After a busy summer in the transfer market, reigning champions Barcelona get their new La Liga campaign underway with a home game against Alaves on Saturday night.
Confidence is high among the Blaugrana after last week’s Super Cup victory over Sevilla and a comfortable midweek win against Boca Juniors, but Alaves have a good recent record at the Camp Nou and will be determined to cause another upset.
Here are three big talking points ahead of the new campaign.
4-3-3 or 4-4-2?
It goes without saying that Lionel Messi will continue to be the most important player for Barcelona as he returns to more comfortable surroundings following the trauma of his ill-fated World Cup campaign with Argentina.
The big question, though, is where will he play?
Last season saw new manager Ernesto Valverde largely lean upon a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Messi in a central free role behind sole striker Luis Suarez, and that strategy succeeded in giving the team a strong backbone – they ended up conceding only 29 goals in 38 games despite a few late-season defensive blips.
However, the pre-season meetings with Sevilla and Boca saw Messi line up on the right-hand side of a forward trio in a 4-3-3 formation, with Ousmane Dembele and Malcom starting the two games on the other flank in a system similar to the ‘MSN’ glory days a few years ago.
The signing of Malcom and Dembele’s hoped-for emergence into a more reliable presence will give Valverde options that simply didn’t exist last season, and his team selection on opening day will provide a strong clue over his future plans.
Midfield rotations already?
The biggest shake-up to the Barca squad has come in midfield, where Brazilian ball-player Arthur, fiery Chilean international Arturo Vidal, returning Rafinha plus versatile pair Sergi Roberto and Philippe Coutinho are all available to fill the gap created by the departures of Andres Iniesta and Paulinho.
Realistically, only two of them at the very most will feature in Valverde’s strongest side, with Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic guaranteed a starting role barring injuries or an unexpected collapse in form.
But Barca – as admitted by Messi in his traditional captain’s speech before the Boca game – are focussing heavily on the Champions League this season and part of that will require Valverde to rotate his team far more often than he did last year, preventing his key players from burning out by the time the European knockout stages arrive.
With that in mind, this weekend’s league opener could be the right time to give Rakitic some rest following his exertions in Russia this summer. He played every game in Croatia’s march to the World Cup Final, and giving him an extended break now could be a wise move to ensure he avoids becoming fatigued before the season has even begun.
Alaves aiming to repeat history
On Saturday 10 September 2016, the unthinkable happened: little Alaves travelled to Barcelona and took the lead through Deyverson. Before long Jeremy Mathieu levelled for the hosts, but then Ibai Gomez struck again and Alaves sealed three dramatic and historic points.
Since then nearly two years and 36 league games have passed by, and Barcelona have lost precisely none of them. But now the last visitors to win at the Camp Nou in La Liga are also aiming to become the next team to win at the Camp Nou in La Liga, and Alaves can approach this weekend’s game with nothing to lose, everything to gain.
The Basque club also came close to an upset last season, leading through a goal from erratic frontman John Guidetti until the final 20 minutes, when Suarez and Messi pulled off a rescue act. And with Guidetti joined by Borja Baston plus former Real Madrid youth wingers Burgui and Ruben Sobrino, Alaves have the cutting edge to cause more problems for the hosts – if they dare.
Good morning, Barcelona fans. Alan Cooper here, along with the rest of the Sport360 team, bringing you the latest news from the Camp Nou.
10:00 – Valverde unsure on Rafinha’s future
The Brazilian joined Inter Milan on loan in January after struggling to cement his place in the Barca team since making his debut in November 2011.
The short-term deal to Inter included a purchase option of around £30m, however, the I Nerazzurri were against paying the proposed fee.
“I’m happy with having Rafinha for the first team and he is playing well, but until August 31, we have to see what happens,” Valverde said.
“I want the market to close so I know who I can count on.”
Youngster Marlon Santos has left Barcelona for Italian Serie A outfit Sassuolo, the La Liga side confirmed on Thursday.
The 22-year-old has moved on a deal worth €6 million which could be doubled if he plays 50 games for his new employers. Barcelona also have the option to buy back the player.
Santos, who featured in pre-season this summer, did not make a single competitive appearance for Barcelona’s first team after moving from Fluminense in 2016 on loan before making it permanent. He spent last season on loan at Nice, playing 26 times.