lost a league match in over a year.
As if beating Sevilla wasn’t going to be hard enough for Barcelona, a feat they failed to achieve last season, they must now do so with a severely depleted squad. With Eto’o and Toure competing in the African Cup of Nations, Rijkaard also has to contend with the absence, through injuries, to Puyol, Deco, Sylvinho, Zambrotta and Bojan Krcic. The lack of resources available may ensure Ronaldinho makes his first start in over two months.
In spite of being undefeated since the loss to Real Madrid back in December, Rijkaard’s side are struggling in front of goal: a surprising feature of a team abundant in striking talent that has managed just 4 goals in their last 5 games. The depth of striking resources available to Barcelona means that, in spite of the lengthy list of absentees, Rijkaard will still be able to count upon Messi, Henry and Dos Santos for Saturdays game.
However, Barcelona appear a little more fragile in defence this weekend, with Rijkaard forced to draft in Oleguer for the right back position – a sight that always causes greater concern amongst Barcelona fans than it does their opponents.
Sevilla must surely start this match as favorites. Whilst not quite up to the high standards set of recent seasons, they are now in sixth place and finally appear to be recovering their confidence following the death of Antonio Puerta and the defection of Juande Ramos to Tottenham. Manolo Jimenez’s team have won eight of their eleven home fixtures this season and the new coach is demanding that his side secure European qualification as a minimum objective for the season. The Sevilla boss claims that “Every game is a final for us now. If we win it will be a huge step forward”.
The Sanchez Pizjuan will be at its loudest for the visit of Barcelona and the home fans will be relieved to see Daniel Alves start the match after having successfully had a recent yellow card rescinded that would have meant him missing this game through suspension. Never one to miss an opportunity to make bold claims to the press, Del Nido told Marca yesterday that he wouldn’t swap Alves for Messi and 30 million euros. Whilst not to be taken seriously, the claim does underscore the importance of Alves to Sevilla and the sense of relief that all connected with the club feel every time the transfer window closes and the Brazilian full back remains a Sevilla player.
The home fans will also be relieved to see Keita and Kanoute return from the tournament in Africa and to be given the all clear to play this evening. The prospect of Kanoute lining up alongside La Liga’s top goal scorer Luis Fabiano suggests that Barcelona’s makeshift defence will be sternly tested and enforces the home sides position as favourites ahead of this appetizing encounter.