The round of 32 of the Copa del Rey is here, and La Liga is finally wading into the pool of Spain's top domestic cup competition. That means Barcelona is in action for the first time, and everyone is waiting to see how effectively they defend their Copa title a year after winning a treble. First up on the challenge list for them in this competition is Villanovense. Never heard of them? We've got some help for you in a bit.
In the meantime, we're left to wonder how Barcelona approach this match. Villanovense are a significantly smaller team, but Barcelona's short depth chart and injuries to two key reserves in Rafinha and Sergi Roberto mean that we may see a stronger starting lineup than you might expect. That won't be because Luis Enrique wants more minutes for his starters, but because he doesn't have the bodies available to rest as many players as he'd like.
Oh, and if you're wondering why the first leg of this matchup is being played in October when the rest of the Copa del Rey round of 32 is being played in December? It's because Barcelona will be in Japan for the Club World Cup at the time the second leg is typically played in the third week of December. That means they have to play the second leg when the rest of the Copa teams are playing their first leg matches, and Oct. 28 happened to be a convenient spot in the calendar for both Barcelona and Villanovense to play the first leg.
Such are the hazards of winning a treble, apparently.
What is a "Villanovense"?
There's a very high chance that you've never, ever heard of CF Villanovense before. They've never played above the Segunda Division B -- Spain's third tier -- and this is only the fourth time they've ever been in the Copa Del Rey. It's also the first time they've been past the second round in the Copa before, with their last two attempts ending in second-round losses after first-round wins. This year, though, they drew a first-round bye and managed to earn a 3-2 win over Peña Sport in the second round. The third round saw them snatch a dramatic late win over Racing Ferrol, with key midfielder Elias Perez picking up his second goal of the match right at the end of regulation with a 90th-minute penalty.
Their reward for that huge win? Facing Barcelona in the round of 32 in a two-legged tie. Ouch.
Villanovense are a fairly young team, having been founded in 1992. They played their first four seasons in the semi-pro regional leagues before finally gaining admission to the Tercera Division, the huge fourth tier of Spanish football. It took them until 2003 to earn promotion to the Segunda Division B, and they still have yet to really establish themselves there.
They've bounced back and fourth between the Segunda B and the Tercera a bit over the last 12 years, and this is Villanovense's seventh season in the Segunda B -- though last season's fourth-place finish was their best-ever final standing. Right now they're in 11th place in their group, and only two points clear of 16th, the relegation playoff spot.
Villanovense don't have any players with top-flight experience -- the closest would probably be 30-year old striker Juanjo, a rotation player for Villanovense who came through the Atletico Madrid academy early in his career before stalling and winding up as a fringe player bouncing between Spain's second and third divisions. He has scored once this season, two behind leading scorer Juanfran, a 23-year-old forward who joined Villanovense this season two years after being cut by Sevilla's reserve side.
Player to watch -- Munir El Haddadi (Barcelona)
Munir hasn't seen as much of the pitch as he may have liked this season, with Sandro Ramirez favored as the man to rotate into the side when an attacking starter is hurt or needs a rest. This match will be his chance to shine, though, and he'll be eager to step up to the challenge. The 20-year-old forward is lightning quick with a well-rounded attacking skillset, equally capable of creating a chance or breaking into the box to finish it himself. If he's given a chance to be a featured player in this match, we'll hopefully get a chance to see why he has already earned a senior international cap for Spain and has been a regular feature for their youth teams over the last year and a half.
Villanovense injuries and suspensions
Barcelona injuries and suspensions
Out: Lionel Messi, Sergi Roberto, Rafinha In doubt: Andres Iniesta
Match Date/Time: Wednesday, 3:30 p.m. ET, 8:30 p.m. local
Venue: Estadio Romero Cuerda, Villanueva de la Serena, Spain
TV: beIN Sports en Español (U.S.), Canal+ Liga/HD (Spain)
Online: Fubot TV, beIN Sports Connect (U.S.)