Neymar set for comeback as Barcelona prepare for stern Sevilla test
Barcelona face Sevilla at the Sanchez Pizjuan on Saturday in what could turn out to be their most challenging outing in the eight remaining matches still to be played in La Liga.
Los Hispalenses are currently on a remarkable streak of five consecutive victories, momentum that is definitely helping them in their pursuit of qualification for next season's Champions League. With the distance from fourth-placed Valencia now reduced to just one point, Unai Emery's men aren't likely to give up the chase for their target any time soon.
With that in mind, it is clear that Barca are in for a tough time when they travel to the Andalusian capital. Considering the Catalans' previous three performances were not as impressive as Cules have become accustomed to of late, expecting an easy ride against one of the most competitive sides in Spanish football would be unrealistic.
Fortunately, the Blaugranas have enough quality within their squad to ensure their four-point distance to Real Madrid at the top of the Liga table remains once their away game at Sevilla is finished. While the Emery-inspired hosts are currently on fire, Barcelona are in fact the only team in the competition with a better run of results.
Luis Enrique is expected to include Neymar in his starting XI after the Brazilian was dropped to the bench during their 4-0 midweek win at the Camp Nou over Almeria. After scoring just one goal in his last nine appearances, the 23-year-old forward was in obvious need of a rest; not only physically but also mentally.
The likely inclusion of Neymar would ensure Barcelona have their strongest possible attacking trident up front once again. With the relationship between Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez becoming stronger by the minute, Cules would be right to expect their Brazilian partner to follow suit and step his game up in similar fashion.
Ultimately, the less speculative system that Luis Enrique has slowly but surely implemented at Barca this season relies heavily on his forwards' ability to create spaces for each other and convert any goal-scoring chances they may find themselves at the end of. If the team's front three start scoring prolifically again, covering gaps becomes little less of an impossible mission for rivals.
Sergio Busquets, who served his one-match ban in midweek, is expected to return to his traditional position at the heart of midfield. His potential inclusion would mean that Javier Mascherano would be used as Gerard Pique's partner in central defence, a move that would relegate on-form Jeremy Mathieu to the Catalans' bench.
The decision to leave out the man who has scored some hugely important goals against both Celta and Real Madrid may make very little sense to some. However, the fact that Luis Enrique will be forced to make such a difficult choice speaks wonders of the huge improvement that Barcelona's back line has experienced this season. The days when Cules' hearts sank whenever they conceded a corner are long gone, for now.
Having won despite uninspiring performances in recent matches is a slight concern as the general play needs to improve. Unless a much-improved display is visible on Saturday, the trip to Sevilla could very well become a wasted opportunity.
Barcelona need their key players to perform as close to their best as possible in order to bring further silverware to the Camp Nou museum at the end of the season.
Most importantly, Luis Enrique should give his all to ensure his players perform as a cohesive unit once again. As the Barca anthem clearly says: "Together we are stronger!"