And so it begins. For Luis Enrique and FC Barcelona, the long journey towards success starts afresh tomorrow evening, as they kick-off their preseason campaign with a long trip to the south west and to Huelva, where the Blaugrana will square off against second division Recreativo at the Nuevo Colombino. For Barcelona, the dismal performances of last season have been long forgotten; the disappointment has turned to optimism with a plethora of big-name signings, including a notable change in the front office as former club captain, Luis 'Lucho' Enrique replaced the departed Gerardo 'Tata' Martino.
It's been less of a revamp, and more of a complete overhaul; even with a whole host of activity yet to come. There's even talk that Barça might abandon their famous 4-3-3 in favour of a 4-3-1-2 as the club rings the changes in response to a subpar season. And no-one has been safe. From the departures of Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes to the sales of Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez, some say that a current club legend like Xavi may still be shown the door. It's ruthless, it's sad and brutally cold; yet somehow enthralling, exciting and encouraging in equal measure.
For the first time since 2008, this has been a real summer of change in Catalonia and only one question remains: will it work out for the best?
Of course, the feats achieved in the aftermath of that 2008/09 fire sale may never be equalled, but there's a real hope that the past couple of months will prove to be the catalyst for future success, whether it comes in the form of a La Liga title, a fifth UEFA Champions League crown, or rather optimistically, another unprecedented treble. And yes, there are a few issues left to iron out, but the general consensus thus far is that FC Barcelona are better placed to compete next season as compared to previous campaigns.
So perhaps that's why the club have decided to start preseason proper just a week after the conclusion of the 2014 World Cup; this will be a chance to gauge progress and to really pinpoint those final few imperfections prior to the start of the campaign. How are the players reacting to Lucho's leadership? Have we rediscovered that hunger that defined the Guardiola era? Just how will we lineup next season?
As we inch ever closer to finding the answers, we can take comfort in the knowledge that soon the wait will be over...
Barcelona are back!
Except, they're not. At least not yet, and they won't be tomorrow either. In name, this will be FC Barcelona vs Recreativo de Huelva, but the truth is that a statement like that is misleading; the Blaugrana will be without all of their World Cup stars, even those who crashed out at the group stage in ignominious fashion have been afforded the luxury of an extended vacation, granted the same treatment as our dejected runners up. So that means no Lionel Messi, no Neymar, no Luis Suarez and thankfully, no Alex Song. And the positives don't end there: Lucho's hand may have been forced by the vast number of absentees, but there is room in the squad for a number of La Masia's brightest prospects. From Munir el Haddadi to Alejandro Grimaldo via new signing, Alen Halilovic; this is a real opportunity for youth to catch the eye of a young coach eager to promote homegrown talent.
It's also a chance to see a few new joiners to the first team squad; as we mentioned earlier, the World Cup contingent are out so there's no Ivan Rakitic, Claudio Bravo and certainly no Suarez, but Marc-Andre ter Stegen will be there waiting to make his debut in a Blaugrana jersey, while Gerard Deulofeu is set to make his first appearance since promotion to the senior squad.
Like I said, it's an exciting time for FC Barcelona, and Luis Enrique will be keen to ensure that lowly Recreativo don't spoil that real feel-good atmosphere surrounding the club. Complacency doesn't even enter the equation; under Lucho that entire concept doesn't even exist, even in preseason friendlies. He wants to see passion and hard work from start to finish across the entire squad and at such an early stage of preseason, it's likely that the entire team will get a chance to make an impression on their new coach.
However, for now we will turn our attentions to the starting line-up, the first of Luis Enrique’s reign as Barcelona coach.
Marc-André ter Stegen will start in goal, and while many believed he was signed as the undisputed number one, the arrival of Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo has added a question mark; both are capable keepers and possess enough quality to start in goal for a club of Barcelona’s stature; although Marc-André ter Stegen has the higher ceiling, Bravo is acclimatised to La Liga. There are pros and cons for whatever decision Lucho makes, so it could be crucial for Ter Stegen to make an early impression.
In defense, Martin Montoya will start at right-back, and while rumours continue to circulate regarding the future of Dani Alves and Barcelona’s reported interest in "not-really-a-right-back-but-potential-right-back-target" Juan Cuadrado, Montoya is rather interestingly avoiding the spotlight. To think, a club that prides itself, or at least previously placed an emphasis, on promoting home-grown players has seemingly ignored such a talent is puzzling – so in starting preseason, Montoya also has an opportunity to make an impact.
It’s a recurring theme across the starting line-up: Marc Bartra can stake his claim for a starting berth, Frank Bagnack and Edgar Ie are in with a chance of establishing themselves as a viable back-up option from the B team, and Alejandro Grimaldo can get his career back on track after a difficult spell out through injury for the majority of the last campaign. For once, this is a defense with a very youthful, home-grown feel to it – and given Barça’s problems at the back, that has the potential to be very exciting indeed.
In midfield, the only name you really need to know is Sergi Samper. It’s expected that Samper will start at pivote tomorrow, and while he isn’t tipped to challenge for a spot in the first team, it will be interesting to see how Samper performs in Lucho’s system. Can he perform the "Busquets role" competently? Does he play in an entirely different style altogether? It’s a glimpse into the future, and I’m looking forward to it immensely.
