FC Barcelona will wrap up preseason tomorrow, as they prepare to face Mexican champions Club Leon in this year’s edition of the Joan Gamper Trophy. Following a somewhat mixed set of results in their previous four friendlies under the guidance of new manager, Luis Enrique, the Blaugrana will be anxious to put on a show for the Camp Nou crowd ahead of next weekend’s season opener against Elche CF. And certainly, more so than the other friendlies, FC Barcelona will be better positioned to do just that given the return of a number of key players.
Lionel Messi. Neymar. Even Luis Suarez. The whole squad is back together, albeit with a few exceptions in the form of Adriano Correia and Marc-André ter Stegen – and it’ll be interesting to see how Lucho lines the team up against this unique challenge. Typically, the Gamper trophy is seen as the yearly curtain raiser – a chance to unveil the squad for the upcoming season, so in that respect, we should probably expect to see the bulk of the squad in action at one stage or another.
However, the focus will be on the stars – on Lionel Messi, on Neymar and on Luis Suarez. Will the South American triumvirate start together? If not, will they feature alongside each other at any stage in the game? Will we see that trio with Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Sergio Busquets in support? Perhaps Ivan Rakitić?
Sure, Real Madrid have stole the headlines with their summer signings and are perceived to have the stronger squad, but just glance at the Barça squad and tell me we cannot compete, or even defeat Real Madrid this season. Heck, look at the tactical setup of each club and tell me we can’t dominate Real Madrid this season.
In his pursuit of a new era of Galacticos, Florentino Perez has arguably dismantled the very thing that drove Los Blancos to La Decima last season – the team has gone, replaced once again by a plethora of individuals. Sure, on paper a squad that can boast the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez, Angel di Maria, Karim Benzema, Isco and Jese sounds great. Unbeatable even, but then again so did their 2004-05 squad which contained Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Raul, Michael Owen, Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham and Guti.
And what happened in 2004-05? Oh yeah, FC Barcelona finished the season as champions.
Of course, there’s some way to go before we can crown the Blaugrana just yet, but tomorrow could prove to be the starting point. With the full squad together, a new coach and the Camp Nou crowd behind them, FC Barcelona can start something magical tomorrow.
One win at a time.
Somewhat unusually, the club are yet to release the official squad list for tomorrow’s match at the time of publish. Consequently, we’re left to play a little guesswork in this preview – so don’t blame me if I’m entirely wrong! Just for clarity, I’ll work off the assumption that Luis Enrique has a near-complete squad at his disposal and with that out of the way, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and try to predict Barça’s starting XI.
Claudio Bravo should start in goal; Marc-André ter Stegen is injured, ruled out for the next 2-3 weeks, and as a consequence, Bravo is set to start the season as Barça’s number one. Whether he will keep that spot as the season develops remains to be seen, but the consensus is that B team promotee Jordi Masip will not really challenge for that starting berth. Naturally, there are some who believe that Masip is more than capable of doing so – former teammate Ilie is convinced that masip will eventually bench both ter Stegen and Bravo – but for now, it just seems unlikely.
After a high-profile error against Napoli, Bravo will be under pressure to perform, and the Chilean veteran is sure to bounce back, anxious to prove to the oft-fickle Camp Nou crowd that he has what it takes to start in goal for Lucho’s new-look Barcelona.
Moving forward to the defense, rumours continue to link FC Barcelona with a new right-back, but at present, Dani Alves remains at the club and is expected to do so for the remainder of his contract. Despite being the subject of criticism in recent years, Alves has started for the Blaugrana since his arrival from Sevilla and there’s nothing to suggest he will be displaced this season either – aside from Culés apparent hatred for the long-serving Brazilian.
I still think that Alves is capable of starting for Barcelona, and remains a world-class full-back, even if I’m in the minority. With that in mind, while Alves will likely be favoured for the "biggest" games, Martin Montoya should start tomorrow after featuring in each and every one of Barcelona’s friendlies under Enrique. The Catalan has a rare opportunity to outplay Alves and finally establish himself as Barça’s first-choice right-back, starting with a good display in the Gamper tomorrow.
In the centre of defense, Gerard Piqué will be a constant this season; he’s the leader of the backline now that Carles Puyol has officially announced his retirement, and like Alves, he’s not exactly a popular figure amongst Culés. There’s a longer article on that topic for another day, but for now let’s just leave Piqué alone; give him a clean slate for whatever transgressions you think he’s committed, and judge him on his performances this season. Geri will start tomorrow, and my money is on Marc Bartra to partner him.
Bartra rose to prominence last season, excelling with Piqué sidelined through injury and looked right at home in the heart of defense. Sure, he had a few "off" moments, but these were far outnumbered by the positives and I think Bartra is ready to start for this club. However, the arrival of Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen hints that Lucho thinks otherwise; while the Belgian is sidelined through injury, Mathieu is back and should rival Bartra for that starting berth. Should we read into Enrique’s eventual choice tomorrow in terms of the pecking order? Probably not, but a good display may help tip the scales in favour of whoever starts.
