If Barcelona plans on making a late charge toward the La Liga title, it has to begin with a home victory over Valencia on Sunday. The Spanish powers have already met three times during the current campaign, with Barca coming out on top once and the other two games finishing in draws.
The Blaugrana currently trail Real Madrid by 10 points following a shocking loss to Osasuna over the weekend. That's a significant hill to climb with just 16 games left in the season, but if there's any team that can pull it off, it's Barcelona.
Los Che have nestled themselves nicely into third place once again. They won't have enough time to catch either of the front-runners, but the teams chasing them are in a similar position, which means a Champions League berth for next season is virtually assured.
Where: Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain
When: Sunday, Feb. 19 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Betting Odds: Barcelona -400, Valencia +885, Draw +465
Player to Watch for Barcelona: Alexis Sanchez
Sanchez has acclimated well to his first season with Barcelona after a handful of years at Udinese. He's scored eight goals in 13 league games, mostly because the combination of his speed and the space he gets because of Barca's numerous targets makes him a problem for opponents.
He hasn't had much success against Valencia, though. During the recent Copa del Rey semifinal matches between the two sides he didn't make any impact, and was subbed out in the second half of both games. He'll need to be much more effective on Sunday if the Blaugrana are going to prevail.
Player to Watch for Valencia: Roberto Soldado
A hometown hero, Soldado returned to Valencia last season and has been the team's most potent offensive threat ever since. He's tallied 12 goals in 21 La Liga matches, which is eight more than any of his teammates. Without him, Los Che wouldn't be in their current position.
What makes his performance even more impressive is the weekly pressure he faces to produce. Unlike at Barcelona where there's an excess of talent, Valencia needs Soldado to contribute every game to succeed. Despite that constant attention from opposing defenses, he continues to score key goals.
Key Matchup: Lionel Messi vs. Valencia back line
Messi has only scored one goal in his last six starts, which equates to a major slump for the world's best player. That includes the two tournament games against Valencia in which he didn't find the net. His lack of offensive punch is a major reason Real Madrid has begun to pull away in La Liga.
What teams like Valencia have started doing is taking an approach based on not letting Messi dominate the game. If somebody else is going to step up and score key goals, so be it, but No. 10 in a Barca uniform is going to be shadowed heavily wherever he goes. It will be more of the same on Sunday.
What They're Saying
Barcelona defender Dani Alves said his team understands their current position isn't promising, but that won't stop them from playing like Barca (via ESPNsoccernet):
“We are realistic, ten points is of course a big distance to bridge, but we have to keep believing in ourselves and fighting, there is no other alternative,” said Alves. “We need a win here, we have to concentrate on ourselves.
“We have an enormous desire to keep winning, it's what we are used to,” he added. “The mood in the team is unusual, because we aren't used to being in this situation, but we have to stay strong. We have to see that we have to keep working and hopefully things will come good at the end.”
Barcelona 3, Valencia 1