BARCELONA (Reuters) - Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde faces a dilemma before his side’s potentially tricky trip to in-form Eibar on Saturday, having watched his side’s seemingly unassailable La Liga lead cut to seven points from 11 in the last two weeks.
The advantage would normally give the coach room to rotate his squad in order to keep his side fresh for the visit to Chelsea in the Champions League three days later but tiny Eibar’s consistency means such a move risks his side falling closer to second-placed Atletico Madrid.
Eibar hail from a town of 27,000 inhabitants in the Basque region and are the smallest team in the top flight. Five years ago they were in the 80-team regional third tier.
They have overcome a rocky start to the season to grow into genuine contenders for a European spot, rising to seventh place in the standings by losing only one of their last 12 games.
That run has included impressive 5-0 and 5-1 thrashings of Real Betis and Sevilla respectively as well as victory over high-flying Valencia. They have also developed a knack for edging tight games, snatching a 1-0 win at Leganes in their last outing with an injury-time goal.
It is a remarkable turnaround from their dismal form at the start of the season when they lost seven of their first 11 games, although coach Jose Luis Mendilibar said his side had barely altered their style, which is based on pressing high, no-nonsense defending and frequent crosses into the opposing box.
“We’ve changed nothing, we don’t care which team we play, we’ll keep doing what we believe we do well,” the coach said.
“It’s easy for any analyst to see what we do in every game, we change hardly anything so it should be easy to play against us. It’s extraordinary to be in this position at this stage as no-one would have expected that when the season started.”
Barca have found it easy to play against Eibar, winning all seven of their games since the side were promoted and thrashing them 6-1 at the Nou Camp last September. Lionel Messi seems to enjoy playing them too, having scored 12 goals in six meetings, including four in the last fixture.
The Catalans remain the only unbeaten team in Europe’s top five leagues but head to the tiny, 7,000-capacity Ipurua stadium following unconvincing draws against Espanyol and Getafe.
They will be boosted by the return of first-choice centre backs Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti, however.
Atletico Madrid have won their last three league games and will be looking to keep the pressure on Barca when they host Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, while champions Real Madrid visit Real Betis.
Reporting by Richard Martin; editing by Clare Lovell