After the relative disappointment of last season’s second-place finish, FC Barcelona will be looking to get La Liga 2012/13 off to the best possible start tomorrow when they host Real Sociedad at the Camp Nou. It will have been 100 days since the Blaugrana were last in league action (not that I have been counting at all), and a lot has happened in that time. Barcelona have won the Copa Del Rey, changed manager and made two new signings – although only one can feature tomorrow – but despite all that, one thing hasn’t changed: Barcelona are still expected to challenge for the title, starting with the three points tomorrow.
Typically, Barcelona have been strong in recent league openers, boasting three wins from three in the past three seasons, scoring 11 goals in the process, but that doesn’t mean the team can afford to get complacent. Real Sociedad are one of the toughest teams in the division; what they lack in talent they make up for with physicality and a relentless work-rate. Barcelona will have to be at their best if they wish to claim all three points, although with a mid-week El Clasico to think about, Tito Vilanova has some difficult decisions to make.
Speaking in the pre-match press conference this morning, Tito Vilanova insists that the team is good enough to win any match, and it is hard to disagree. The squad is largely the same as the one that Pep Guardiola lead to domestic and European success, and if anything, they have actually improved since the last time they lifted the La Liga crown. Players are a year or two older and, dare I say it, wiser too. If they were complacent last season, then by the same logic they must be hungry to succeed this year – and if they truly have improved then they will have learnt from the mistakes of the previous year, many of which came against Real Sociedad.
Victor Valdés for instance will be looking to learn from his mistake in last season’s 2-2 draw at the Anoeta as he is certain to start in goal tomorrow. Given that the Catalans have not conceded in three consecutive season openers, the onus will be on Valdés to extend that run to four matches with a clean sheet. VV has come in for a bit of criticism from the fans for erratic performances in recent months, but he appeared to be back to his best during the brief pre-season. If that is the case, and Valdés truly is back to his best, then Barcelona could stand to gain an extra few points over the course of the season.
Much the same can be said of the defense, as both Dani Alves and Gerard Piqué were singled out as two individuals who under-performed last season, but as has happened with Valdés, the managerial change appears to have invigorated them – if pre-season is anything to go by. Dani Alves looks dangerous surging down the right-flank once again, but he has also added a maturity to his game. No longer does he just bomb forward at every opportunity, he assesses the game and stays back or delays the run depending on the circumstances. Likely to start at right-back tomorrow, I expect to see a mature performance from Alves tomorrow, although depending on fitness levels and Tito’s priorities, Martin Montoya may see some game-time.
At centre-back, Javier Mascherano and Gerard Piqué are the over-whelming favourites to start, especially when one considers Carles Puyol’s recent battle with injury. The Clasico may complicate things and could lead to some minutes for Marc Bartra but even at this stage, the league should be given priority. Gerard Piqué was excellent in pre-season and if he continues that form, it will be like Barcelona have made a new signing as let’s face it, Piqué was far from his best last season. The defense is likely to be completed by Jordi Alba, although I suspect that Tito will opt for Adriano, thus saving his new signing for the midweek Clasico.
Sergio Busquets is virtually the only option for pivote, and is likely to be partnered in midfield by Cesc Fàbregas and Andrés Iniesta, leaving Xavi fresh for the Clasico. That being said, both Cesc and Andrés featured in Spain’s midweek win against Puerto Rico, so Xavi could equally start tomorrow, regardless of the Supercopa first leg. Maybe it’s just me, but Thiago would have been really useful at this point...
On the other hand, in Thiago’s absence, this could be the opportunity that Ibrahim Afellay so richly deserves after his extended spell on the sidelines as the Dutchman is capable of holding his own in the Barca midfield. Add Sergi Roberto’s presence in training, and Barcelona has a wealth of choices for their midfield.
Offensively, Lionel Messi will start, purely because he always starts and always will. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is disappointed (read: furious) that he played 90 minutes for Argentina in Wednesday’s pointless friendly with Germany. I understand that Messi is the only Argentine player seemingly capable of carrying the team, but when you see quotes from Sergio Romero that indicate the other players don’t try as hard because they have Messi on the team, it’s incredibly frustrating. It’s unlikely to affect his performances at this early stage of the season, but once we get to the 40 game mark, it may well play a factor.
Alexis Sanchez also played 90 minutes for his country, and as a result, is unlikely to start, but one could argue that he was always a candidate for rest ahead of the Clasico Supercopa. Pedro will start on one wing, with the other spot likely to go to Ibrahim Afellay or Andrés Iniesta rather than Cristian Tello.
Sociedad were a difficult opponent last season, and if anything they have strengthened their squad over the summer. Carlos Vela has joined the club on a permanent basis after a season on loan from Arsenal, former Barcelona target Jose Angel was signed on loan from AS Roma and Gonzalo Castro has signed from Real Mallorca. The latter signing is particularly noteworthy given his performances last season when the Uruguayan scored six goals and assisted a further 10 of Mallorca’s 42 league goals. When you consider that he joins a front-line that boasts the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Imanol Agirretxe, Xabi Preito and of course, Carlos Vela, it’s clear that Sociedad will pose a threat to the Blaugrana back-line. However, Sociedad has lost an important player in centre-half Vadim Demidov, even if Mikel Gonzalez and Inigo Martinez are a more than capable partnership. Carlos Martinez is a weak-link at right-back, so expect Barcelona to frequently utilise their overlapping left-back.
Real Sociedad: WDLWLL
FC Barcelona 2-1 Real Sociedad – 5th February 2012 – La Liga
Barcelona prevailed 2-1 on a cold night at the Camp Nou as goals from Lionel Messi and Cristian Tello were enough to secure victory despite Carlos Vela’s consolation.
FC Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Mascherano, Piqué, Adriano; Busquets, Cesc, Sergi Roberto; Pedro, Messi, Afellay
Real Sociedad (4-2-3-1): Bravo; C. Martinez, Inigo Martinez, Gonzalez, Angel; Illarremendi, Zurutuza, Xabi Prieto, Castro, Griezmann; Agirretxe
Barcelona to triumph on the opening day by 2-0 with both goals coming courtesy of a certain Argentine attacker