La Liga is set to begin in a few days and Barcelona will look to defend their league title to make it 4 titles in 5 years to mark a period of absolute dominance (results-wise at least), over their arch-rivals Real Madrid.
Barcelona has been through a busy summer, the biggest change being the appointment of new manager Tata Martino, after Vilanova stepped down from a cancer relapse. Martino, having relatively little experience of handling a big club and therefore having little exposure to the kind of pressure that this job exerts, will have his work cut out for him.
Barcelona, as a norm, are expected to challenge for all trophies and every trophy is assumed to be destined to Catalonia until it isn’t.
With a squad that is crowded in the attacking department, but woefully short in defence, Barcelona are still serious contenders in every competition, especially with the arrival of Neymar, who can reduce the Messi-dependence – something which has been troubling Barcelona for the last two years or so.
Moving on, let us first take a look at Barcelona’s pre-season to get a picture of how Barca will line-up this season.
Although the main purpose of the pre-season is for the players to get into good shape before the actual season begins, it is also a chance for the players who don’t have a reserved berth in the starting line-up to show their talents and give the manager something to think about.
Especially when that manager is a newly appointed one, you have a fresh slate on which to chalk your credentials and give a good first good impression to the manager.
Before going further, please note that the opposition in these pre-season matches is not exactly top-class, so crushing these minnows is not really a solid indicator as to what lies ahead.
Having said that, Barcelona has had a pretty good pre-season barring the 2-0 loss to Bayern Munich, which was on the back of the bad news about Vilanova’s health. After that they beat Valerenga 7-0, they drew with Lechia Gdansk 2-0, flattened Santos 8-0, dominated Thailand 7-1 and overcame Malaysia 3-1.
Some players gave a pretty good account of themselves in these matches and here are the top five players who have been the most impressive in these games and the ones to watch out for in the coming season:
1. Lionel Messi
This name is not really a surprise. However, what is surprising is how Messi’s curve never dips and how he keeps getting better and better. With 5 goals and 5 assists in the 5 pre-season games that he played, he has single-handedly dominated the opposition teams.
2. Cesc Fabregas
Fabregas has been given free reign in these pre-season matches and what an effect it has had on him. He scored a brace against Santos and followed it up with Man of the Match performances against Thailand and Malaysia.
In the absence of Xavi, his penetration has increased, and he looks like a man who has broken his shackles. I will not be surprised if Xavi slowly makes way for Cesc this season. With Neymar and Messi ahead of him, this trio can turn out to be a deadly one.
Cesc finally at his best?
The man who has the most to lose from Neymar’s transfer is Pedro. But he hasn’t pushed for a move away from the club and it looks like he will simply continue to do his best. With 4 goals (including a hat-trick against Thailand), he made a good case for himself in front of the new coach and looks to have regained his confidence after a poor last season by his standards.
4. Alexis Sanchez
Here is another man who seems to have got his confidence back. And it is high time he did. Alexis, the guy who seemed too shy to score last season, is becoming increasingly tricky to defend against with his pace and dribbling skills, the qualities for which he was bought in the first place. Let us hope this is finally the season in which he shines and lives up to his billing.
5. Sergi Roberto
When Barcelona sold Thiago or rather, let Thiago slip, for a meagre sum, there were doubts as to whether Barca will go into the market looking for a replacement. But, as is often the case with Barca, the club looked within itself and handed the responsibility to Sergio Roberto, the 21-year-old La Masia product.
So far, it looks like he is up to the task, with his ability to cover the entire pitch both in attack and defence. He may not be as naturally talented as Thiago. However, he seems to belong to the breed of box-to-box midfielders and Barca can really use a different type of player as opposed to the artistic talents of Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas.
That doesn’t mean his art quotient is zero. He is after all, a La Masia product.
The other guys
It is noticeable that Neymar is missing from that list. That is because he is still adapting to the ways of Barca and will take some time before he gets to his best form. He had his moments during the pre-season, but he is still feeling his way into the team and is still trying to come to terms with the fact that he is not the centre of this team and cannot have the ball whenever he demands it.
However, it is good to see that Messi and others are keen to make the Brazilian feel comfortable by trying to feed passes into his path whenever possible. It is simply a matter of time before we see the Brazilian in top form.
One other guy who showed glimpses of his talent is the 18-year old Jean Marie Dongou, widely known as the next Samuel Eto’o. He scored three goals during the pre-season and is touted to be the next big thing to emerge from La Masia after Lionel Messi himself.
He has pace, strength and an innate ability to score, much like Eto’o. It is expected that he will soon make the jump to the first-team, but it will be interesting to see how Martino and Barca handle the situation as Dongou’s position is currently Messi’s territory.
Where is the defender?
At the beginning, we waited with pleasant anticipation, relaxed in an armchair, given the swift and slick operation of the Neymar signing.
After some time, we sat up, alert upon hearing that Thiago Silva and Marquinhos are both out of reach. Now as we near the start of the season, we are pacing around the room, waiting with bated breath wearing a scowl on our faces and still he is nowhere near sight and by he, I mean David Luiz, Daniel Agger and any other defender who can head the ball out of the danger area during set-pieces and has the pace to match quick opposition counter-attacks.
At least, they have now made formal bids for Luiz and are intensifying their quest. But it is looking increasingly likely that Mourinho will turn Barca away just for the fun of it and we will be back to square one again.
It would be just as well that the club announce that they are not going to make any more signings and will use Marc Bartra more often. At least, that will eliminate any false hope.
In any case, Barca normally breezes through the first half of the season. It is only during the second half that we face the bitter truths, so we might as well start the search afresh in the winter transfer window. At least that is what we will keep telling ourselves.