Valverde coy on Mascherano future ahead of Barcelona trip to Villarreal

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde expects former club Villarreal to take the game to their visitors when the sides meet at the Estadio de la Ceramica on Sunday evening.

Valverde’s side, who signed off the Champions League group stages with a 2-0 triumph over Sporting Lisbon at the Nou Camp on Tuesday, have won 11 and drawn three of their 14 league games so far this term.

The Catalan side have drawn back-to-back games in LaLiga, however, and Valverde acknowledges they will not have it all their own way as they look to return to winning ways.

“Some teams take precautions against strong teams, but teams also have to stay faithful to their own style,” Valverde said, speaking at his pre-match press conference.

The 53-year-old, who had an unsuccessful eight-month stint in charge of the Yellow Submarine in 2009-10, added: “I think they’ll try to dominate us as much as they can. They want to be the protagonists of the game – we’re going to try to do the same thing, and we’ll see which team emerges victorious.

Valverde was repeatedly questioned about the future of Javier Mascherano, patiently sidestepping talk of a possible January exit for the 33-year-old Argentina midfielder.

“They’re internal questions,” he said. “Just like we don’t talk about new players that might be coming in, (we don’t talk about this). We’ll see what happens.”

Mascherano and fellow midfielder Andres Iniesta are doubtful for Sunday’s game due to injury, while defender Samuel Umtiti is out with a thigh problem sustained in last weekend’s 2-2 draw with Celta Vigo.

Villarreal’s preparations for the game were disrupted on Saturday morning when midfielder Pablo Fornals collapsed during training due to hypoglycemia.

Coach Javi Calleja, quoted in the Spanish press, said: “Pablo Fornals has given us a big scare. He fainted during (Saturday morning’s) session. We were lucky that the doctor was quick and helped him recover, but they had to transfer him to a hospital to do tests.

“We understand that it is a sugar issue and that he is stable and recovering, but they have to do further tests. The good news is that the cardio aspect is fine. We have to see why this happened.”

Calleja fielded a much-changed side in Thursday night’s 1-0 home defeat to Maccabi Tel Aviv, with Europa League progress already assured.

The 39-year-old accepts league leaders Barca are very much the favourites in the Sunday night clash, but reckons his team could cause an upset.

“I love Valverde’s Barcelona,” he told his club’s website, “For now they are the best team in LaLiga, since they are the leaders and have not lost a single game. They are the favourites, but we can win. We have enough weapons and excitement.

“We have to look for long periods of possession. We want to make sense of the game, to hurt Barca. There will also be stages in which we will have to protect ourselves. Barca are defending very well and then very dangerous when they have the ball – they create chances from nowhere.”

As well as Fornals, the hosts announced on Saturday morning that striker Carlos Bacca will not feature. They will also be without goalkeeper Andres Fernandez, midfielder Denis Cheryshev and forward Nicola Sansone.

Football Paradise Staff Reporter

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