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.
Lionel Messi has appeared in Norway’s third division after signing for IK Junkeren.
It’s not what you think. A 16-year-old footballer has changed his name to that of the Barcelona and Argentina icon.
Daniel Are Knutsen is keen to follow in the footsteps of his idol and hopes the name change will help to see him carry that through.
“I’ve had a plan for a while to change my name and I have Lionel Messi as my biggest idol. With my dedication to football, it made sense to try,” the Norwegian Messi told VG (h/t Goal) .
“I want to say that I try my best to play like him. Some similarities are certainly possible to see, but the talent is probably not as great.
“I have quite similar ball control and some speed.
“Those who know me from before still use the old first name, while new ones might call me Lionel or Leo.”
The attacker will start out with Junkeren’s G16 side as he begins the long road to mirroring his hero, but the Norwegian club are keen to add Messi’s rival to the mix.
“I joked earlier that we have to look for Cristiano Ronaldo now,” Junkeren general manager Runar Bo Eriksen said.
“We know that there is a Ronaldo in the transfer market who has previously played at Fauske/Sprint, so we know he is out there.”
Barcelona‘s new-signing Junior Firpo has had a lot of explaining to do regarding some of his old tweets against Argentine forward Lionel Messi.
The Real Betis academy graduate admitted to saying offensive things about Messi when he was 15 years old but believes that it is now in the past.
Firpo then claimed that he could “probably break both of Lionel Messi’s legs” with “one kick” and called the Argentine a “son of a bi**h” among other things.
“I see him every day in the changing room,” Firpo told SPORT .
“I know you’re asking this because of the old tweets I made but that’s in the past and we’ve squashed that. It isn’t something I want to make a bigger deal out of.
“I don’t think he even knew. I was a kid who came through the academy at Betis and I don’t think Messi is going to care about that.”
The left-back is confident that the past doesn’t matter now and he will be apologising to the Barcelona star.
“It’s something that doesn’t matter and that I can explain without problem,” Firpo told Mundo Deportivo .
“They are things that are done at 15 when nobody knows you and when you cannot think that this will have an impact years later.
“I have to apologise and I do it humbly and without problems.”