For FC Barcelona, the season starts in earnest tomorrow evening as they travel to Andalusia for the traditional season opener: the first leg of the Supercopa de España against Sevilla FC. Of course, the Blaugrana cruised to a domestic double last season, meaning that Sevilla qualified by virtue of finishing as runners-up in the Copa del Rey – but make no mistake, Sevilla are still competing for this trophy on merit.
UEFA Europa League winners, and perhaps one of Spain’s most consistently excellent sides over the past decade, Sevilla will represent a difficult test for Luis Enrique’s side. Not only do the Andalusians have the quality in their ranks to challenge the Blaugrana, but their style of play is perfectly created to cause us problems. Under the guidance of new coach, Jorge Sampaoli, an already energetic Sevilla side are likely to press high up the field and in greater numbers than ever before.
Sampaoli is also likely to encourage more positional fluidity, and that almost "anarchic" feel is what helped to elevate Chile to the Copa America title in 2015. While Sevilla lost their top scorer, Kevin Gameiro, they have again seemed to complete some astute business in the transfer window.
Highly renowned Sporting Director, Monchi has made some exciting signings: Ganso has arrived from Sao Paulo, Wissam Ben Yedder has been recruited after his fourth successive season scoring in excess of 15 Ligue Un goals for Toulouse and Barça target Luciano Vietto is more than capable of filling the void that Gameiro left in attack.
Year after year, Sevilla create a strong team and year after year, teams visit the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan and struggle. Perhaps one might class the Supercopa as a preseason encounter, but has there ever been a match between Sevilla and Barcelona that has lacked intensity and quality?
As far as whetting the appetite for a season of football ahead, this Supercopa first leg should do the job just fine.
We are yet to kick off the campaign, and Luis Enrique already has a couple of fitness concerns ahead of tomorrow’s match. Jordi Alba is expected to miss out as he battles with a stomach bug, while the biggest news this week has concerned Barça’s goalkeeping dilemma, as an injury to Marc-Andre ter Stegen may have handed the starting job to Claudio Bravo.
The Chilean shot-stopper has been Enrique’s de facto number one for a couple of seasons, but he was under increasing pressure headed into the third year of his Barcelona career as many called for ter Stegen to be handed the job on a full-time basis. It’s certainly been a divisive topic amongst Culés, and really there’s no merit to opening up that debate once again. Both Bravo and ter Stegen are excellent keepers, and we’ve won competitions with both players between the sticks. Certainly, they offer different styles and they are far from identical, but really, does any Culé truly believe that we will be at a significant disadvantage by starting one over the other?
The situation does need to be resolved – as the current situation does run the risk of upsetting the dressing room, but as a fanbase, we would be better served supporting the team than going at each other’s throats about such a trivial decision.
So, as Claudio Bravo starts tomorrow, it’d be fantastic if we could all focus on the team rather than magnify every single mistake he may make – or indeed deify him if he has a good game.
In defense, Aleix Vidal has spent the most time at right-back in pre-season, but it would also be fair to say that his performances have been far from convincing. He was solid against Celtic, mediocre against Leicester, and just plain bad against Liverpool. Sergi Roberto hasn’t quite hit the heights he reached last season, but by default he’s still coming out ahead of Vidal in Lucho’s depth chart. I mean, Dani Alves would have been an improvement on them both, but we all know that’s no longer an option.
Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano should be considered favourites to start in the heart of the backline, although Jeremy Mathieu could feature given the amount of match practice he has picked up over the past couple of weeks. Alba’s illness will hand Lucas Digne his competitive debut for the club, and generally, even without seeing much of Digne in a Blaugrana strip, everyone is a lot more optimistic about our left flank than our right.
Sergio Busquets has recovered his groove just in time to anchor the midfield tomorrow, and his presence will be critical against Jorge Sampaoli’s high-pressing Sevilla. Our players are used to operating under pressure, but if the defeat against Liverpool proved anything, it is that there’s no substitute for match practice. By virtue of their midweek UEFA Super Cup loss to Real Madrid in midweek, Sevilla should be closer to 100%, and if they can press as efficiently as Liverpool, we could be in for a difficult night.
That being said, we also started against Liverpool without the main players from our midfield engine room. Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta were only brought off the bench once the match was lost, but their presence provided us with some much needed stability. Was that because the match was over? Maybe it was, but I’d still start Iniesta and Rakitic tomorrow. Denis Suarez will feature at some stage, potentially off the bench against one of his former clubs, and just as long as Arda isn’t seen in midfield, that’s fine by me.
And why shouldn’t we see Arda in midfield? Well that’s because he’s very much needed in attack. In midweek he was excellent on the left-wing, starting ahead of preseason top scorer, Munir El Haddadi, and while perhaps it was harsh to bench Munir, Arda was impressive. He displayed flair and an incisive edge, perhaps all we look for from a Barcelona forward and while he isn’t going to unseat Neymar on a permanent basis, he is an excellent back-up option.
The rest of the attack continues to select itself; Lionel Messi will start on the right in that free role he thrives in, while Luis Suarez will roam from his central position to probe the Sevilla defense and try to work the channels.
After a somewhat slow start to preseason, both Suarez and Messi were in fine form on Wednesday in the Gamper Trophy win against Sampdoria, with their opening goal drawing audible gasps from the Camp Nou crowd, and indeed the rest of the watching world. For me, that’s the thrill that I’ve missed after a summer of international football; the chemistry, the artistry and the sheer genius of Barça in full flight. Hopefully we have a season of these highs to look forward to.
Despite slipping to a 3-2 extra-time defeat against Real Madrid in Tuesday’s UEFA Super Cup in Trondheim, Sevilla impressed many with their performance and Jorge Sampaoli is keen for his side to continue in a similar vein tomorrow. He has issued a challenge to his players to not only disrupt Barcelona’s usual style of play, but to stop them from playing it altogether – Sampaoli wants to have the ball and he’s prepared to fight Barça for it.
The players certainly appear to have bought into Sampaoli’s teachings and are confident in their own abilities. Rotation is to be expected after extra-time in midweek, but overall, the squad list is similar to the one that faced off against Real Madrid. Timothee Kolodziejczak and Daniel Carrico miss out through suspension while Nicolas Pareja misses out through injury, but fortunately club captain Vicente Iborra has shaken off a knock and is expected to start.
FC Barcelona 2-0 Sevilla FC – 22nd May 2016 – Copa del Rey Final
Barça were far from their best, but eventually emerged victorious in an ill-tempered game that saw referee, Carlos del Cerro Grande show three cards to Javier Mascherano, Ever Banega and Daniel Carrico.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Digne; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Munir
Sevilla (3-4-3): Rico; Mercado, Rami, Jose Antonio; Mariano, N’Zonzi, Iborra, Vitolo; Konoplyanka, Vietto, Vazquez
This first leg is going to be tough, and while I think we walk away on Wednesday with the trophy, I think we’ll only leave Sevilla with a narrow win – made possible by the hosts’ defensive absences. 2-1 to the visitors.