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Barcelona back down to business against Athletic Bilbao

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Valverde must choose wisely

FC Barcelona v SSC Napoli - 2019 International Champions Cup Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Here we go again!

An opening day visit to the new San Mamés awaits Barcelona, one of the toughest fixtures that they could’ve begun the 2019/20 La Liga campaign with.

Although the Blaugrana have won every one of their last 10 opening day fixtures, and have lost in Bilbao just twice in the league in the last 14 years — the last defeat coming six years ago — Ernesto Valverde can’t afford to be complacent.

Particularly with Lionel Messi unlikely to make the squad.

Los Leones are buoyant after tying down star striker Iñaki Williams to an incredible nine-year contract, and Gaizka Garitano’s side are in decent form, having lost just once in a preseason that included a draw away at AS Roma and a win at the London Stadium (on penalties) against West Ham United.

Despite any off-field tribulations, Barça have looked remarkably focused and well-oiled to this point, with Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie De Jong integrating seamlessly into their new surroundings.

Both need to play from the start against an Athletic side that will go all out for a long-overdue league win against the Catalans.

Marc-André ter Stegen returns to the scene where he once let in four goals including one from Mikel San José that was almost from the half-way line. Though any ghosts were long since exorcised, the German needs to be on his game from the get go.

The back four at this point picks itself too. Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet have to be the centre-back pairing of choice. It’s important that Jean-Clair Todibo is given more minutes this season, but his chance will come later.

In my opinion, Samuel Umtiti hasn’t done enough to dislodge his fellow lefty countryman, but maybe that works in Barça’s favor over the coming weeks.

Nélson Semedo and Jordi Alba take up the wide positions.

Assuming a 4-3-3 formation is the one that Valverde picks, Arthur and Arturo Vidal offer a mixture of physicality and ball retention that complement De Jong’s skillset.

It’s an almighty call to leave Sergio Busquets on the bench, but it’s a brave manager too that overlooks what the Dutchman has brought to the party since his capture.

With no Messi, and, we’re led to believe, Philippe Coutinho involved in negotiations to move elsewhere, then a triumvirate of Ousmane Dembélé, Luis Suárez and Griezmann is one that offers pace, movement and goals.

Opening games can always spring the odd surprise, and San Mamés will be full and expectant as Valverde returns again.

However, the Blaugrana should have more than enough weaponry to start this season as they mean to go on.