The first international break of the 2023/24 season is thankfully over and the campaign gets truly underway as Barcelona are set to begin their Champions League group stage journey in just a few days, but before the European opener they have a brutal test in La Liga in the form of Manuel Pellegrini’s Real Betis on Saturday night at the Montjuïc Olympic Stadium.
Barça come into this one after an unbeaten start to the season, getting 10 points from their opening four games and winning the last three with two dramatic finishes on the road and a mixed bag of performances in the middle of a crazy transfer window. But things are stable now, and Xavi Hernández knows exactly what his squad is for the next few months.
Now the coach gets to truly mold this unique group of players into a cohesive unit while trying to compete for the league title and advance to the Champions League knockout stages for the first time as the man in charge, and a game against a great Betis team that always gives them problems will be the perfect test for the Blaugrana before they start the continental season.
Here’s how we think Xavi will line up his troops for Saturday’s battle.
The much-anticipated signing of João Cancelo finally gives Barça hope of a real world-class right-back in their ranks after almost a decade, and the Portugal international made his Barça debut two weeks ago and played good minutes for his national team during their European Qualifiers, so he will be fit enough to make his first start for the Blaugrana in front of the home crowd.
Alejandro Balde was on the bench for most of Spain’s two matches during the break, which is actually good news for Barça as the left-back will have a lot of running to do in Xavi’s system and needs every bit of rest he can get. Jules Kounde can finally focus on playing center-back full time at club level and has been sensational so far this season, proving he was absolutely right to no longer want a full-back role.
The big doubt for Saturday is about Kounde’s partner in the middle, with Andreas Christensen still dealing with a calf issue that will force the coaching staff to carefully monitor his minutes with a busy stretch of games coming up.
Perhaps resting the Dane is the best option this weekend, saving him for the Champions League opener and giving Iñigo Martínez the chance to make his first start. The summer signing made a short debut cameo against Osasuna but was a full participant in training for two weeks during the break, and he should be ready to play from the start on Saturday.
Ilkay Gündogan thankfully avoided injury with Germany in their friendly win against France, but it would still make sense to be very careful with a player who has quickly become a crucial piece of Barça’s midfield and deserves plenty of attention especially as Pedri is still recovering from injury.
Saving the German for Tuesday is the most sensible option, and with young Fermín López not available due to suspension Xavi will have no choice but to play with a classic three-man midfield in this one: Gavi, Oriol Romeu and the spectacular Frenkie De Jong are more than good enough to provide the necessary mix of physicality and creativity in the center of the park, and with two attacking full-backs and an actual front three it would be nice to see this specific midfield trio play a different role that suits their games much better.
Being careful with Gündogan is just one of two big reasons why Xavi should play a 4-3-3 this Saturday. The other is the incredible form of Ferran Torres, who took advantage of a surprise call-up for Spain and scored twice in midweek to continue his spectacular start to the season for club and country.
The Shark more than deserves to start and play meaningful minutes now, and his newfound scoring prowess will also help take the pressure off Robert Lewandowski, who’s now scored four goals in four games for club and country and is slowly starting to look like himself again. Having more quality service from two excellent full-backs and two good wingers will help him, and Barça’s attack has a chance to finally be exciting this weekend with Lewy as its leader.
The final spot in the team will most likely go to Lamine Yamal, who looked like a 10-year veteran in his debut minutes for Spain and is simply untouchable right now. Yes, he is only 16 years old and will naturally have a drop-off soon, but there is no reason to take the kid out of the team when he’s playing so well and the schedule hasn’t become crazy yet.
Raphinha played two great games for Brazil and should be more confident, and he would have a chance to start if not for a very late match in Peru on Tuesday and a long flight back home to Barcelona where he barely trained this week, so it’s best to save him for the second half and give him a chance to start in the Champions League. João Félix had a solid debut against Osasuna and scored for Portugal during the break, but he’s best suited to a bench role at Barça as of now and the schedule will naturally give him a chance to start soon enough.
Possible XI: Ter Stegen; Cancelo, Kounde, Iñigo, Balde; Gavi, Romeu, De Jong; Yamal, Lewandowski, Ferran (4-3-3)
How do you think Barcelona should line up against Real Betis? Let us know your thoughts, predictions and teams in the comments below!