The anticipation continues to build in Barcelona with a new season just a few weeks away, and new faces stepping up to introduce themselves in spectacular fashion.
On Saturday’s El Clásico in Las Vegas, we got a preview of the entertainment to come in Spain.
Raphinha once again stole the show with a wonder strike from outside the box, diverting attention away from the debut of Robert Lewandowski.
He is a man on a mission, knowing he needs to beat out one of Xavi’s favorite players in Ousmane Dembélé for a spot in the starting eleven.
The competition is on. And not just on the right wing.
This is what the preseason is all about if you’re going about it in the right way.
You strengthen the squad, and then you give the players opportunities to go at it.
Who wants it the most?
The Brazilian started the game, understandably, with nervous energy, looking desperate to make a mark right away. Eventually, however, he settled into the game, and just in time to silence the Real Madrid fans in attendance with an emphatic finish.
That’s two goals and two assists in his first two games for the club. That’s called taking advantage of the opportunity being given to you by the manager. Now, Dembélé must respond, and he’s not the only one.
Giving the newly arrived Lewandowski the start over Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was a bit harsh given that the Gabonese striker hasn’t stopped scoring goals for Xavi. But the Pole is the club’s signature signing this summer, and they had to show him off under the bright lights of Las Vegas.
The pressure is on the players to earn their role on the team every minute of every game. Now Xavi can say, what did you do for the team today, and why should I start you tomorrow?
No sulking, no entitlement. Just hard work, and help the team win.
And once again, this team under Xavi’s leadership beat Real Madrid. That’s two wins in two games in the world’s greatest rivalry game for the young manager.
Barcelona started the game with hunger. Pressing aggressively with Pedri leading the way. That’s another element to Raphinha’s game that shouldn’t be overlooked. Winning the ball high up the field is essential to this team’s success, and Real Madrid struggled to play through it out of the back.
The midfield is another area of depth on this team. Did Xavi show his hand that Pedri, Gavi, and Sergio Busquets are his preferred trio? No surprise there, but Franck Kessie and Nico González are putting in strong performances and making it hard on their manager to reach a conclusion.
Kessie in particular has been stellar, and in my opinion, if he keeps it up, is a better option than Gavi right away because of how well he fits into the system. He is a box-to-box machine, everywhere at all times. Savvy positioning to make a crucial steal. Progressing the ball through the midfield. In the final third creating an opportunity in front of goal.
Gavi could learn a lot from him as a mentor, and will benefit from the competition. It’s crazy to think that Pablo Torre didn’t even come off the bench in this one, even though he’s also impressed lately and made a case to get more chances.
The greatest revelation of all in the last twenty four hours has been with the defense. If the Jules Kounde hijacking succeeds, Xavi will have an array of versatile players giving him options across the back four.
But even without him, the Barcelona defenders stepped up at Allegiant Stadium on Saturday night.
Want to lock down a speedy winger? Try Ronald Araujo as a full-back.
Want a playmaker who can add creativity? You have Sergiño Dest.
Eric García is there when you need a distributor, and Andreas Christensen when you need someone strong to lock things down. And Gerard Piqué, who’s coming off one of his better seasons in years, can still be counted on to provide steady veteran leadership.
But above all else, you have competition regardless of the specific advantages each player gives you.
Up and down the field, these Barcelona players will need to make an impact on a consistent basis, and they can’t afford to make costly mistakes if they want to keep their job in the lineup.
That’s what this version of El Clásico highlighted.
These players are proud to be playing for Barcelona again, and they want to be part of the show going forward.
Earning a part won’t be easy, and that’s exactly how it needs to be.
The expectations have been raised this summer, and with it comes pressure to perform and to succeed. Xavi has been backed, and the weight will be felt by him more than anyone. And as a true competitor desperate to win titles, he’s going to share that burden and accountability with his players, and see who’s not scared to take it.
Real Madrid learned in Sin City that defending their title will be a big challenge, and they may not even be the favorites.
Ready or not, Barcelona need to embrace the fact that the world is watching and are expecting them to be among the best in Europe again.
This team has the style to entertain, but their character will be tested early on to see if they can rally around one another, work hard, and win tough games.
So far, there’s reason for optimism.
The American tour continues on Tuesday against Juventus with another opportunity to showcase their skill and determination to earn a role on this team.
May the good times continue, and may Xavi find what he’s looking for to get the team prepared to hit the ground running when the season starts in August.