The 2012/13 Liga season starts for Barça tomorrow evening with a game against Real Sociedad at Camp Nou (kick off 9pm local time). After four years of non-stop success under the guidance of Pep Guardiola, the big question now is whether that success can continue with Tito Vilanova in charge.
With very few changes to the squad after one of the quietest summers in transfer market history, and a continuation of the playing style and philosophy, there is little to suggest that Barça will notice much difference. There is a concern, perhaps, that we will miss Guardiola’s skill at motivation, but having seen the five preseason games there are no signs of any relaxation.
Of course we might have done more to have signed either Thiago Silva or Javi Martinez, however, I respect the fact that we don’t get silly in the transfer market, and the asking price for these two players (like for Danny Agger) was too high. The final details on the Alex Song transfer still being negotiated as I write so it is difficult to comment too much, though I really don’t think we should pay more than €15 million.
Whether Song signs or not, I believe our squad is just about as good as it’s ever been. There are doubts about the back-up for the centre back position as after Piqué, Mascherano and Puyol the next in line is Marc Bartrá. Puyol is now 34 and while he may still be around for two or three more seasons he has had more than his fair share of injury problems which suggests that our “fourth” centre back may well end up playing in a lot of games. Personally I’ve always thought Bartrá is the most promising of our current crop of young defenders and perhaps it is time for him to get this chance, but I’m a little worried still that he can take the occasional risk that might get punished more ruthlessly at the top level.
In midfield we have lost Keita as back-up but presumably that is the role that Song will have. However, with the main three of Xavi-Busquets-Iniesta and with Cesc, Thiago and Dos Santos as cover, this is an area where we are already very strong. While with David Villa on his way back we will see a battle for places with Pedro and Alexis for who will accompany Leo Messi in attack. If these four players stay fit it will be very difficult for our other forwards Afellay and Cuenca to get much of a look in, but it is a long season so we shall see.
Vilanova has everybody available for tomorrow’s opening game except for Thiago who is still recovering from the shin problem that kept him out of the Olympics, while it seems David Villa is undergoing a certain comeback plan which will see him eased back gradually. We should be especially careful with Real Sociedad who last season gave us two tough games. At Anoeta last September they came back from 0-2 to draw 2-2, then at Camp Nou Tello and Messi put Barça two up before Carlos Vela made the final score 2-1 with 15 minutes to go, leaving a nervous finish.
It could be close again tomorrow but for some reason I feel confident of a big win. Messi has been looking very good in what we have seen in preseason and I expect him to start the season with a bang. Hopefully there will be no repeat of what happened to Eusebio Sacristan’s Barça B last night against Almeria. After taking an early 2-0 lead at the Miniestadi through Dongou and Deulofeu Barça let the lead slip and it was 2-2 after only 19 minutes. Left back Carles Planas was sent off just before half time after a second yellow for a stupid handball. Almeria went 2-3 up early in the second half before Deulofeu scored a brilliant 40-yard free kick to even things up again. Almeria took advantage of Barça’s numerical inferiority near the end with two more goals before Deulofeu completed his hat-trick direct from a corner to leave the final score a disappointing but incredible 4-5.
Barça’s possible starting XI: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Alexis.
My prediction: Barça 4 Real Sociedad 0