Like Villarreal, Barcelona also started last season with a whimper, winning 2 games and drawing 4 out of their first 7, first thanks to a misfiring strike-force and then the leaky defense. It looked to be happening again with the humiliating loss to Sevilla in the European Super Cup and the dodgy win against Celta despite good performances against Espanyol in the Spanish Super Cup and Bayern Munich in the Gamper Trophy friendly. However, with excellent wins over Osasuna and Levski Sofia in the Champions League, they look to be back on track and will feel confident going into the away game against Racing Santander.
Rijkaard's starting eleven is getting as difficult to guess as Rafa Benitez's, but here's my hopeful prediction (4-3-3): Valdes; Zambrotta, Puyol, Marquez, Sylvinho; Edmilson, Xavi, Iniesta; Messi, Eto'o, Ronaldinho.
If that turns out to be anywhere near Rijkaard's thinking, I expect Gudjohnsen to get some time on the pitch possibly at the expense of Eto'o - who has got to be tired having played every minute of every game so far - if he doesn't throw a fit about it. I also expect Oleguer to feature as a substitute either at right-back or in the center.
I put Sylvinho ahead of Gio because he sat out the midweek game and has been in blistering form lately; Xavi and Iniesta ahead of Deco because they've had less time on the pitch so far, and because rumour has it that he will be rested for this game, and Messi because Giuly played in midweek. There are also rumours that Messi will be rested, but ever the optimist, I'm not crediting those just yet. The rest of the selections are based on who's been left out of the squad (Thuram, Belletti, Motta, Saviola).
It's very important that Barcelona win this match, with two tough fixtures coming up - against Valencia at home on the 24th and away to Bremen on the 27th. I'm a bit worried about the defence with Racing's new towering striker Zigic making his debut, but as long as Puyol gets back to top form alongside Marquez who has been excellent so far Barca should cope.
Other big games on Sunday include Athletic Bilbao v Atletico Madrid - big in the sense that both clubs are prone to spectacular collapses, and that it will probably be 'new Messi' Sergio Aguero's first start in the league for Atletico alongside Mista because club captain Fernando Torres is suspended, barring an insane decision from the coach to play midfielder Maxi Rodriguez upfront instead.
Valencia meet fellow table-toppers Getafe, who have started extremely well despite limited resources. Valencia on the other hand have spent big in the transfer window, bringing in most notably Joaquin who would make a tasty attacking axis with Vicente on the other wing and David Villa alongside a revived Fernando Morientes upfront. To me, though, one of the best things about their transfer window activity was settling the dispute with veteran defender Roberto Ayala - who despite being 33 years old had a fabulous World Cup - and persuading him to stay at the club.
The biggest game this week is the Seville derby - Sevilla v Real Betis, which should be a cracking match if only Sevilla can sort out their TV deal dispute so that the rest of the world can watch them play the spectacular football they've played in recent weeks. Betis got a good victory against Athletic last week and should do better than last season having made some interesting signings in the transfer window, bringing in David Odonkor (who had such a good World Cup as a supersub for Germany) as a replacement for the departing Joaquin and also Brazilian star Rafael Sobis, fresh off being the hero of Internacional's Copa Liberadores triumph. Sobis was also part of the Bronze-winning Brazillian World Youth Championship team of 2005 in which he scored a valuable goal in the group stages for a very goal-shy side.
(That, by the way, is not a criticism of the Brazilian team - despite winning the tournament, Argentina had a similar problem, with half their goals coming from playmaker Messi, reflecting 1) his domination of the team and the tournament, and 2) how badly the forwards were misfiring. Only 2 of their 12 goals were scored by actual strikers, Neri Cardozo and Gustavo Oberman respectively.)