It’s back! After a three month summer break, La Liga is back in full force with Jornada One as FC Barcelona look to reclaim "their" title, starting tomorrow with their season opener against Elche CF at the Camp Nou. The Blaugrana are unbeaten in their last five season openers, scoring a total of 23 goals at an average of over four per game, and conceding just once in the process and Elche are not expected to threaten that incredible streak as Luis Enrique hopes to kick-start his reign with a big win.
Certainly, the signs point to a convincing win tomorrow; Barcelona were in impressive form on Monday in the Joan Gamper Trophy, defeating Mexican champions Club Leon 6-0 in front of a party atmosphere at the Camp Nou and with another week under their belt with Lucho, the players are said to be raring to go.
Undoubtedly, they must have been heartened by Real Madrid’s Supercopa de España defeat against Atletico Madrid; while Real Madrid have supposedly strengthened their squad considerably with the acquisition of Keylor Navas, James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos, they seem just as fragile as ever. Of course, Atletico Madrid are Atletico Madrid, irrespective of the summer’s ins and outs – but the transfer activity at the Vicente Calderon is expected to catch up with Los Colchoneros at some stage in the season.
As a result, perhaps it’s Barça who should be considered favourites for the title. We have strengthened well, and considerably, across the board. We have youth ready to make the step-up; we have stars ready to get back to their best and we have a new coach applying all the principles that made us so successful just a few years ago.
Forget modesty, let’s go for gold; one game at a time.
So, while Luis Enrique hasn’t yet named his squad for tomorrow’s match, he did give us a few hints in today’s press conference, confirming that Pedro and Neymar have – in principle – recovered from their respective ailments and therefore are in contention for a starting berth. So too are three of the best B team performers from preseason, as Sandro, Sergi Samper and Munir el Haddadi have trained with the first team and indeed missed the B team’s first match of the season, a 2-0 loss against Osasuna.
However, they aren’t expected to really challenge the likes of Lionel Messi or Sergio Busquets; rather, Munir may provide cover from the bench, but that’s about as much as we can expect in all honesty. In terms of absentees, Thomas Vermaelen, Adriano Correia, Marc-André ter Stegen and Alex Song will miss out, while we can also expect one of Marc Bartra, Gerard Piqué, Martin Montoya and Dani Alves to also miss that final cut, with Sergi Roberto my final tip to miss the 18-man squad.
But who really cares about the squad? All we really care about is the team that ultimately starts the match tomorrow, and I can get the ball rolling in that regard with Claudio Bravo. In the absence of Marc-André ter Stegen, Bravo only has to contend with Jordi Masip, and the Chilean shot-stopper will always emerge victorious in that battle with his eight years of experience in Spanish football. Yes, he made that error against Napoli, but I firmly believe that Bravo is the best, or most logical choice to be Barça’s number one, at least until Marc-André ter Stegen fully adapts to the philosophy and culture in Spain.
Bravo is intelligent, confident and technically gifted; put simply, he’s the closest we could come to a "like for like" replacement for Victor Valdés – and that continuity could prove vital in a side undergoing a lot of changes.
In defense, I’d still pick Dani Alves ahead of Martin Montoya, although I would not begrudge the Catalan full-back a start either given his performances across preseason. Perhaps not eye-catching, but definitely solid; Montoya is expected to challenge Alves for that starting berth though I think that at home, against a potentially defensive Elche outfit, Lucho will opt for Alves’ attacking flair.
In the heart of defense, many media outlets tip that Enrique will drop Gerard Piqué. I can’t see that happening myself; I think the pairing of Piqué and Jeremy Mathieu will be established early, with Javier Mascherano rotating in to cover where necessary. That being said, I thought there was a natural chemistry and link between Mascherano and Mathieu in the Gamper, so again, I wouldn’t argue if Lucho did decide to drop Piqué after all.
Meanwhile, Jordi Alba will round off the defense, purely because there is no-one else – at least not really. Martin Montoya and Jeremy Mathieu can cover as back-up in Adriano’s continued absence, but Alba has that starting spot nailed down.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets will play his first competitive match wearing Carles Puyol’s famous number five jersey; with it comes great responsibility to not only lead the team on the pitch, but lead the club off it too. Busquets has always been a standard-bearer for the Blaugrana; but now comes the scrutiny. Every decision, every pass, every performance judged to the nth degree – good thing we know that Busquets is more than up to the challenge.
Ivan Rakitić and Andrés Iniesta will complete the midfield, and I have no shame admitting that my dreams will be filled with thoughts of this duo tonight ahead of the season opener. Of course, dreams of each defense-splitting pass, each long-range shot and each trophy they will deliver together. Well, I might be getting ahead of myself with the last one, but the general point remains: Rakitić and Iniesta are great individually, and look even more tremendous as a duo. Watch out Elche, watch out La Liga.
In attack, I would love to say that Lionel Messi will be joined by Neymar and Pedro or Munir, but I’m afraid it just seems too unlikely at present. Messi will start, that much is certain, but will Neymar? Will Pedro? Will Munir? Perhaps one of them will, but probably not a combination of the two...instead, the consensus is that Rafinha will occupy one of the three forward spots and Lucho will assess the fitness of Neymar and Pedro, making a final decision just prior to kick-off with Munir ready to step-in if necessary. All I’ll say is that after Monday, I’m praying Neymar gets the green light.
After surviving by the skin of their teeth last season following their promotion as champions of Segunda the season previous, Elche are aiming to secure a third consecutive season in La Liga for the first time since the late 70’s. While Fran Escriba has made a few astute additions to his squad in the form of PSV goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton, former Juventus winger Milos Krasic and talented Chelsea youngster, Mario Pasalic, he has been unfortunate enough to lose his best player – holding midfielder Carlos Sánchez has departed Elche for Aston Villa.
Not only that, but a number of key players have also left the club following the end of their loan spells – former Barça starlet, Alberto Botia for instance, Atleti midfielder Ruben Perez and Sevilla forward Manu del Moral all examples of the summer of change for poor old Elche. At least, a first day trip to the Camp Nou is the last thing they will have wanted...
Elche CF 0-0 FC Barcelona – 11th May 2014 – La Liga
A goalless draw at the Estadio Manuel Martinez Valero effectively crippled Barcelona’s title hopes, as the Blaugrana let a golden opportunity to gain a vital win slip through their hands with a somewhat tepid display.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mathieu, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Iniesta; Rafinha, Messi, Neymar
Elche (4-2-3-1): Manu; Damian, Lomban, Pelegrin, Albacar; Pasalic, Adrian; Aaron, Mosquera, Rodrigues; Jonathas
I’m backing the boys to do us proud and grab our third successive 6-0 win