Who: Barcelona vs Valencia
When: Saturday, September 14th @ 03:00 pm ET
Line: Barcelona -240 | Draw +360 | Valencia +650
Whether he’s in the lineup or not, Lionel Messi is the biggest topic of conversation when it comes to Barcelona and La Liga.
Unfortunately for the Catalans, it’s been the latter for the first three games of the season. Messi will be absent again Saturday when the team hosts Valencia at Camp Nou at 3 p.m. Eastern. Barcelona (-240) is nevertheless a heavy favorite against the league leader in dysfunction, Valencia (+650). We’ll get to that matchup in a bit, but first, let’s talk more about the impact of the Argentine’s absence.
Two different teams
Last year, when the Argentine was at his best, Barcelona was unstoppable. The question was whether his team could win a Champions League title without an ideal supporting cast for him. He/they were not.
Coming into this year, Barcelona appeared to have improved Messi’s supporting cast by signing Frenchman Antoine Griezmann from Atlético Madrid and Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong from Ajax. Both those players have shown (especially Griezmann in the 5-2 win over Real Betis on August 25) why they were considered pivotal additions, but the Argentine’s lingering calf injury changes everything.
Messi was initially expected to only miss the first three games, with a return expected after last weekend’s international break. His absence this weekend, and uncertain status for next Tuesday’s game at Borussia Dortmund in the UCL, is the biggest story in Spain right now.
Losses or draws his team have suffered without him have been somewhat easy to dismiss when we’ve known he’d be back the next week. But that does not appear to be the case here. And the surprisingly poor play without him – four points from three games, with a loss to Athletic Bilbao and a draw vs. Osasuna – makes the problem that much more significant.
With Atlético (nine points through three impressive games) seemingly potent enough offensively to continue playing at a high level all season, Barcelona cannot afford to drop more points over the next week or two.
Big shoes to fill
Pivoting away from the most important calf in Spain, why has a team with plenty of other stars already dropped five points? Unfortunately, Messi’s injury is not the only one this team is dealing with. Ousmane Dembélé is in the midst of (another) extended absence, and Luis Suárez has missed time as well. No one was expecting this team’s starting front three to be (left to right) Rafinha, Antoine Griezmann and Carles Pérez at any point, but that’s what Barcelona has had to roll with the last 180 minutes. That doesn’t explain, however, why a team that was stout defensively last year has given up five goals through three games.
The good news is that things might look very different just a week from now. Suárez is expected to return to the pitch this weekend, and his return will be welcome. If he’s fit and can stay that way and Messi is back next week, all the concerns we just discussed will might feel like distant memories. But those are bigger hypotheticals than any Barça fans want to be thinking about in September.
As for Saturday vs. Valencia, Barcelona faces a team in an absolute world of turmoil. Owner Peter Lim this week decided to ignore Marcelino’s impressive work and strong relationship with his players and sack him in favor of unproven Albert Celades. It will be fascinating to see how Valencia performs in these circumstances, especially considering they’re already limping along, with just four points through three games. And they’ll have Barcelona’s full attention after upsetting them in last year’s Copa del Rey final. Don’t count on another surprise here.
Elsewhere in La Liga
The top three are likely to continue their winning ways, as Atleti (+114) travels to Real Sociedad (+275), second-place Athletic Bilbao (+128) is at Mallorca (+265) and Sevilla (-107) takes on Alavés (+320).
Real Madrid is dealing with even more injuries than Barcelona, but is a massive favorite (-420) at home vs. Levante (+950). The visitors are not getting a bit of respect from the oddsmakers despite having six points through three games, compared to RM’s five. If there’s a bet to be made on any of the games we just mentioned, it’s worth a shot to take Levante at those odds or bet on a draw (+550).