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.
Barcelona kick off their La Liga 2019/20 season on Friday with a visit to San Mames stadium where they will face Athletic Bilbao.
While the focus of the team is on winning a third consecutive La Liga title, the Catalans are currently involved in tense negotiations with PSG to get back Neymar following two seasons of the Brazilian forward in the French league.
However, coach Ernesto Valverde said he is only concentrating on his team and the players he has right now.
“I only focus in the team and the players I have to face this next game. We’ve always shown great respect for those players from other teams, and Neymar doesn’t belong to us. He belongs to PSG. We will see what happens,” Valverde said.
Lionel Messi is likely to miss the league debut due to a calf injury.
Barcelona may want to make up for the biggest collapse in Europe by signing the most expensive player in the world but a team that was by far the best in Spain is already significantly better.
After finishing 11 points clear of Atletico Madrid last season, Barca signed Atleti’s most dangerous player in Antoine Griezmann while Frenkie de Jong helped Ajax destroy Real Madrid in the Champions League and now he is in Catalunya too.
The question of whether Neymar follows will consume the rest of the transfer window but an attacking roster of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho hardly points to a need for a €222 million striker.
“I’m happy with the players I have,” said coach Ernesto Valverde on Friday. “Last year we almost had a perfect season.”
Even Griezmann, at €120 million, almost felt like an extravagance, an opportunity too good to turn down rather than a need to improve on 90 goals in 38 league games last term.
But the downward trajectory of Brazil’s Coutinho, whose status has shrivelled further following the club’s attempts to sell him this summer, means Griezmann already fits better now than perhaps he did in July.
So does an injury to Messi, who is likely to miss Friday’s curtain-raiser away to Athletic Bilbao with a minor tear in his calf, giving Griezmann the chance to bed in with Suarez and Dembele, and without the pressure of performing with his captain.
Griezmann will add depth but also goals and assists, presumably more at Barcelona than Atletico, where defensive demands were greater and chances to score less frequent.
De Jong may need more time to adjust, even if many view the 22-year-old as a ready-made alternative to Sergio Busquets at the base of the Barca midfield.
Too often Busquets was exposed last season, his lack of both speed and protection allowing opponents freedom on the break. De Jong, with Ivan Rakitic, Arthur Melo or the emerging Carles Alena, should bring more control, as well as creativity.
Meanwhile, Junior Firpo, bought from Real Betis, will jostle with Jordi Alba at left-back while Neto coming in from Valencia relieves Jasper Cillessen from the role of the frustrated back-up goalkeeper, after he went the other way.
Anfield memory lingers
Otherwise the key figures remain, not least Valverde, whose position as coach looked under threat when the collapse to Liverpool in the Champions League was followed by a shock defeat to Valencia in the final of the Copa del Rey.
Messi backed Valverde publicly, insisting he was “practically blameless”, but disappointment still left a desire for change.
The Griezmann deal was completed, vice-president Jordi Mestre resigned and Patrick Kluivert replaced Pep Segura, the club’s sporting manager seen by many as responsible for a drift away in recent years from an emphasis on the club’s academy.
Anfield perhaps lingers too over the move for Neymar, the blockbuster Brazilian that Barcelona no longer need but might accept if it gives them a greater chance of finally winning in Europe.
Eight league titles in 11 years and four Copa del Reys in five has done little to eradicate the pain of repeated failures in the Champions League.
When Messi pledged to the fans this time last year to bring “that beautiful cup” back to Camp Nou, it hung over the club all season, as a statement of intent but also an indicator of priorities.
“The truth is it’s very difficult to say something today after last season no? But I don’t regret anything,” Messi said in a speech to the supporters last week.
“Eight titles in 11 years, for any club would be an amazing thing and for this one as well, it’s very important what we did.
“Perhaps it doesn’t get the credit it deserves and in a few years we will realise how difficult it was to do it.
“But everyone knows this club always fights for everything. This year won’t be any different.”
Success will again hinge on the Champions League. Again, it is a high bar to set.