FC Barcelona will be looking to bring the Supercopa de España back to Catalunya tomorrow when they host Sevilla FC at the Camp Nou. With a 2-0 victory at the Ramon Sánchez Pizjuan on Sunday, the Blaugrana take a commanding lead into this second-leg, but ever the consummate professional, head coach Luis Enrique has urged his players not to get complacent ahead of what will be another tough match.
Of course, in this day and age we hear these kinds of sound-bites and read these types of quotes every day; so much so that it has become almost cliché. Fans have been fed sentiments like this for so long that we have all become somewhat desensitised, almost immediately discarding the quotes from our consciousness as soon as we have read them. As Culés, we ourselves fall into this trap – and in true Culé fashion, we often go one step beyond to live these clichés and come to embody the very complacency that we often warn against.
Sunday’s match and our eventual win was an excellent example of this; with the scores tied and the match very much even at half-time, many Culés took to social media – or alternatively turned to their friends – and voiced their displeasure. The performance was criticised for lacking in tempo, fluidity and sharpness; it was half-time, Barça were drawing and this simply wasn’t good enough.
Of course, asking football fans not to hyperbolise and sensationalise would be akin to asking the sun not to shine; the two are so intertwined that exaggeration could well be a football fan’s prime directive – their sole purpose for existence. And yet, it’s this kind of attitude that so often leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, somewhat detracting from the entertainment on show and generally defeating the whole purpose of being a supporter.
The act of appreciation is fast becoming a dying art and the supporter who recognises and acknowledges context is very much an endangered species. For what have we become if our reaction to success and unprecedented dominance is merely heightened expectations?
Are we truly deserving of the riches we are routinely given if we react with a dismissive shrug and demand more?
Leaving aside that this was the first half of a two-legged match, Barcelona were travelling to Andalusia to take on one of Europe’s best sides, a team that could be considered amongst the favourites to finish in the top four in Spain this season. This was a team that boasted one of the finest home records not just in the country, but in Europe – and our reaction to a goalless first-half was that of disdain and disappointment?
The amateur analysis of the performance and the scoreline were bereft of context, and while these criticisms of course dissipated over the course of the second half as Luis Suarez and Munir sealed an impressive victory, it doesn’t excuse the fact that they were levelled earlier in the night without justification. I wouldn’t expect blind faith and unconditional praise, but I would have expected a little more common sense, at least this early into the campaign.
For my money, Sunday’s victory was an exceptional performance – a lesson in game management from Luis Enrique and a display of steel, tenacity and ruthless efficiency from our players. It was a microcosm of the Enrique reign as a whole; it might not have been as pretty as a Cruyff-esque Dream Team, or Pep’s tiki-taka – but it was just as successful and just as unbeatable. As far as whetting my appetite for the season ahead, well, I can’t wait for the rest of the year to unfold if these are rewards that await us.
Even replete with context, Sunday’s win was made all the more impressive by the fact that Barça stormed to victory after losing their club captain, as Andrés Iniesta was felled in the first-half by a nasty knock to his knee. Iniesta is expected to miss a couple of weeks of action as a result of the impact, while Jeremy Mathieu is sidelined for the next three weeks after pulling up with a hamstring strain in the first half-hour.
If we factor in the pre-existing injury to Marc-André ter Stegen, illness and slight fitness concerns over Jordi Alba, and the absence of both Rafinha Alcântara and Neymar at the Olympics, and typically this would be a recipe for a crisis at the Camp Nou. This season however there is a pervading feeling that actually, everything is completely fine. Thanks to some stellar work in the transfer market from Robert, Barcelona are perfectly well-equipped to handle these situations by slotting in a more than capable replacement.
Claudio Bravo continues to fill in for Marc-André ter Stegen, despite further reports linking him with a transfer to Manchester City, while Denis Suarez and Lucas Digne both impressed as they filled in for Iniesta and Mathieu respectively. The former supplied a hockey assist for the game’s opening goal, finding the run of Arda Turan with an expertly weighted lofted pass, while the latter left the majority of Culés waxing lyrical about his talents – simply by being so effective at everything he did.
