Barcelona face Real Betis at the Camp Nou on Sunday night for a game which has the look of a must-win encounter for the reigning champions in order to stave off an early-season crisis.
Last weekend’s opening defeat at Athletic Bilbao has left Ernesto Valverde and his players under pressure ahead of the visit of a new look Betis team which also suffered defeat in its season debut.
With the Neymar saga looming large in the background, Barca are buoyed by the return of Lionel Messi after injury, and the physical condition of the Argentine star is the first of our talking points ahead of the action.
MESSI BACK… BUT IS HE FIT?
With Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele both ruled out with injuries sustained in the opening week of the season, Barca can at least be cheered by the more than considerable consolation of one forward returning from injury: Lionel Messi.
The club captain suffered a calf injury during pre-season and missed last Friday’s opening loss in Bilbao, but he returned to full training this week and is an almost certainty to start.
However, Messi has not played at all – even in a friendly – since being sent off in the Copa America third-place meeting between Argentina and Chile seven weeks ago, so there must be a serious question mark over his match fitness.
In that context, there are major doubts over his ability to last the 90 minutes, and Messi could well be forced to pace himself in the opening stages to ensure he can make the fullest possible contribution in due course.
So although Barca fans will be understandably delighted to welcome back their talisman, perhaps on this occasion they should be prepared to temper their expectations about how much he will be able to deliver on this occasion.
MIDFIELD OPTIONS APLENTY FOR VALVERDE
Despite those physical concerns, it is surely safe to assume that Messi will start in attack next to new signing Antoine Griezmann, and it will be fascinating to see whether the duo can immediately develop a rapport even though they have never played alongside each other before and only even trained together on a couple of occasions.
Boss Ernesto Valverde also faces some tough decisions over who will accompany them, because last week’s loss in Bilbao generated more questions than answers – and that starts with the formation, which started as a 4-3-3 but later became a 4-2-3-1 as Valverde sought more control in midfield.
Considering the absence of Dembele and Suarez, along with the non-arrival of Neymar, the only attacking options for Valverde are Rafinha, who impressed from the right wing as a substitute last week, or inexperienced youngster Carles Perez.
That could cajole Valverde into lining up with a 4-4-2 formation, with midfielders Arthur, Arturo Vidal and Sergio Busquets all in contention for their first appearances of the season after being left out for the game in Bilbao.
Last week’s starters Sergi Roberto, Carles Alena and Frenkie De Jong are also available, while Ivan Rakitic will hope for elevation into the starting line-up after being
introduced from the bench in the season opener.
BETIS FINDING THEIR FEET?
Sunday’s showdown is also an important contest for Betis, who lost their opener 2-1 at home to Real Valladolid.
There was the significant mitigating factor of playing for 80 minutes with 10 men after an early red card for goalkeeper Joel Robles, but Betis’s defending left plenty to be desired and it was an unconvincing performance after heading into the campaign with high expectations.
Newly appointed manager Rubi will be on familiar territory after making the summer switch from Barca’s big local rivals Espanyol, having earlier served as assistant manager at the Camp Nou during Tata Martino’s ill-fated reign in 2013/14.
With Robles suspended following last week’s red card, Rubi will give a full top flight debut to 21 year-old Dani Martin, a summer signing from Sporting Gijon, and there is another selection problem in attack Borja Iglesias – who accompanied his manager in moving to Betis from Espanyol – highly unlikely to play after suffering injury last weekend.
More than the composition of their starting line-up, though, the biggest challenge facing Betis in these opening weeks is adjusting from former coach Quique Setien’s possession-based 3-5-2 formation to the more conservative flat back four employed by Rubi.
So far, Betis look like they are still finding their feet under the new coach, and unless that changes quickly they will be hard pushed to take anything away from the Camp Nou.
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