FC Barcelona will kick-start their preseason campaign proper tomorrow, as they travel across the Channel to the Côte d’Azur where they will take on OGC Nice at the Allianz Riviera. It’s a fitting venue for what promises to be a glamorous encounter; while Nice were caught in a relegation dogfight last season, Les Aiglons remain one of the more prestigious and most historic clubs in France. Of course, AS Monaco’s recent climb back to the pinnacle of the French football has relegated Nice back to being the second-best club on the Riviera, but they are steeped in history and will be relishing the chance to pit their wits against the famous Blaugrana.
Despite Barcelona’s Catalan identity, these are two clubs that have famously recognised and reaped the rewards of building diverse, cosmopolitan squads; admittedly, Nice’s glory days are long gone, but this has all the ingredients to be a fascinating friendly encounter.
For Barça, this will be the first "real" game of Luis Enrique’s reign; the quality and experience of the team that played two weeks ago against Recreativo de Huelva was probably more similar to Lucho’s previous stint as B team coach than anything else, but now that the majority of Barcelona’s World Cup stars have returned, Enrique should be able to field a stronger side.
With that change comes greater pressure; we’ve all seen the quotes, the promises, and the excitement that’s building around Luis Enrique’s FC Barcelona – and now that the stars are back, most Culés expect to see some progress. The only true barometer of that progress will come in competitive matches, but until then, these preseason fixtures will be taken as a guide. Are the players responding to his instructions? Are the new signings settling in? The performance tomorrow will provide us with our first such indication.
Somewhat surprisingly, the club have been relatively quiet today on the squad front, only just releasing details of the team for tomorrow’s match. No-one quite knows what to expect, and certainly no-one knows what exactly is going to happen. All we can hope for is a good performance; and even if the Blaugrana cannot deliver, just remember: Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Claudio Bravo has been speaking to the press in recent days, sharing his early experiences at FC Barcelona and perhaps providing the first indication of what could be a fierce rivalry that will soon develop for that starting goalkeeper position. Discounting Jordi Masip, Bravo will be forced to contend with an up-and-coming talent inMarc-André ter Stegen, someone who has surprised the veteran Chilean over the past couple of weeks. Expect to see both Bravo and Ter Stegen feature in equal measure across preseason, perhaps even starting in tomorrow’s match.
With rumours abound that Dani Alves will actually leave the Camp Nou this summer in plot twist number 27546 in the never-ending story of "will-he-won’t-he", maybe we shouldn’t expect to see Dani tomorrow, but heck, I never quite know whether we should take Alves exit rumours seriously anymore. Given how he has signed for Paris Saint-Germain in each of the past three summers without ever leaving Catalunya, I’m certainly cynical about these latest reports, but we do know what he can bring to the table – so why not stick with Martin Montoya.
With Adriano recovering from his heart scare, Jordi Alba should start at left-back given the distinct lack of competition (although, Alejandro Grimaldo is expected to stay with the squad and travel to Nice). Likewise, his international colleague Gerard Piqué should also start after spending the past week rather honestly tearing into himself and his own performances over the past couple of seasons. Piqué’s talent is unquestionable and he isn’t as bad as some might make him out to be, but he is also capable of better and his own frank admission that he agrees with that assessment is refreshing.
New signing Jeremy Mathieu could be one of many debutants tomorrow, alongside Ivan Rakitić, the aforementioned Claudio Bravo and perhaps even Rafinha Alcântara, who could make his first appearance as an official member of the senior squad. However, in particular Rakitić and Rafinha may have to settle for a place on the bench given that Sergio Busquets (who today was entrusted with the holy grail "5" vacated by Carles Puyol in case you have been living under a rock), Xavi and Andrés Iniesta are all available and ready for action. I’d expect to see a couple of the usual suspects start, with one of the newbies thrown in for good measure – but hell, I wouldn’t be too surprised if we saw a real second string line-up of Alex Song, Sergi Roberto and Ibrahim Afellay either.
The absences of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez has certainly impacted our frontline, but fear not; Pedro and Gerard Deulofeu are waiting to step in, with Rafinha again in the running to start at false nine. Equally, we could see another B teamer given a chance; you just don’t know. However, I for one cannot wait to find out.
David Ospina may be gone and the club may have struggled last season, but not all is lost in southern France for Claude Puel. There’s some talent coming through the ranks for OGC Nice, from striker Neal Maupay to goalkeeper Mouez Hassan and attacking midfielder Bryan Constant, Nice boast one of the youngest sides in Ligue Un, and it’s that youth that could give them an edge tomorrow. Eager to impress, and equally fearless, Nice won’t just shut up shop like so many before them; they will give it a real go and in preseason, who knows what could happen.
FC Barcelona 2-0 OGC Nice - 3rd October 1973 - UEFA Cup
Despite their best efforts, the Blaugrana could not overturn a three-goal first-leg deficit to reach the second round of the UEFA Cup, as a goal from their new number 10, the popular Peruvian Hugo Sotil and a rare strike from Juanito couldn't inspire Rinus Michels' side to a memorable comeback.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Ter Stegen; Montoya, Piqué, Mathieu, Grimaldo; Busquets, Halilovic, Roberto; Pedro, Rafinha, Deulofeu
It’s a tough one to call – I’m going for a 3-0 Barça win.
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