Barcelona head to Bilbao for a testing opening night clash with Athletic club as La Liga gets underway on Friday night, and the reigning champions will have to do without injured talisman Lionel Messi.
It promises to be an enthralling encounter in the atmospheric San Mames stadium as Barca boss Ernesto Valverde returns to face his former team, with a couple of high-profile summer signings looking to make an instant impact for the visitors.
And the composition of Valverde’s forward line in the absence of Messi is the first of our key talking points ahead of the action.
Messi out, Griezmann in, Dembele under pressure
Skipper Messi has not been risked by Valverde after missing the club’s brief preseason trip to the United States with a calf injury, and he will not be rushed back into action after not playing at all since being sent off in Argentina’s Copa America third-place playoff victory over Chile six weeks ago.
His absence does, however, simplify Valverde’s selection for his forward line as Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele prepare to link up with new arrival Antoine Griezmann.
All three forwards scored as Barca wrapped up their preparatory friendly schedule with a 4-0 victory over Napoli last weekend, and it would be surprising if Valverde opts for anything other than a 4-3-3 formation featuring Dembele on the right wing, Griezmann on the left and Suarez through the middle.
This is a particularly important season for Dembele, who desperately struggled to find any kind of consistency during his first two seasons at the Camp Nou and would dearly love to earn Valverde’s confidence by making a strong start to the new campaign. If he fails to do so, he will doubtless find himself immediately consigned to the bench as soon as Messi is able to return.
De Jong’s time to shine
Messi isn’t the only victim of a post-Copa America hangover, with midfielders Arthur Melo and Arturo Vidal also being left out of the travelling party to Bilbao and Philippe Coutinho highly unlikely to be involved after featuring sparingly in preseason.
That significantly reduces Valverde’s options in the centre of the field, leaving Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and summer signing Frenkie De Jong the likely starters – although Carles Alena and Sergi Roberto, who is expected to feature more in midfield than at right-back this season, provide strong alternatives.
Former Ajax starlet De Jong has provoked particular excitement among Barca fans, producing a series of great performances during the warm-up programme to instantly look at home in his new surroundings.
The Dutchman is showing all the signs of being exactly what the team needs to refresh a midfield which looked listless and tired during the latter stages of last season, and imposing himself in the demanding environment of the San Mames on his competitive debut would be a great way to cement those positive first impressions.
Can Williams power Athletic?
Barca certainly can’t afford to be slow out of the blocks as they face a dangerous Athletic side who were one of the best teams in La Liga during the second half of last season, recovering from a dreadful start which briefly threatened relegation to nearly qualify for European football.
There have been few changes in personnel during the summer, but the man in the spotlight is Inaki Williams. The striker was the rumoured target of a big-money bid from Manchester United during the transfer window, but stayed put and was subsequently rewarded with a whopping new nine-year contract.
Williams has all the makings of a truly world-class striker, combining physical power, searing pace, excellent technical ability and a relentless work rate. The one aspect of his game which has until now been below par, though, is the most important of them all for strikers: finishing.
He has only mustered 33 goals in 157 league appearances so far, but a personal-best tally of 12 last season suggested he is heading in the right direction. If Williams can continue that improvement by leading Athletic to an opening night victory over the reigning champions, his status among La Liga’s very best strikers will be further enhanced.
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