Jordi Alba on the other hand won’t have such concerns. Unlike Piqué and Alves, he’s a popular figure with the fanbase. Unlike Bartra and Montoya, he doesn’t really have any competition, at least with Adriano still missing from the squad. Alba will start tomorrow and barring a drastic tactical change from Lucho, will be a key member of the Barcelona starting line-up this season.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets may finally have competition in the form of Javier Mascherano; let’s face it, Alex Song is mediocre at very best and is more likely to leave the club than he is to unseat Busquets. So that leave Busquets and Mascherano to fight it out for the start at pivote; two very different players, each providing their own "pros" and "cons" for Luis Enrique to consider. Personally, as much as I rate Mascherano, I can’t see him effectively challenging Busquets for that starting role, purely because of Barça’s style of play. In a conventional system, of course Mascherano could challenge and probably displace Busquets, but this is Barça – Busquets has played this system (read: this position) his entire life. That’s one hell of an advantage, and Mascherano can’t rival that. However, with a new contract, Mascherano has clearly been assured of his role in the squad – whatever that might be.
Will he be the squad’s utility man, filling in different positions with such regularity that he essentially remains a starter? Will his switch back to holding midfield liberate Luis Enrique to deploy Busquets further forward? Being honest, I have no clue what we have planned for Mascherano, but I will say that I’m interested to find out. For tomorrow however, expect Busquets to start.
The captain for tomorrow’s match will start in the remainder of that midfield trio, although it remains to be seen whether that will be Andrés Iniesta, or Xavi Hernández. With question marks over Xavi’s fitness, it will probably be Iniesta – leaving the other midfield berth for another new signing, Ivan Rakitić. The Croatian midfielder has been impressive thus far this preseason and will be hoping to continue that good form tomorrow, irrespective of whether he starts or not.
The likes of Alen Halilovic, Rafinha and Sergi Roberto can provide cover from the bench, and like many other Culés, I would love to see Halilovic one last time before he’s back with the B team for the foreseeable future. We knew he was talented, but Halilovic has been a revelation this preseason, arguably the best of the B team players we’ve seen and it would be fitting to reward him with his Camp Nou debut.
As much as I would love to close off the team news with a single sentence declaring that Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez will start together tomorrow, I don’t know whether that will be the case. Politically, the club will surely be desperate to parade their biggest stars out together sooner rather than later, particularly as "later" in this case will be the first Clasico of the season. Surely we want to have some idea of whether Messi, Neymar and Suarez have some sort of chemistry before we’re thrown into a pressure-cooker atmosphere, right?
Yes, yes, training can give Luis Enrique a rough guide in that respect, but it’s one thing to see the trio in training feeding off each others’ movement and passing, and another altogether to see if it works in practice against real opposition. Why not find out tomorrow?
On the other hand, I’m realistic. While Messi and Suarez will probably start, there’s no way of knowing whether we will risk Neymar from the start. In the event that we don’t, expect to see Pedro. He is the only real cover we have after all. In the second half, an appearance from Munir wouldn’t go amiss, but again, while we all want to see Munir, all we really care about is whether or not we will see Messi, Neymar and Suarez together.
Come on Lucho. You know you want to...
The Mexican champions have lost their club captain, Rafael Marquez who has departed his homeland for a second time – this time to play in the Serie A for Hellas Verona. After a sensational World Cup, Rafa proved to the rest of the world what Leon fans knew all along: he still has what it takes to perform at the very highest level. The club will welcome him back into their team as a "special guest" tomorrow, with the club also ready to show off a few of their new signings as well.
La Fiera have spent rather heavily by their standards to reinforce their front-line, signing Ecuadorian prospect Marcos Caicedo from Emelec and highly-rated Colombian forward Yamilson Rivera from CD America. Long-serving UNAM attacking midfielder, Martin Bravo has also arrived on a free transfer, while Brazilian holding midfielder Derley has been recruited to share some of the responsibility in the midfield engine room following Marquez’ departure from the heart of defense.
In general, this side is comparatively weaker than the one that was crowned champions last season; Marquez’ departure has left an as yet unfilled chasm in their defense and after five games of the new season, Leon are mid-table having conceded the most goals in the division. They remain heavily reliant on the firepower provided by Mauro Boselli, and when the Argentine isn’t firing, they struggle.
Gustavo Matosas’ side will be in good shape having played just two days ago against UNAM Pumas, picking up a comeback 2-1 victory to climb the table, but they shouldn’t provide much in the way of a challenge for the Blaugrana. Expectations are high, can Barcelona deliver?
Club Leon: LLWWLW
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Montoya, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Iniesta, Rakitić; Pedro, Messi, Suarez
Club Leon (4-1-3-1-1): Yarbrough; Delgado, Magallon, Gonzalez, Edwin; Elias, Vazquez, Cardenas; Rivera; Boselli
Barcelona should win this at a canter, but I can see Leon posing a threat depending on their setup. If they play with an edge, they could unsettle the hosts and keep the score down, but in a friendly? I don’t think they’ll resort to such measures and may be on the end of a comfortable defeat. A Manita for the Blaugrana.
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