FC Barcelona will be looking to kick-off their pre-season campaign in style tomorrow, as they travel to Dublin to take Scottish champions, Celtic FC at the Aviva Stadium. The match will be the Blaugrana’s opening fixture in the 2016 International Champions Cup, a curious competition that has certainly struggled to endear itself to football fans across the globe since its inception.
Fundamentally, the premise of the competition itself is a lie. While titles are technically handed out to three participating teams, they are awarded somewhat arbitrarily based on the team’s performance in friendlies in a particular region – meaning that there is no one true winner of the Cup. Couple this with an aggressive marketing campaign built around the premise that the ICC is "transforming the traditional preseason tour into something remarkable: a competitive, world-class tournament" and well, it’s easy to see why most fans groan at the mention of their club participating.
But here we are, and as far as participating in the International Champions Cup goes, Barça have probably engineered the best deal for themselves this summer.
Even if it is for one year only, the FC Barcelona road-show is staying on the continent; rather than racking up extra air miles to cash in on the emerging Asian and American markets, Luis Enrique has taken his side to the glamorous Midlands in England. There’s far less marketing opportunities, but there does happen to be a state of the art training facility there and Barça have been making full use of their time to do something that’s so often overlooked at this time of the year: actually prepare for the new season ahead.
It’s clear that this approach is motivating the squad; a number of players cut their holidays short to return to training – no doubt influenced by the fact that Barça are taking preseason seriously, unlike so many of Europe’s top clubs. Would Lionel Messi have returned from his vacations to fly to Melbourne, Beijing or the west coast of the USA?
Don’t get me wrong, these preseason fixtures are still far from being the legitimate competitive fixtures they are promoted as, but at least our focus is on what matters: the football.
At the risk of spoiling it for all the Culés out there, this doesn’t mean that we’re going to learn a lot about our team in this preseason period either. Irrespective of how we line up against Celtic tomorrow, or whether we beat Liverpool next week, we’re not going to be able to use these games to predict what will happen in the season opener, let alone next May. However, we do know that these games will help our players get back into shape and back into rhythm in time to start the season and hit the ground running.
Tomorrow is the first step in what promises to be another exciting season for FC Barcelona and I for one, cannot wait.
With the Copa America, European Championships and Olympic Games all falling in the same summer, Luis Enrique will see his squad return in stages over the next few weeks. The initial group that started pre-season was soon joined by its talismanic star man, Lionel Messi, who cut his holidays short and bleached his hair blond, presumably because he was so excited to get the ball rolling with this campaign. With other internationals set to return to the fray next week, Enrique has bolstered the ranks with a few B team players and in true preseason fashion, it’s expected that all players named to the squad tomorrow will get a run out at one stage or another.
As such, the whole "team news" section is a little redundant tonight; we know we’re going to see everyone at one stage or another, so does it really matter whether they start or not?
Instead, let’s focus on some of the names you might not recognise, or at least the ones that have the most to prove in the next few weeks.
First up, we have Munir El Haddadi. Of course, everyone recognises Munir so clearly he falls into the latter category of having something to prove, and his story could perhaps be the most important this preseason. There have been a lot of rumours that Enrique would like to sign a "nine" to complete his squad – a player that’s capable of slotting into the team and scoring goals if Luis Suarez is ever injured or in need of a rest. From Mario Gomez to Solomon Rondon to Luciano Vietto, we’ve seen a plethora of strikers linked with a switch to the Camp Nou, almost as if Munir were an afterthought.
Yet, the young Spanish striker may perhaps be the most obvious solution. He is of course intimately familiar with the Barça system, and as he progressed through the ranks at the club he thrived in a more central position. If given the opportunity, maybe Munir will show Enrique that he is capable of filling that role and negating the need for another signing.
Carles Aleña might not be as famous as Munir, but he’s a talent that has had Culés abuzz for years. Heralded as the best midfield talent to emerge out of La Masia since Sergi Samper (we’ll get to him), Aleña is equally adept at tearing through opposing defenses with his quick feet and incredible control as he is as dictating the tempo of the game. Of course, that combination of skills has seen him likened to Andrés Iniesta, but Aleña is of course his own player.
Given game-time under Luis Enrique, Aleña has the opportunity to demonstrate why so many have been singing his praises, and why he is tipped to someday break into the senior squad. Above all else, he has the chance to test himself against a better level of opposition – is he ready for that test? No doubt we will find out.
Speaking of Sergi Samper, this preseason could determine whether or not the talented youngster stays, or whether he is sent out on loan. As yet, Luis Enrique hasn’t definitively ruled out a move away for Samper – and as such, one must assume that he is waiting for Samper to prove his worth and guarantee his spot in the senior squad. I mean we all know he will deliver, but it’s another fascinating subplot to keep our eyes on.
Perhaps most importantly though, will Messi’s new haircut have any impact on his otherworldly football ability? That’s the real question, and I’m anxious to find out.
OK, I know it’s only preseason, it’s my first preview of the campaign and I shouldn’t start making enemies already, but I’m just going to go out and state it for the record: Celtic are a bad football team. A couple of weeks ago, they lost a competitive match to a team from Gibraltar. An actual, real, competitive match of football. While they managed to progress by virtue of a win in the second leg, they subsequently went on to draw with FK Astana, a team from Kazakhstan. The second leg of that UEFA Champions League qualifying tie is this coming Wednesday, so clearly Celtic have more important things on their mind that a preseason game with Barcelona.
New signing Kolo Toure therefore won’t feature tomorrow, and there’s a strong possibility that much of the rest of the first team will also play limited minutes in order to conserve energy for the match that matters. Financially, Celtic almost need to qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage in order to remain relevant on the European stage – so don’t expect them to take tomorrow all too seriously.
Return with a win: 3-1 Barça.