Malaga vs. Barcelona: Key Battles to Watch in La Liga Matchup

Michael CernaCorrespondent IJanuary 10, 2013

Malaga vs. Barcelona: Key Battles to Watch in La Liga Matchup

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    Manuel Pellegrini is one of the best managers in football.

    As great as Tito Vilanova's rookie season has been, it will take a few years to even be in the same league as the great Malaga coach.

    One team that has always troubled the Chilean, though, is Barcelona, especially at his current job.

    Since taking over at Malaga, Pellegrini has lost all four matches against La Blaugrana by a combined score of 15-4.

    This means that despite Malaga's fine table placement, Barça will be considered heavy favorites in this one.

    Los Boquerones would love to end their losing streak this Sunday, but Barcelona are in fantastic form while the hosts are coming off of a shock defeat to Deportivo.

    Despite the recent results and gap in quality, there are plenty of battles that will have La Liga fans dying for the first whistle to sound.

    Let's take a look at four of the most pivotal ones as we prepare for La Liga's blockbuster match of the round.

Busquets vs. Isco and Joaquin

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    Malaga have one of the top midfield units in La Liga, but they will meet their most difficult individual opponent this weekend when they try to out-smart Sergio Busquets.

    The Barcelona star is one of the most intelligent, quick-thinking, best readers in the game and rarely gets beaten by any attacking-midfield group over the course of 90 minutes.

    Of course, if anyone can do that, it is Joaquin and Isco. Apart from Barcelona, no team's midfield has been in better form this season.

    This pairing is the perfect mix of experience and youth, pace and creativity. There will likely be at least a few gorgeous passes that break Barça's back line so limiting space will be key for the visitors.

    Busquets will have to be on his game to prevent Malaga's top pair from getting into enough space in the final third to try and thread passes through his defenders.

    This will not only be one of the most important battles, it will also be one of the most entertaining to watch for fans of technically sound football.

    We've already seen Joaquin and Isco completely outclass Real Madrid, but can they do the same against the best midfield in football?

Messi vs. Demichelis and Caballero

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    For many casual observers, this will be the most-watched battle in this match. It will also be one of the most pivotal.

    This weekend will pit the league's best central defense and best keeper against the greatest forward alive.

    If Malaga can stop Lionel Messi from scoring, that will only be half the battle.

    Martin Demichelis would greatly help Willy Caballero by limiting Messi's shots, but closing the passing lanes to his teammates in range will be just as difficult.

    Barcelona's other forwards are nowhere near the threat Messi is, but the Ballon d'Or winner does so much more than just score his team's goals, and Manuel Pellegrini will certainly plan for that.

Xavi vs. Camacho

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    What a mouth-watering midfield battle this match provides.

    Xavi, the greatest midfielder of his generation for most, will have to break down the league's best holding midfielder.

    It will not be just Xavi, of course, since his other midfielders will be breaking the young Spaniard down as well, but he is the key.

    Camacho plays alone in front of his four attacking midfielders and Xavi is the deeper play-maker that reads the entire pitch.

    Guys like Andres Iniesta will be highly influential, but that will be in a more attacking role and probably in a wider position.

    It is Xavi who will have to read the pitch, dictate the tempo and then find the lanes for his attacking players.

    Camacho has been world class this season, but he has yet to face a master mind like Xavi.

    If the youngster can cut passes off all night, be quick-thinking enough to find his attacking midfielders and stay calm when overwhelmed by Barça's attackers, he can keep Malaga in the match.

Malaga's Full-Backs vs. Barça's Wingers

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    One of the more underrated advantages of Barcelona's attack and formation is their width.

    Players like Pedro and Alexis Sanchez are not getting the goals or even the assists this season, but their ability to lure full-backs out and free space for Lionel Messi in the center of the pitch is an important part of their game.

    To this point, only Atletico Madrid will have had such talented full-backs to break down.

    Nacho Monreal is one of the elite left-backs in La Liga and is as good as anyone besides maybe Filipe Luis.

    Jesus Gamez is not world class but is a very reliable defender and has been in great form this season.


    Monreal the Key

    The combination of Andres Iniesta and Jordi Alba will have the advantage against Malaga's right flank, but no Blaugrana winger will be favored to beat Monreal by themselves.

    That makes the input from Dani Alves (or Martin Montoya) another key part of Tito Vilanova's strategy.

    Barça's wingers have generally taken some serious flak from fans (apart from Andres Iniesta) at various points this season.

    Whoever Vilanova selects to start, they will have to play some of their best football to break Malaga's wide men, especially Monreal.