FC Barcelona will be hoping to kick off the defense of their La Liga crown with a win tomorrow, as they host Real Betis at the Camp Nou. Fresh off their emphatic midweek Supercopa de España victory over Real Betis’ Andalusian rivals, Sevilla FC, the Blaugrana are sure to be full of confidence and optimistic that they can start their title defense on a positive note, as well as place early pressure on their main title rivals, Real and Atletico Madrid.
After what appears to be an incredibly successful off-season thanks to new Sporting Director, Robert, expectations are sky high in Catalunya and indeed around the world, as Culés dream of the success that could await us in Luis Enrique’s third season in charge. After all, it was in his third season in charge that Pep Guardiola claimed his second UEFA Champions League title; in Johan Cruyff’s third season we won the first of four consecutive La Liga titles and in Frank Rijkaard’s third season we claimed a league and Champions League double.
At FC Barcelona, three absolutely tends to be the magic number for our managers and Luis Enrique arguably has all the tools at his disposal to continue that trend.
The irrepressible attacking trident of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar seem to be improving year on year; the midfield is as strong as ever and stacked with more depth than we have perhaps ever seen before and the defense is impressing many, even if there are some minor question marks about the right-hand side of our backline. For the moment at least, we have two world-class goalkeepers and irrespective of whether Claudio Bravo leaves or not, Robert seems intent on maintaining our depth at that position too.
Looking ahead, the schedule also appears kinder than it was last season; the fixtures immediately around the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League will not be easy by any means, but they pale in comparison to the schedule from hell that scuppered our bid to claim the "double-treble". A new season always brings new hope and a renewed sense of optimism, but this goes above and beyond – even in this, what might be the toughest La Liga ever, Culés are taking a Panglossian view of the team.
It doesn’t matter that Real Madrid are the reigning European champions, and that Atletico Madrid, the last team to eliminate us from contention in both the UEFA Champions League and in La Liga, have improved their squad – we, in this present moment, might just be in the best state we can possibly be in. I would certainly include myself in that bracket and that’s why I can’t wait for the season to start in earnest.
So tomorrow, as the Blaugrana prepare to kick-off in the early evening sun in Barcelona, kick back, maybe grab an Estrella or two and allow yourself to enjoy the moment. Lose yourself in the action, and consider that maybe, just maybe, you are witnessing the start of something truly special. And even if it transpires that we’re not, there’s no reason not to enjoy the journey.
Somewhat unusually, Barcelona enter the La Liga season with something of an injury and absentee crisis. Not only are the Blaugrana missing both Rafinha Alcantara and Neymar, who are busy preparing for the gold medal match at the Rio Olympics, but they are also without a whole host of injured first teamers. Marc-Andre ter Stegen was the first to pick up an injury, and he was soon joined on the sidelines by Jeremy Mathieu and Andres Iniesta. Just a few days ago in the win against Sevilla, Javier Mascherano also picked up a muscle injury forcing him out of tomorrow’s match.
That leaves Luis Enrique with a thinner squad than he might have hoped, but it’s also by no means the end of the world. Claudio Bravo remains a Barcelona player for the time being and while the chances are that he will join Manchester City before the window closes at the end of the month, he is ready to start the La Liga season in goal tomorrow.
Both Sergi Roberto and Aleix Vidal are available at right-back, and Vidal in particular seems to have turned a corner with his strong display on Wednesday. As we’ve mentioned countless times, the former Sevilla winger struggled during preseason but he showed few signs of weakness in midweek, even against such a tricky opponent in the form of Yevhen Konoplyanka. It’s unlikely to be enough to see him start tomorrow, but it’s an encouraging sign nonetheless.
Without Mascherano and Mathieu, Enrique has little choice but to start Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti again tomorrow, which in itself is a positive. The idea of Mascherano being injured does not make me happy, but there can be no denying that given time, this was why Umtiti was signed – to partner Pique in the heart of defense. The more time he spends alongside him now, the better it will be at the business end of the season.
The final spot could go back to Jordi Alba after his cameo appearance on Wednesday, but the smart move from Enrique would be to continue with Lucas Digne. The Frenchman has played more minutes in preseason, performed admirably at both ends of the field and has endeared himself to the Barcelona support, even in such a short space of time. Alba will regain his place eventually, but for now we should reward Digne for such a positive start to his Barça career.
Two members of the midfield triumvirate tomorrow should be set in stone; Sergio Busquets is a lock at pivote, while Ivan Rakitic is sure to fill his usual spot on the right-hand side of midfield – which only leaves us with one slot and two players to fight it out for the berth. Denis Suarez has the added advantage of extra minutes during preseason, as well as some La Masia training, but Andre Gomes looked impressive in midweek and came with a hefty pricetag. Does that put him ahead of Denis in the pecking order? I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.
And finally, the attack may have been rotated in midweek, but it should be back to as you were by kick-off – meaning starts for Lionel Messi, Arda Turan and Luis Suarez. All three players are hitting form and the prospect of trying to keep them quiet is daunting to say the very least.
A new season has brought a new manager to Andalusia, as Gus Poyet took charge of Real Betis back in May. The Uruguayan most recently had a strong spell in Greece, helping to inspire AEK Athens back into Europe by qualifying for the UEFA Europa League, and now he’s hoping he can continue that success with Betis. To help in that respect, Poyet has been quite active in the transfer market.
Belgian midfielder, Charly Musonda, has been re-signed on loan from Chelsea; former Barcelona starlet Antonio Sanabria has been brought in from AS Roma to help ease the burden on all-time top scorer, Ruben Castro, and a combative midfield has been reinforced with the arrival of Felipe Gutierrez and Jonas Martin from FC Twente and Montpellier respectively.
The loss of Alfred N’Diaye is sure to have an impact, as will the departure of veteran German defender, Heiko Westermann, but this revamped Betis is younger, hungrier and perhaps has more to prove. Factor in the experience and timeless talent of Castro in attack, and they could be an outside bet for a top-half finish. Whether that translates to challenging the Blaugrana at the Camp Nou tomorrow, well, that’s an entirely different proposition.
Real Betis: N/A
Real Betis 0-2 FC Barcelona – 30th April 2016 – La Liga
The visitors had to wait until the second half to make their breakthrough, but goals from Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suarez, both assisted by Lionel Messi, were enough to move the Blaugrana one step closer to securing the La Liga title.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Digne; Busquets, Rakitic, Denis; Messi, Suarez, Arda
Betis (4-2-3-1): Adan; Piccini, Mandi, Pezzella, Vargas; Petros, Gutierrez; Nahuel, Ceballos, Musonda; Castro
It’s been a while since we’ve had one of these, but I remember the good old days when most la Liga seasons started with a 4-0 win. How about another one of those?