As am I looking forward to seeing new signing Alen Halilovic in action. Signed from Dinamo Zagreb, Halilovic is regarded as the best Croatian talent since Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modric; and we know that’s high praise. In terms of height, and playing style, Halilovic has drawn comparisons to Andrés Iniesta, although we can be sure that Halilovic in time will develop his own reputation, his own unique style and it will be interesting to see him display his talent. After all, as a new joiner, he is likely to be learning the ropes, so we shouldn’t expect a refined display – this will be all about raw potential. Let’s see what the kid has to offer.
And in Sergi Roberto as a midfield partner, Halilovic should have all the tools needed to display his best. Roberto is a hard-worker, a competent passer and a selfless team player. That’s why he got his new contract; almost like a midfield version of Pedro. It’s easy to forget that this time last year, while Culés were still mourning the loss of Thiago, it was Sergi Roberto who was stealing the headlines with a string of impressive preseason displays. Given recent events, another good showing in this preseason campaign may well lead to increased game-time under Lucho.
Meanwhile, we move onto the attack, and yes, it’s looking somewhat threadbare up top. Alexis Sánchez is gone, Pedro and Lionel Messi are away on vacation. Cristian Tello has left on loan, while Neymar recovers from a broken back. Then we have Luis Suarez, who might even be banned from watching tomorrow’s game thanks to FIFA’s hard-line stance on biting, which rather curiously, is far stricter than their policy on racism and corruption. But that’s neither here nor there, as Luis Enrique has faith in the fringe players. And why not?
Gerard Deulofeu. Arguably the brightest talent to emerge from La Masia since Lionel Messi, or so they say. With good reason too; Deulofeu is a magician, a real game-changer. It’s a shame that Roberto Martinez didn’t fully recognise the pure talent he had at his disposal; even when Deulofeu thrust himself into the spotlight, say, as he did against Arsenal, Martinez remained reluctant to use Gerard. A fleeting glimpse here and there, but nothing sustained – Deulofeu was frustrated with his time in England. Now he has the chance to show the world what he can do.
Tomorrow, he will be the leader of the frontline. Perhaps not in position, but in talent and in style, Deulofeu will be this side’s Messi. Can he deliver?
Jean-Marie Dongou will start as the "nine", leading the line for this youthful Blaugrana line-up. We all know he has an eye for goal, and while it’s slipped under the radar, it’s worth remembering that Dongou could feature prominently in the start of the season, if Neymar’s recovery is as slow as expected, and if Suarez’ ban is upheld by the CAS. His strike-rate for the B team is solid, if unspectacular. His strike-rate for the senior squad? Incredible. Can Dongou pull it all together this season? I’d sure like to see him do it.
The final place is up for grabs – the young starlet Adama Traore, the forgotten man Ibrahim Afellay and the prodigious talent Munir el Haddadi. I’d be happy to see any and all of the three, but to complete my line-up, I’d start with Adama.
It’s not often that I’m made to feel old, but looking back at Recreativo does just that – it was over five years that Recre were last gracing La Liga, and a full eight years since their last promotion from the Segunda, yet I remember them clear as day. Current Villarreal coach, Marcelino was their leader off the field, Florent Sinama Pongolle was their leader on it – and between them, they inspired the oldest team in Spain to a historic eighth place finish, their best ever finish in La Liga. They may have fallen back into the second tier since then, but Recre bring back good memories, and are a nice club to go up against.
Like many Segunda clubs, their team is made up predominantly of local talent from nearby Andalusian clubs, former B team players from some of Spain’s biggest clubs, and lower division journeymen. It’s always a good mix, familiar names include former Barça B full-back, David Corcoles and former Villarreal striker, Joselu. For them, this is an opportunity to test themselves against strong opposition, and test out a few of their new signings. Don’t be surprised if they put up a strong fight.
We’re wiping the slate clean for the start of the new season.
FC Barcelona 2-0 Recreativo de Huelva – 11th April 2009 – La Liga
Aleksandr Hleb came off the bench for Barcelona in this game – that’s how long ago this was. With a comfortable 2-0 win courtesy of an early Iniesta strike and an own-goal from Nasef Morris, the Blaugrana moved nine points clear of rivals Real Madrid with this victory.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Ter Stegen; Montoya, Bartra, Bagnack, Grimaldo; Samper, Halilovic, Roberto; Deulofeu, Dongou, Adama
Barcelona (4-3-3): Masip; Nieto, Ie, Diagne, Lucas; Patric, Babunski, Afellay; Munir, Sandro, Roman
Recreativo (4-2-3-1): Sotres; Corcoles, Juanan, Zamora, Vega; Delgado, Montoro; Nunez, Anton, Zambrano; Joselu
Barça aren’t at full-strength, but this is a talented squad. Lucho is a good coach, and they’ll all be keen to kick-off preseason with a win. Expect them to deliver – and deliver big: I’m going for a 4-0 Blaugrana win.
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