Injuries and a tough run of fixtures to test leaders Barcelona's squad depth
Barcelona's squad depth will be tested on Saturday as they look to extend their unbeaten run to 16 games in all competitions when they host Sevilla at Camp Nou.
Until now, things have gone well for Ernesto Valverde in his debut season on the Camp Nou bench. Injuries, by and large, have respected him and so has the fixture list. Barca have won nine of their opening 10 games in La Liga -- drawing the other against Atletico Madrid -- but seven of the teams they have beaten go into this weekend's round of matches in the bottom half of the table. The other two sides, Real Betis and Espanyol, are eighth and 10th respectively.
Valverde argues that Spain's top flight is far from easy and no game can be taken for granted. Scorelines -- Real Madrid's especially -- back him up. However, at the same time, it's also fair to say that Barca have a much more gruelling run of games to tackle in the run-up to Christmas.
Saturday's home game against fifth-placed Sevilla is the first in a seven-game streak which will also see them travel to Valencia, Villarreal and Madrid, the final game taking place just two days before Christmas at the Santiago Bernabeu.
What's more, Barca are having to deal with a mounting injury list. Although, so far, their major players -- cough, Lionel Messi, cough -- have got by unharmed.
Captain Andres Iniesta is a late inclusion in the squad for the game against Sevilla but despite being given the thumbs up by the club's medics, there are doubts about his fitness. He missed the games against Athletic Bilbao and Olympiakos with a thigh problem he picked up in training last week. Whether he's 100 percent ready to take his place in Barca's midfield is not certain.
However, Valverde will have felt compelled to include him in the squad after returning from Greece in midweek with two crocked midfielders. The in-form Sergi Roberto is set for five weeks out of action with a hamstring strain. Meanwhile, Andre Gomes, so often criticised by supporters but an occasional wildcard in Valverde's selections, is out for three to four weeks with a thigh problem of his own.
Roberto and Gomes take the number of Barca players sidelined to six, the majority of which are midfielders or wide players.
Rafinha is a long-term absentee and no one knows when the Brazilian will be back. He has not played since April and has undergone two operations for a meniscus problem in his knee during that time. Arda Turan, another midfield option, is also injured, although his ongoing problems are becoming more and more mysterious given his lack of minutes under Valverde as reports of a return to Turkey in January grow.
Also missing are Ousmane Dembele and Aleix Vidal, leaving Valverde with just 18 fit first-team players. The coach has said he'd like to work with a smaller squad, but any smaller and he would have been forced to dip into the B team again this weekend. Although that might not have been too much of a problem, with the talented Carles Alena ready and waiting when called upon.
However, despite the loss of a number of midfielders and the uncertainty over Iniesta's ability to start the game, Barca do still have four players quite capable, on their day, or playing in the midfield three: Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Paulinho and Denis Suarez.
Rakitic's early season promise has dipped but Paulinho is quickly establishing himself as a cult hero. The Brazilian has scored three goals already and has performed well whenever given a chance, even earning the headline from one Catalan newspaper: From ridicule to idol.
Denis, too, has done well, which makes it puzzling why he hasn't been given more chances. In the league, he has either set up a goal or scored one every 65 minutes and if Iniesta's not fit to start, there are few players with as similar qualities as the former Villarreal midfielder.
If Barca's squad can prove itself in the coming weeks, they may finally start to quieten the doubts which, despite a long unbeaten run, continue to surround them. They have failed to convince, yet they have always found a way to win. It's a good habit to have but it's one which is about to be put to the test in the final two months of the year.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.