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Barcelona are now the strong favorites to win the La Liga title ahead of Real Madrid
Xavi Hernandez’s side recently opened up an eight-point lead at the top of the table
Villarreal have lost ground in the race for a top-four finish but the situation is salvageable
The odds for Villarreal vs Barcelona are from the FanDuel sportsbook, where new customers will receive a no-sweat first bet up to $3000 after creating an account.
The Blaugrana have a remarkable defensive record this season and another clean sheet could be on the cards when they take on Villarreal.
Back Barcelona to win to nil in this crunch La Liga clash this weekend. (+228)
At the beginning of the season, Barcelona were the second-favorites to win the La Liga title with the best online sportsbooks. It is not that surprising that they are now in a pole position to claim the prize. However, the method by which they have taken up their position at the summit of the standings was certainly unexpected.
Barcelona’s title tilt has been built on an extraordinarily solid defense. After 20 rounds of fixtures, they have conceded just seven goals. If they maintain their current rate, Barcelona will give up just 13 goals this term. The all-time La Liga record, which is shared by Deportivo La Coruna and Atletico Madrid, is 18 goals against.
It was certainly possible to envisage a Barcelona title triumph this term, but the assumption was that it would come in spite of their defense rather than because of it.
That is not to say the Blaugrana’s backline looked especially suspect, but most of the attention in the summer was drawn to an attack that featured Robert Lewandowski, Ousmane Dembele, Ansu Fati, Raphinha, and others.
Barcelona are the top scorers in La Liga, but they have made the net bulge just twice more than Real Madrid. The starkest difference between the two teams is at the other end of the field. Madrid have shipped 17 goals in total. That is by no means a disastrous number, but it nevertheless means they have conceded more than twice as many goals as their arch-rivals.
Madrid have stuttered of late, dropping points in three of their last five matches. They have consequently fallen eight points adrift of Barcelona, and that gap could soon be 11: Carlo Ancelotti’s side will contest the Club World Cup final, rather than a La Liga fixture, this weekend.
After a 1-0 victory over Girona last month, Villarreal were the form team in La Liga. They had taken 13 points from the last 15 available and had risen to the cusp of the top four under former Barcelona boss Quique Setien, who replaced Unai Emery as the club’s manager after the latter joined Aston Villa in October.
Their challenge for Champions League qualification has taken a hit over the last couple of weeks, though, as the Yellow Submarine went down to Rayo Vallecano and Elche. The second defeat was particularly unexpected, with Villarreal losing to a team that had yet to win all season.
All is not lost, however. Setien’s side are only four points adrift of Atletico Madrid in fourth place. Barcelona aside, they have the joint-best defensive record in the division.
It is true that scoring goals has been an issue for Villarreal this term, but they are in a decent position at the midway point of the campaign. There is still plenty of soccer to be played this season, and Villarreal have what it takes to stay in the top-four race until the very end.
Setien would no doubt love to lead his team to victory over Barcelona, whom he managed for just seven months in 2020. Villarreal beat Real Madrid in January, so they should not be written off.
Having said that, it is hard to see anyone in La Liga stopping Barcelona right now. Xavi’s side have developed a knack possessed by all great champions of winning even when they are not playing at their best.
Indeed, even the greatest teams in history struggled to turn in top-class performances week in, week out over a 10-month season. But if a side can pick up points even when they are operating below their potential, they have a great chance of achieving their goals.
It is impressive that Xavi has been able to create a team capable of grinding out results this way in just his second full season at the helm. With their experience among the coaching staff and on the pitch, one might expect Real Madrid to possess that attribute more than Barcelona. But it is the former who have faltered and the latter who have found a way to win one way or another.
Taking everything into account, an away win to nil feels like the smartest selection for Sunday’s match, particularly when you look at the attractive odds available for such an outcome.
Barcelona have won no fewer than 14 matches while keeping a clean sheet this term. As for Villarreal, only seven sides in the division have scored fewer goals in 2022/23. A team that has at times struggled to put the ball in the back of the net will not relish facing Barcelona’s rock-solid defense.
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Teams: Villarreal vs Barcelona
Location: Estadio de la Ceramica, Villarreal, Spain
Time: Sunday 12 February 2023, 3:00 PM, EST
How to Watch: ESPN+
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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