With all due respect to the Coupe de la Ligue final in France and the Manchester derby in the Premier League, Europe’s most interesting contest this weekend is between Sevilla and Barcelona, La Liga’s two-best teams over the past six weeks, in a match where three points either way could have lasting ripple effects for the Spanish league standings.
Fifth-place Sevilla currently just a point behind Valencia and four points behind Atletico Madrid in third, will be desperate to qualify for the UEFA Champions League next season, having failed to appear in Europe’s top competition since 2009-10 (Note: Sevilla lost its UCL qualifier against Braga the following season).
The Andalusian club heads into Saturday’s home clash riding a seven-game winning streak in all competitions. Its home stadium, the Sanchez Pizjuan, has become something of a fortress since Barcelona’s last visit (a 4-1 hammering by the Catalans) 14 months ago, with the UEFA Europa League holder going 23 consecutive matches without defeat -- a better home record than even Luis Enrique’s men can claim.
However, Barcelona has been a bogey side for Sevilla, especially in recent seasons, with the Catalan giant winning its last five league encounters between the clubs, the last two by a combined margin of 9-2. Ominously, Barca striker Lionel Messi often saves his best for Sevilla, too, having scored five goals in his last two games against the Andalusians, including a record-setting hat-trick in a 5-1 win last fall. With that in mind, coach Unai Emery will demand a defensively sound performance from his team, which tends to concede goals in bunches.
Of course, that may be a tall order against the league’s leader, with its second-best offense.
Indeed, Saturday's crucial match has been overshadowed somewhat by the fact that Barca no longer leads La Liga in goals scored. Unsurprisingly, this has not been lost on the absurdly demanding Spanish press, which has since suggested that Enrique’s team has lost some of its punch, particularly in the last two games. But this is a different Barca: defensively strong, capable of scoring from set pieces, and able to live comfortably without the ball for longer stretches than in the past.
"I have always said that we have much more options to win playing good soccer," Enrique said on Thursday in response to the criticism that his Barca doesn’t play as beautifully as previous versions. "Sometimes we manage it, sometimes not, but we always set out to do that. And I have no doubt that, up until now, this has been a very good season for Barca. The objective is always to play as well as possible -- to be marvelous -- to make 58 chances and give up none. But that is utopia -- we are up against an opponent who has not been beaten at home in ages. Who have their own high-level weapons. This game will be an example of the demands within our league."
Enrique, whose team could still win three trophies this season and sits four points at the top of La Liga having won 20 of its last 21 matches in all competitions, has earned the right to deflect such ridiculous media criticism. He’s also earned the right to respond with sarcasm to ridiculous questions, like: was the mid-season decision to switch Messi to the right and Luis Suarez to the center decided by the players?
His response: "Yes -- they always decide the system, who plays where, who rotates, what the tactics will be, how we will press. They always decide that. I should add -- that's if they win, if they lose it is me who has made the decisions."
That, in a nutshell, encapsulates how absolutely thankless the job of managing a team that has won everything multiple times over has become: Barca is looking like the best team in Europe right now—and may yet win everything in sight -- but the last person to receive the credit will be the manager.