There were plenty of positives for Barcelona on Sunday night, as last season’s league and cup double winners got the new campaign under way with another trophy by beating Sevilla 2-1 in the Spanish Super Cup.
Most notably, Ousmane Dembele showed signs he is ready to recover from a poor first season at the club by exploding into action, with the French forward capping a bright all-round performance by netting a thunderous winning goal.
Another plus was debutant midfielder Arthur settling tidily, while Nelson Semedo impressed at right-back and the likes of Lionel Messi, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets and especially Marc-Andre ter Stegen – whose late penalty save sealed the win – all made successful returns to action following their post-World Cup holidays.
Not everything was good, though. The team was too often vulnerable to rapid counter-attacks, with new signing Clement Lenglet looking particularly uncomfortable in the centre of defence in a performance which suggested Thomas Vermaelen should be regarded as the main back-up to Pique and Samuel Umtiti.
Even more concerning, however, was a clumsy and error-strewn display in attack from Luis Suarez, whose repeated heavy touches and unnecessary errors saw several attacks break down.
Suarez worked hard, as he always does, but he struggled with the pace of the game and failed to make the most of his opportunities in front of goal, snatching at his chances and looking over-eager and anxious rather than composed and confident.
In his defence, like many of his colleagues this was Suarez’s first game since the World Cup, and a player of his all-action nature will inevitably need more time to find his full fitness and rhythm than more technical performers such as Messi or Philippe Coutinho.
The lack of match practice surely explains why Suarez, floundering as he was, stayed on the pitch for the full 90 minutes, with coach Ernesto Valverde keen to work his strike star back towards his optimum shape ahead of the new league campaign’s kick off next weekend.
And in time, there’s no doubt that Suarez will become sharper and more clinical, rediscovering the brutal efficiency which has made him one of the world’s top strikers over the last decade.
One thing seems certain: he has to. Because right now, Barca are heading into the season with no real viable options in the centre forward position, and an awful lot resting on Suarez’s shoulders.
For the last couple of years his nominal back-up has been Paco Alcacer, but the former Valencia man has rarely been used by Valverde and there’s every chance he will head through the exit door before the transfer window closes.
That leaves youngster Munir El Haddadi, who has returned to the club following decent loan spells with Alaves and Valencia. Munir is a talented player but he is physically slender and relies upon technique rather power, and his presence rather than Suarez would force the team to adopt a very different approach.
Of course, Suarez is the undisputed starter for important games and would remain so even if his club pulled out a big-name signing in the next couple of weeks. His relationship with Messi, his finishing skills and his ability to harangue opposition defenders, creating space for others, make him the ideal centre forward for a Barca team which is otherwise in danger of being too delicate and not forceful enough.
But the problem is that Barca’s priority this season, even above retaining La Liga, is winning the Champions League – or, at least, coming a lot closer than they have done with their consecutive quarter-final exits in the last three years.
To do that, they will need their best players to be fit and fresh when it’s time for the latter stages of the knockout rounds in March and April. Last season that was not the case, and they paid the price with a listless and lifeless performance in the memorable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons defeat at Roma, a game which has left deep scars around the Camp Nou.
In midfield, the deficiencies which led to that calamity have been addressed, with the captures of Arthur and Malcom, the return of Rafinha, the availability of Coutinho, who was cup-tied last season, and potentially even the rise of youngster Riqui Puig all serving to give Valverde the opportunity to keep players like Busquets and Ivan Rakitic in a better condition for the key games next spring.
❗️ Munir and Rafinha will stay at Barça unless substantial offers came in for them. Samper has to recover from his injury and then his future will be decided. The club has asked Alcácer to listen to the offers he has for an exit. [rac1]— Barca Universal (@BarcaUniversal) August 10, 2018
In attack, however, that is not the case. Suarez is the only proven centre forward in the squad, and at the age of 31 (he turns 32 in January) he probably needs more rest than anyone else. But when he is off colour, as he was on Sunday night, Valverde doesn’t really have any other options to call upon.
Unless, that is, Munir really is ready to shine. If he can play often enough, say 10 to 15 league starts, to give Suarez the breaks he needs, that could suffice.
But can he do that? And will Valverde even give him the chance? If the answer to either of those questions is no, Barca’s quest for continental dominance could well be in serious jeopardy.
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