x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Pressure on Barcelona to hit the ground running

The Spanish and European champions have not had the most fluid of preparations for the new season, as they aim to fend off the challenge of an ever-improving Real Madrid.

ARLINGTON, TX - AUGUST 06: Gerard Pique #3 of FC Barcelona heads the ball against Daniel Montenegro #10 of Club America at Cowboys Stadium on August 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.   Ronald Martinez/Getty Images/AFP== FOR NEWSPAPERS, INTERNET, TELCOS & TELEVISION USE ONLY ==
 *** Local Caption ***  565098-01-09.jpg
ARLINGTON, TX - AUGUST 06: Gerard Pique #3 of FC Barcelona heads the ball against Daniel Montenegro #10 of Club America at Cowboys Stadium on August 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images/AFP== FOR NEWSPAPERS, INTERNET, TELCOS & TELEVISION USE ONLY == *** Local Caption *** 565098-01-09.jpg

Barcelona's players touched down in Catalonia on Monday after an overnight flight from Dallas, the venue for their third and final pre-season game in the United States.

They had been on the road for 12 days, but not too much can be read into their form in the States. Key players were absent or rested as the European champions lost 2-1 against the youthful Manchester United in Washington and 4-1 against Chivas in Miami before beating Club America 2-0 in the vast new air-conditioned Cowboys Stadium.

The tour was a commercial success, with the three games watched by 212,694 - 40 per cent more than watched Real Madrid's three matches in the States, a point the Catalans were keen to highlight.

Football wise, Barca's pre-season form is more difficult to decipher with Pep Guardiola's casual attitude to the tour summed up by his attire of bleached jeans and trainers.

"Before we had pre-seasons, now we go on tour," said Guardiola, the coach. "We couldn't train properly because of the heat (which frequently neared 40°C). But the club need the money."

With the highest overall player salaries in world sport, Barca will continue to play lucrative friendly matches, but Guardiola has been dissatisfied with pre-season preparations before and his fears have been justified by poor opening results.

He lost his first league game in charge in 2008 and the Catalans were defeated in their first home match last season by promoted Hercules.

The results mattered little come the end of the season. Barca have won the Primera Liga in each of Guardiola's three seasons and the Champions League in two, but the challenge from Real Madrid is expected to be stronger this season, the margin for error still smaller.

Xavi, the midfielder, views the threat from Real as a positive, saying: "Madrid are doing great and with all what they've invested, it's a huge merit that we have won the league the last three years."

The two Spanish giants will have a chance to size each other up sooner than usual as they meet in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Sunday in the Bernabeu, before the return leg in Camp Nou next Wednesday.

Barca fans should not expect to see Lionel Messi, Daniel Alves and their new signing Alexis Sanchez quite so soon.

They were absent from the American games after being given time off following their performances in Copa America, with Messi and Alves holidaying in Ibiza before returning to a half empty training ground on Tuesday.

Nine of the Barca players had just a few hours in Catalonia before joining up with their international teammates ahead of this week's friendlies. Seven are expected to be involved in Spain's friendly against Italy on Wednesday in Bari. Real's Super Cup preparations have been equally disrupted by international call-ups.

Guardiola will not have access to his full squad until Thursday night and a more realistic aim is for his stars to be playing together for the tricky opening league match at big spending Malaga on August 21.

A fit Messi is a must against a side who have lavished millions on big name players this year. Barca want more of the same from Messi, who scored a staggering 53 goals last term. They also feel that they can improve and cement their status as the best club side ever if they win another league title and a third Champions League in four years.

"We're still very hungry for success, we're more experienced and very confident about this season," said Xavi. "Alexis [Sanchez] is a top level player and there may be more [additions]."

Xavi was talking about the potential arrival of Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas. The transfer speculation surrounding the move has dragged on for two close seasons, with Fabregas keen to return to the club he left at 16, but reluctant to ask for a transfer.

With Barca unwilling to meet Arsenal's valuation of their 24-year-old captain, the impasse has not been broken and both sides could do with resolving the situation before the transfer window closes at the end of this month. Fabregas would be a welcome addition, but most Barca fans are not desperate for him to sign and hope that Thiago, their best player on the pre-season tour, can justify his immense potential which led to the club rewarding him with five year contract last month.

Thiago, who was called up to the full Spain squad for the first time last week, wants opportunities.

"What I want is to play," Thiago said. "It doesn't matter as winger, a forward or midfielder. I'll play where Pep wants me to."

With Real as opponents and a trophy immediately at stake, there is extra pressure on Barca to hit the ground running. With his preparations disrupted, that might prove difficult, even for Guardiola.

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