Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 October 2019

Barcelona all set for La Liga opener – but with eyes firmly fixed on European Cup

Changes afoot at various levels of Spanish club as holders travel to Athletic Bilbao for first league match

La Liga starts on Friday night with Barcelona, reigning champions and holders of eight of the last 11 titles, away at Athletic Bilbao.

The Catalans are favourites to repeat that feat under former Athletic manager Ernesto Valverde. He is in his third season and his two titles see him on solid ground, though he came under sustained criticism from fans after the Uefa Champions League away collapses at Roma in 2018 and Liverpool in 2019.

Barca have impressed pre-season, especially without the injured Lionel Messi. Their front three of Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele have been particularly imposing, especially when they beat Napoli 4-0 in the United States.

The 32-year-old Suarez, the top-scorer in pre-season, has to show that he still has the quality to stay in the team when Messi returns. The club were unhappy when he went for surgery before the Copa del Rey final – a game Barca lost – to be fit for the Copa America.

Barca have an excellent record in their opening league games, with 10 straight wins since that shock opening day defeat at tiny Numancia in Pep Guardiola’s first game as manager. One of those wins was at Athletic Bilbao managed by Valderde in 2015.

The Catalans are also expected to win the Champions League this season – ridiculously high expectations for any other team. When Messi spoke on the pitch before the Gamper friendly against Arsenal, he talked of the importance of no repeats of Roma and Liverpool.

He was cheered by the vast 98,000 crowd – the biggest in world football this year.

Lionel Messi is determined to win the Uefa Champions League for Barcelona this season. David Ramos / Getty Images
Lionel Messi is determined to win the Uefa Champions League for Barcelona this season. David Ramos / Getty Images

Marc Andre ter Stegen remains the first-choice goalkeeper, his understudy Jasper Cillessen having moved to Valencia in a bid to play every week. He was in a swap deal with Brazilian goalkeeper Neto, who is happy to take the money and go from being Valencia’s No 1 to Barca’s second-choice goalkeeper.

The defence is likely to be Nelson Semedo at right-back, Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti in central defence, with Clement Lenglet an able deputy, and Jordi Alba at left-back.

Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Frenkie de Jong, who was man of the match against Arsenal, are likely to start as the midfield three. They will have midfield back-up from Arthur, Rafinha and Philippe Coutinho if either stays. Barca want the former Liverpool man who cost them €142 million (Dh579m) off their books and had hoped to loan him to a Premier League team.

There is optimism, too, that Neymar will return to Camp Nou where he remains good friends with Messi. Barca cannot afford to take him without moving on Coutinho and Rakitic, who does not want to leave and whose manager does not want him to go. Barca sought a loan with a view to buying Neymar, who is also wanted by Real Madrid.

There are further midfield options with Carles Alena and Arturo Vidal, while Ricky Puig provokes hot debate among Barca fans. The 20-year-old Catalan midfielder who looks twice his age is prodigiously talented, but it is yet to be decided if he stays or goes on loan.

Marc-Andre Ter Stegen is expected to be Barcelona's first-choice goalkeeper in 2019/20. Josep Lago / AFP
Marc-Andre Ter Stegen is expected to be Barcelona's first-choice goalkeeper in 2019/20. Josep Lago / AFP

Then there is the versatile Sergi Roberto, who wants to play as a midfielder rather than a right-back. Barca have bought Dominican Junior Firpro from Real Betis to cover for Alba at left-back, and they sold another Brazilian – Malcom – to Zenit Saint-Petersburg in their continued bid to get their staggering wage bill, the highest in world football, under control.

Pep Segura, the most senior sporting director, has gone – as has vice president Jordi Mestre who defended him. Patrick Kluivert will work with younger players as they seek to re-establish the important of the Masia youth system, as will former goalkeeper Victor Valdes, back at work after a self-imposed exile following a glittering career.

They will work under Eric Abidal, the cerebral former player.

The club’s B team, who play in the regional third division, and women's team will move from the Mini Estadi to the new 6,000 capacity Estadi Johan Cruyff, which will be inaugurated on August 27 with a game between the youth sides of Barca and Ajax. Defender Juan Miranda and forward Alejandro Marques are two talents to watch.

Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu should stay in charge until 2021. He half-jokingly described his job description to a colleague from another club as “bringing enough money in to keep Messi here”.

Messi, 32, in his 16th season as a first-team player, is determined to win only a fourth European Cup. It will be five years since the Catalans’ last triumph, five years too long for many of their ultra-demanding fans.

Updated: August 16, 2019 08:39 AM

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