Barcelona ground out an intense victory over Villarreal on Sunday night, maintaining confidence ahead of their tie against Manchester United on Thursday. The two face off at Camp Nou in a Europa League playoff, with both going into the encounter in good form.
The Blaugrana had to fight for every ball in Castellon and were forced to do plenty of defending against the Yellow Submarine, but there were positives to take too, not least the performance of Ronald Araujo.
Perhaps the best news came from a surprising source though. Barcelona will be without Ousmane Dembele for the first leg against Manchester United at least, and likely Sergio Busquets too.
The Blaugrana had hit on a formula for success in the last month, with Pedri and Gavi nominally playing further forward as part of a four-man midfield, consisting of Frenkie de Jong and Busquets too. The absence of Busquets threatened to unbalance the equilibrium that had been found.
However against Villarreal, Franck Kessie demonstrated that he can perform well in the same system alongside de Jong. The Ivorian midfielder has been a bit-part player up until now, but against the Yellow Submarine, his value was evident. Strong in the challenge, he was able to maintain possession using his body intelligently too.
Between him and de Jong, they recovered 16 balls against Villarreal, over half of the team’s total of 30, as per Sport. Kessie was often found covering Alejandro Balde at left-back, allowing the youngster to get forward. Equally, his work in the middle gave de Jong permission to direct matters with the ball more often.
Ahead of their showdown with Erik ten Hag’s side, it will be a relief to Xavi Hernandez to know that he can maintain a winning formula if he desires. While Busquets would have provided a little more control, which would have helped Barcelona against Villarreal, there is no doubt that Kessie’s efforts were a massive aid to the Blaugrana.