Barça begin their defence of La Liga with a return to San Mames to face Athletic Club de Bilbao on Sunday evening (kick-off 6.30 pm). Having lost 4-0 at the same venue last Friday night on the way to Supercopa defeat, Luis Enrique will have no doubts about the difficulty of starting the league in Bilbao. The task is made more complicated by the absences of Neymar Jr, who is still recovering from the mumps, and Gerard Piqué who begins the first of his four-match ban. Jordi Alba has trained normally this week after recovering from a hamstring injury against Roma on August 5 but he is still considered a doubt.
Despite the dramatic 5-4 victory over Sevilla to clinch the European Supercup, Barça’s build-up to the start of the league season has provided little optimism for the new campaign. In the Gamper we saw three very nice goals from Neymar, Messi and Rakitic but Roma gave the game little importance. Against Sevilla there were good moments leading up to the 4-1 score but we lost control and concentration in defence to allow Sevilla to get back to 4-4. The 4-0 humilliation at Athletic demonstrated clearly how important it is to match the effort and desire to win of the opponent. It’s true we paid the price of a long trip to Georgia to play Sevilla just three days before, but the players who came in failed to match Athletic’s workrate while Messi and Suárez looked jaded. Talent alone is never enough to win games and this is neither the first nor the last time that a big team will get turned over by supposedly inferior opponents who work harder and show more hunger for victory.
There were moments of good play in the return game with Athletic at Camp Nou but pulling back four goals was never going to be easy. Piqué’s sending-off ended all hope of a miracle and while Piqué might feel justified in disputing the offside decision his over-the-top rant in the face of the linesman was asking for a red card. I have my doubts about whether or not Piqué called anybody’s mother a prostitute, but as Piqué has history with the referee Carlos Velasco Carballo, he should have known better than to react as he did. Piqué is one of the few players who had looked in good form in preseason and his loss for four games will be important, especially against Athletic who have striker Aritz Aduriz in blistering form demonstrated by his four goals in the two Supercopa clashes.
The loss of Xavi, Pedro and Montoya without the possibility of immediate replacements leaves Barça’s first team squad looking thin. Xavi and Pedro may not have been first choice starters last season but they were both first choice replacements whenever a striker or midfielder was missing. Until Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal and any other possible summer signing are eligible to play in January there will be increased responsibility thrust on youngsters such as Sergi Roberto and Rafinha. Of the two, Sergi Roberto has shown the more encouraging form in preseason and his ability to play as the holding man in midfield or at right-back will add to his opportunities this season. In the Xavi role, however, he still has a lot to learn, and Luis Enrique will find it more difficult to rest Rakitic and Iniesta as a consequence. Rafinha has had a disappointing preseason but he now has the chance to start the season in the team due to Neymar’s absence. Pedro’s departure should see him getting more opportunities to play in attack while he continues to offer the best option to play Iniesta’s role when the midfielder needs a rest.
The main doubt for Sunday’s team is over who will take Piqué’s place in defence. Bartra is the natural choice though Luis Enrique could easily play Mascherano as the right-sided centre-back with Vermaelen or Mathieu to his left. Given Aduriz’s strength in the air the Barça coach could also leave Mascherano out to play two from Bartra, Vermaelen and Mathieu. If Jordi Alba isn’t considered fit enough to start then Mathieu seems most likely to take the left-back spot.
Following Ter Stegen’s erratic preseason Claudio Bravo looks very likely to start again as number one in La Liga. So with a doubt or two over the defence, Sunday’s line-up to start the league could be Bravo, Alves, Bartra, Mascherano, Mathieu, Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, Suárez and Rafinha. It seems very unlikely that we can be as outfought as in the Supercopa first leg, though starting the league with three points is going to be no walk in the park.
Finally, a quick mention of the moves for Alen Halilovic and Adama Traore. Halilovic is going on loan to Sporting Gijon who have just been promoted to the Primera División. Adama has signed for Aston Villa for a fee of €10 million with Barça including a three-year buy back clause in the contract. Both players are 19-years-old and the chance to gain experience playing in top level leagues can only be good for their development, as long as they can get fairly regular opportunities. Adama as an out-and-out winger may find himself to be part of a dying breed as more and more teams prefer multi-purpose players for these positions, players who can cut inside, track back and interchange positions with other strikers. He has immense talent, a great physique and electric speed but he may find he needs to adapt his game to make it to the top. Halilovic is great on the ball with good vision and creativity. However, he needs to improve defensively and also to get physically stronger and tougher. Both players have been tipped for the top but this is now a vital step in their careers.
Possible starting XIs:
Athletic: Iraizoz; De Marcos Etxeita, Laporte, Balenziaga; Benat, San Jose; Susaeta, Rico, Aketxe; Aduriz.
Barça: Bravo; Alves, Bartra, Mascherano, Mathieu; Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Rafinha.
Prediction: Athletic 1 Barça 2
Date: Sunday 23 August. Kick-off 6.30 pm local time.