It is also worth remembering that in Denis’ case, we could have easily taken the opportunity to debut Andre Gomes, who himself has built quite a reputation as a strong performer in Spanish football. Just as Luis Enrique has added a certain level of steel to our playing style, that now equally applies to the depth of our squad and there’s a certain je ne sais quoi about it all – a feeling that everything is just falling into place for the season ahead.
A trophy would absolutely support that theory, which is where tomorrow’s match comes into the equation. As long as we don’t lose by two or more goals, we’re guaranteed to walk away with the trophy, it’s that simple.
So, with that in mind, I imagine that Luis Enrique’s motto for the night will be: "if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it". Unless Claudio Bravo is actually sold tomorrow, he will start in goal and he will be shielded by a familiar looking backline.
Sergi Roberto should continue to get the nod ahead of Aleix Vidal, although as far as risk-free scenarios go, this second leg does represent a good opportunity to test Vidal. His preseason was rather mixed to say the least, but players deserve more than a few friendlies to stake their claim; he’s a professional after all and he will be desperate to prove that he can perform at full-back in a Blaugrana jersey.
In the centre of defense it is clear to me that Javier Mascherano and Gerard Piqué remain our undisputed first choice pairing. While it is of course early in Samuel Umtiti’s Barça career, and even his preseason preparations, the chemistry and results that Piqué and Mascherano produce just cannot be argued with. Umtiti will get his chance; just don’t expect it to be from the start tomorrow.
Then we have the final defensive spot – and while everything suggests that Jordi Alba is over his stomach bug, there’s still the issue of him generally missing out on preseason, so Lucas Digne is the smart choice. With any luck, we can ease Alba into the game later in a bid to help him pick up some match fitness.
Generally speaking, I think it’s as you were in midfield as well. Sergio Busquets at pivote, Ivan Rakitić in his usual dynamic role and Denis Suarez filling in for Andrés Iniesta, both because of his performances in preseason and because he boasts a greater understanding of the Barça philosophy as opposed to Andre Gomes. Only time will tell what role the Portuguese midfielder will play in the squad, but I would expect him to be more a replacement for Rakitić in Enrique’s system – and as such I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make an appearance off the bench in the second half.
Similarly, I doubt that Enrique will rotate the frontline either; Lionel Messi it could be argued was a little off his usual standards on Sunday, but he will start because of course he will, while Luis Suarez actually was on form, so he will obviously start tomorrow as well. The thing about the final spot is that while Munir scored off the bench, his role is such that it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a starting berth in a match like this; Arda does the hard yards and puts in the shift, Munir enters with fresh legs and wreaks havoc in the closing stages. It’s a tried and tested method now, so expect it to continue tomorrow.
In many respects, Sevilla’s past success has served as an excellent pre-emptive defense for Jorge Sampaoli’s team selection tomorrow. By virtue of playing a UEFA Super Cup last week, a difficult match against us on Sunday, and with the prospect of a La Liga opener against RCD Espanyol at the weekend; who could blame Sampaoli if he chose to rotate his squad? The fact of the matter is that chasing a 2-0 deficit at the Camp Nou isn’t just ambitious, it’s foolish – and Sampaoli knows he would be better served by simply accepting his current reality and moving on.
That doesn’t mean that we will see the B team tomorrow, but it does mean that we could see up to four of them in action as Sampaoli has been forced to dig deep into his extended roster to deal with his defensive injury crisis. The latest absentees are Adil Rami and Sergio Escudero, both of whom have picked up knocks in the past few days and will not travel as a precautionary measure.
Sevilla FC 0-2 FC Barcelona – 14th August 2016 – Supercopa
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Vidal, Piqué, Mascherano, Digne; Busquets, Rakitić, Denis; Messi, Suarez, Arda
Sevilla (3-4-3): Rico; Mercado, Gonzalez, Munoz; Mariano, Iborra, N’Zonzi, Vitolo; Konoplyanka, Vietto, Kiyotake
This won’t be a walk in the park, but those defensive absentees are too big a miss for Sevilla to walk away from this one unscathed. Another 2-0 Barça.