x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Barca's welcome distraction

Barca have spent much of the pre-season travelling and only returned from a four game tour of the United States on Monday.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, second left, who signed for Barcelona from Italian champions Inter Milan in a swap deal with Samuel Eto'o, trains with his new teamates ahead of tonight's Super Cup against Bilbao.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, second left, who signed for Barcelona from Italian champions Inter Milan in a swap deal with Samuel Eto'o, trains with his new teamates ahead of tonight's Super Cup against Bilbao.

BARCELONA // It has been a difficult week for football in Barcelona. The death of Espanyol captain Dani Jarque stunned not only those associated with Espanyol, but also rivals Barca. Andres Iniesta played with Jarque for Spain's U19's when they were crowned European champions in 2002. They were friends and Iniesta was among a group of Barca players and officials who joined the thousands queuing at Espanyol's new stadium to pay their respects to the 26-year-old who died of a heart attack.

Goalkeeper Victor Valdes was another - he will no longer be able to holler instructions at Jarque for the Catalan national team, nor will Carles Puyol or Gerard Pique. Like coach Pep Guardiola and club president Joan Laporta, Jarque was Catalan. He grew up in the working-class barrio of Sant Boi close to Barca's new Ciutat Esportiva training ground on the south side of the city. Barca's players officially moved into the state of the art facility three weeks ago, yet many of the biggest stars have yet to experience a single training session on the lush new pitches. Barca have spent much of the pre-season travelling and only returned from a four game tour of the United States on Monday.

Spare a thought for new signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic - he did a full American pre-season with Inter Milan before doing the same with Barca. The Swedish striker has spent more days on airplanes in the last six weeks than not. Frustratingly for Barca's new record signing, he trained alone as he received treatment for a hand injury, only joining his peers for the first time on Friday. Barca open their competitive season tonight with a Spanish Super Cup first leg match against Athletic Bilbao in the Basque Country, yet international commitments this week saw Guardiola unable to train with his squad until Friday.

Athletic are in the final as they were runner's up to Barca in last season's Copa Del Rey, which provided the first trophy in the Catalans historic treble. That match in Valencia was one of three occasions when the Basques lost to Barca last season - making Guardiola's charges clear favourites over two legs - though Athletic pushed Barca hard in all the games. Joaquin Caparros's men will again be well prepared. After a four year European absence, Europa League commitments saw them commence their pre-season two weeks earlier than Barca and this will be their third competitive match.

They lost 1-0 at home to Swiss League leaders Young Boys, a game notable for the debut of Iker Muniain, who, five months short of his 17th birthday, became the second youngest player in Athletic's brilliant history. Another new Basque face is three-goal leading scorer Oscar de Marcos, who has returned from a loan spell at Alaves. With their Basque-only policy, Athletic have also signed two players from second division neighbours and long time rivals Real Sociedad.

Backed by an ever raucous 38,000 capacity crowd in their home known affectionately as "the cathedral", Athletic see the tie as a chance to accumulate some rare silverware. Barca have several injury concerns effecting their attacking players. Lionel Messi, Ibrahimovic, Iniesta and Thierry Henry are all overcoming niggling problems that prevented them from playing for their countries this week, with Messi most unlikely to start tonight.

It will give Bojan a chance, with the young Catalan/Serb saying: "I'm happy in any attacking position. I just have to take my chance and show the boss I can do a job there." All the injured players should be fit in time for Wednesday's Gamper trophy against Manchester City in Camp Nou. Guardiola has brought in young players Jeffren, Jonathan Dos Santos, Marc Muniesa and Andreu Fontàs. Barca have won the Super Cup seven times, the last two with Frank Rijkaard in the dug-out in 2006 and 2007. New signing Maxwell is likely to make his competitive debut, with the left back saying: "We've had a very positive pre-season. The squad has an excellent spirit and with our experience and players we're confident that we can start well in the Super Cup."

Maxwell, who joined from Inter to compete with Eric Abidal, added: "I'm surprised at the speed which the team play and there are differences with Serie A. In Spain, the game is more about having possession of the ball, the speed of play and the technique." After the sadness of a week marked by Jarque's death, it's reassuring to hear players speaking about football once again. @Email:amitten@thenational.ae tv Watch Bilbao v Barcelona live at midnight on Abu Dhabi Sports 1