For Valencia, Yunus Musah has been a sensation this season. The ex-Arsenal youth player has replaced Ferran Torres, now at Manchester City, on the wing and become pivotal to the team. His importance was demonstrated mid-week, as he came off the bench to save Valencia from an upset in the cup with a last-minute goal.
Valencia are a club with a reputation for producing high-quality academy graduates that go on to feature in the first team. Valencia boss Javi Gracia will this weekend again be calling upon the likes of midfielder Carlos Soler, 23, and, providing he’s fit, left-back José Gayà, 25.
Similarly, Barcelona are well known for producing young talent through their La Masia academy, Ansu Fati being the latest star, and in their win over Real Sociedad on Wednesday, Barca started with centre-back graduate pairing Óscar Mingueza and Ronald Araújo. The latter is someone I see a promising future for; he’s strong, full of confidence and has a great mentality.
But it is Pedri, the 18-year-old who signed from Las Palmas in 2019, who’s the young player that has impressed the most this season. His progression at Las Palmas shows the depth of talent and standard of academies across the country.
Pedri has played on the wing at times this season but started in central midfield mid-week and there were glimpses of Andrés Iniesta with his technical skill on the ball, his ability to receive it on the half turn and instinct to get into intelligent spaces between opposition midfield and defence.
In LaLiga you need to be technically sound to succeed. For young players it’s crucial they think and play quickly both on and off the ball – and across Spain, this is how they are coached in the academy from an early age. I look back at my time with Barcelona, and when I was 18, I wasn’t ready to step up, it took a bit longer for players to break through. But nowadays the players are ready to step up to first-team football earlier than ever and I think that’s because the learning process is far better in the academy.
I expect both teams to attack with Pedri and Musah playing their part in this match, and I’m really looking forward to it. I expect Valencia to push forward because they are a big club and that’s what they do – but it may be their downfall with the space that’ll provide Barca’s attacking talents.
Last week’s Madrid derby result has thrown the title race wide open, but I still consider Atlético slight favourites. Real Madrid’s title credentials will depend on winning away at difficult teams like Eibar this weekend.
They beat Athletic Bilbao on Tuesday, but were fortunate to win despite playing most of the match with an extra man. They struggled to create chances, taking lots of shots from distance, and are finding it difficult to break down teams who are solid in defence.
However, Real Madrid fans can be confident given the return of skipper Sergio Ramos and right-back Dani Carvajal in recent games. Carvajal’s appearance saw auxiliary right-back Lucas Vázquez play further forward in the last two matches – which helps them balance defence and attack.
Sergio Ramos returning also improves his centre-back partner Raphaël Varane – and the two complement each other. Their partnership has helped turn the season around.
Eibar will not be easy to break down – they press high up the pitch and outplayed Real Sociedad on the ball in their draw last week. Their biggest strength is that they are a team that work hard for each other.
On Friday night, live on FreeSports and LaLigaTV, both Athletic Bilbao and Huesca will be looking to win this game as only four points separate the bottom half. A win could be crucial here.
Athletic Bilbao are a club steeped in tradition and pride – I played for their Basque rivals Alavés and it was always an intimidating place to go.
Huesca are a side whose results are yet to match their performances – they tend to dominate possession but have struggled to put their chances away this season. However, ex-Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki scored his first goal of the season recently whilst Javier Ontiveros looks back to his best and scored in their win over Alavés last time out.
We should see a completely different Atlético team to the one that lost the Madrid derby, with Los Colchoneros at home and favourites against Elche this weekend.
Until that defeat to Real Madrid, they had been fantastic all season. But last week was disappointing, not only the result but the way they lost, and I’ll be intrigued how it has affected their body language and confidence.
This is the first time this season that they need a reaction and if they want to win the league then they need to beat Elche.