Tomorrow evening is the first game of Tito Vilanova’s career as Barcelona manager, as the Blaugrana start their pre-season schedule with a trip to Germany to face Bundesliga side Hamburg. Compared to previous years, the club have selected their pre-season opponents intelligently, with money-spinning tours to the USA and Asia a thing of the past. Instead Barca will be staying closer to home, and arguably facing tougher opposition, almost certainly with the Supercopa in mind.
Hamburg finished in 15th place in the Bundesliga last season and responded by making changes a plenty to their playing staff. Forwards Jose Paulo Guerrero and Mladen Petric left the club for Corinthians and Fulham respectively, while midfielder (and captain) David Jarolim was released. However, prolific striker Artjoms Rudnevs was signed as a replacement from Lech Poznan for around €3.5 million and Rene Adler was signed on a free from Bundesliga rivals Bayer Leverkusen after his contract expired at the end of last season. Hamburg have also already started their pre-season fixtures, and just yesterday they won the fifth biennial Peace Cup in South Korea with a 1-0 victory over Seongnam Illhwa Chunma. With so many key players still away on holiday, this match is certain to be a huge test.
While it is true that many key players are still unavailable, including all those who competed in the knock-out stages of the European Championships, there is good news in the form of Lionel Messi. Given his international commitments, Messi is rarely available from the start of pre-season, but with no tournaments for him to feature in, Messi can and almost certainly will be starting tomorrow evening, but more on him later.
With Victor Valdés still away on holiday, José Manuel Pinto should start in goal for the Blaugrana although it wouldn’t be surprising if we saw Oier Olazábal take the field at some stage. In defense, Dani Alves is likely to get the nod at right-back, especially with Martin Montoya away on Olympic duty. After an extended period on the sidelines, Alves may not be able to play for much longer than an half and Ivan Balliu would be the straight-forward replacement, although Marc Bartra and perhaps Jonathan Dos Santos could also fill in if necessary. In central defense, Javier Mascherano is likely to start alongside either Marc Bartra or Marc Muniesa, both of whom are fighting to prove themselves in the first team after automatic promotions as stipulated by their contracts, while the left-back berth should be filled by Adriano what with Jordi Alba away on Olympic duty and all. On the other hand, Adriano may be required further up the field, so Carles Planas, Cristian Lobato and potentially Ivan Balliu could all feature on the left instead.
At pivote, Sergio Busquets is unavailable and Javier Mascherano is expected to start at centre-back, so Jonathan Dos Santos is the logical choice. The Mexican has been a regular for the B team at the same position for the- past few seasons, although question marks remain regarding whether or not he has the ability to make the transition not just from the Segunda to the Primera Division, but from the B team to the senior squad. Considering the only other obvious option for that pivote role is Ilie, JDS is almost guaranteed a chance to impress.
With Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Cesc Fàbregas all still away on holiday and with Thiago still recovering from a shin injury, Barcelona are looking a little thin in central midfield. The only player at all likely to feature in central midfield from the first team squad would be Ibrahim Afellay, but with the lack of wingers in the squad he seems more likely to start in an advanced role. That leaves B team players Sergi Roberto, Javier Espinosa, Patric, and new signing Joan Angel Roman along with Thiago’s brother Rafinha as the options available to Tito. Of those five, I would expect Sergi Roberto and Joan Angel Roman to start, although Afellay could easily take Roman’s place.
Then, getting to the offensive side of things, we have a couple of certainties. Alexis Sanchez will start on one wing, and Lionel Messi will start through the middle, which raises a question: will it be possible to spot whether or not Lionel Messi is lacking match fitness? After all, Messi missed almost all of pre-season last year thanks to a late holiday courtesy of the Copa America, but he still put Real Madrid to the sword in the Supercopa. While the rest of the team is a little make-shift in places, and other players may be lacking in match fitness, this could all be negated with Lionel Messi in the side. Worryingly enough for the rest of La Liga, Messi insists that he can still improve, perhaps starting where he left off last year with a goal (or three) tomorrow! On the other wing, Ibrahim Afellay could start, but I would expect Gerard Deulofeu to feature given his spectacular performances at the recent Under-19 European Championships. Deulofeu has been the subject of a media campaign (of sorts) back in Spain which is asking the question whether or not he should be promoted to the first team. A good performance against Hamburg tomorrow could well see those calls intensify.
Considering that Hamburg only played yesterday, and that they then had to fly back to Germany from Korea, they cannot be at full-strength for the visit of the Blaugrana tomorrow. On the other hand, their squad is also too small for full-scale changes. Rene Adler should start in goal, but Jaroslav Drobny would be a more than adequate replacement if required. Defensively, Hamburg started the Peace Cup final with a backline of Dennis Diekmeier, Jeffrey Bruma, Michael Mancienne and Dennis Aogo, so your guess is as good as mine with regards to whether they are fit enough to start again tomorrow. If not, Lam Zhi Gin is capable of filling in at right-back; Marcell Jansen can play at left-back, while Heiko Westermann and Muhamed Besic are options at centre-back. In midfield I expect Hamburg to opt for a double-pivot of Per Ciljan Skjelbred and either the versatile Westermann or Jacopo Sala given the long-term absences of Gojko Kacar and Tomas Rincon. Ahead of them, I think Hamburg will go for a trio of Heung-Min Son, Ivo Ilicevic and Tolgay Arslan behind the lone striker, likely to be Marcus Berg.
FORM GUIDE – LAST SIX GAMES
FC Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto; Alves, Mascherano, Bartra, Adriano; JDS, Sergi Roberto, Afellay; Deulofeu, Messi, Sanchez
HSV (4-2-3-1): Adler; Diekmeier, Mancienne, Besic, Aogo; Westermann, Skjelbred, Heung-Min Son, Ilicevic, Arslan; Berg
Barcelona to fight their way to a close-fought victory, I’m going for a 3-1 win for the Blaugrana.