FC Barcelona will be hoping to bounce back from the disappointment of the weekend’s 1-1 draw with OGC Nice tomorrow, as they travel to Switzerland to take on Rafa Benitez’ SSC Napoli at the Stade de Geneve. While the match is being played a neutral venue, the fixture has sold out and therefore the Blaugrana will be playing in front of a 30,000+ capacity crowd. It’s not quite the Camp Nou, or even the Santiago Bernabeu but the modern setting of the Stade de Geneve is quite fitting for such a quintessentially "modern" friendly.
After all, in years gone by, even the best clubs in the world will not have played in neutral venues for friendly matches – but now it’s almost common practice and there was even a tournament created in the USA to capitalise on this theme’s growing popularity. Whatever your opinion on the venue, tomorrow’s match promises to be a real mouth-watering clash between two of Europe’s heavyweight clubs.
Despite the obvious link between the two clubs courtesy of Diego Maradona, FC Barcelona and SSC Napoli have never squared off against each other in a competitive match, previously contesting just two friendlies in the course of their illustrious histories. Culés might remember the latest clash some three years ago, in which Pep Guardiola’s side romped to a Manita victory in the Joan Gamper Trophy. Can we expect a similar result tomorrow in Geneva?
Well, maybe not. Barcelona looked sluggish at the weekend against lowly Nice, and could have easily lost that game if not for the timeless magic of Xavi, who came off the bench in the second-half to turn the Blaugrana’s fortunes. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that the Serie A kicks off a week later than La Liga, and as such, Napoli may not be as advanced into their preseason preparations as Luis Enrique’s side. However, it would be wise to expect a hard-fought encounter between two top teams, and anything else would come as a massive surprise.
Earlier today, Luis Enrique named the 21-man squad that will be making the relatively short trip north to Geneva, and as expected, there was no room in that squad for the likes of Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano.
Despite returning to training today as the last of Barça’s World Cup representatives, Messi and Mascherano have been left in Catalunya, while there are injury concerns of varying severity surrounding the fitness of Neymar, Dani Alves, Jeremy Mathieu, Xavi, Adriano Correia and B teamer, Patric. Ibrahim Afellay and Alex Song on the other hand are not travelling for other reasons, with Afellay tipped to be missing out for tactical reasons, while Song only recently returned from personal leave.
Consequently, this isn’t the most star-studded Barça squad and it’s one that may be quite well matched by UEFA Champions League qualifiers.
Having started the last preseason fixture, Marc-André ter Stegen may drop to the bench in order to hand Claudio Bravo his Blaugrana debut. In amidst the excitement of concluding the MAtS deal, I must confess that I was somewhat surprised, albeit relieved to see Barça make a move for Bravo, arguably one of the best keepers in La Liga over the past five or more seasons. He’s a leader and a great dressing room presence, much like Jose Manuel Pinto was before him, but he is also incredibly gifted, and could stake a claim to be the best passing goalkeeper in world football – and that includes Victor Valdés. It’d be great to see Bravo given a chance to prove his worth and push for that starting berth.
In defense, Martin Montoya will continue unopposed at right-back, with Marc Bartra and Gerard Piqué set to start in the centre of defense after Jeremy Mathieu picked up an injury against Nice. Jordi Alba should complete a rather strong Barça backline, although our replacements may be a cause for concern given their inexperience. That being said, Alejandro Grimaldo, Edgar Ie and Frank Bagnack have all impressed for the senior team in preseason (both this season or last in Bagnack’s case).
Sergio Busquets is also tipped to continue at pivote, with Sergi Samper ready to step off the bench for the second consecutive match, after an impressive second-half display against Nice. Samper looked tidy, and in fact eclipsed Busquets in some aspects of the game. We all know of his talent, but it truly was encouraging to see Samper so "switched on" in a preseason fixture, hinting that he might be ready to step up and provide cover for the first team in certain scenarios this season.
It’s safe to assume that Andrés Iniesta will captain the side tomorrow in Xavi’s absence, and one might expect that he will be partnered by Sergi Roberto, although there is a strong case for fan favourite, Alen Halilovic to occupy the other midfield berth alongside Iniesta. Halilovic has been one of, if not the standout player of Barça’s preseason campaign thus far and has been unfazed irrespective of the calibre, playing style or experience of the opposition. Quite simply, Halilovic has been a breath of fresh air, and I’d love to see that acknowledged tomorrow with a start. However, it would be a huge shock if we didn’t see Roberto suited up next to Iniesta tomorrow.
On the other hand, perhaps Ivan Rakitić is in line to make his first start as a Barcelona player? Born in northern Switzerland, this would be the perfect opportunity for Rakitić to make his full debut – devoid of any real pressure, but with enough quality on the pitch to really test his credentials. For whatever reason, I can’t see him starting tomorrow, but I would equally love to be proven wrong.
In attack, Pedro will lead the line, at least in experience and ability, with Rafinha and Gerard Deulofeu providing support. It’s clear that the latter has tremendous talent at their disposal, but only demonstrated as much in brief glimpses against Nice; at present, an improvement is needed if they wish to show Lucho that they are ready to shoulder the burden in the first team. I’d like to see one of the two lead the line in the second-half, gifting Munir el Haddadi a chance to shine as a starter after Adama somewhat struggled with his opportunity against Nice.
The headline in some Catalan publications is that tomorrow’s match will likely mark Camilo Zuniga’s preseason debut, while Neymar, the Brazilian forward he so brutally fouled during that ill-tempered World Cup quarter-final clash, remains sidelined with a broken back. And while Luis Suarez for example has been suspended for his transgressions, Zuniga has got a free pass. No ramifications, no consequences, nothing to even suggest he was in the wrong for his vicious knee into the small of Neymar’s back.
This is usually where I would hope for Javier Mascherano to start to dish out some good old-fashioned revenge, alas, our best revenge would be to just beat him and beat Napoli. Gonzalo Higuain is unlikely to feature, hopefully because he is still reeling from that abysmal miss in the World Cup final, while Henrique Buss, one of the many Barça rejects at centre-half, is also expected to miss out as he too only just returned to training.
However, Napoli obviously still possesses quality in abundance, and may hand a start to new signing Michu, who was recently signed from Swansea.
FC Barcelona 5-0 SSC Napoli – 22nd August 2011 – Joan Gamper Trophy
Goals from Cesc Fàbregas, Seydou Keita, Pedro Rodriguez and Lionel Messi (2) wrapped up an emphatic Joan Gamper Trophy win for Pep’s Barça, who were simply too strong for Napoli.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Montoya, Bartra, Piqué, Alba; Busquets, Iniesta, Roberto; Pedro, Rafinha, Deulofeu
Napoli (4-2-3-1): Rafael; Maggio, Albiol, Koulibaly, Zuniga; Dzemali, Inler; Callejon, Hamsik, Mertens; Michu
This promises to be the toughest match of preseason, and as a result, I’m not entirely confident that we can pull this off without Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez and Xavi. I’m going for an optimistic 2-2 draw.
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