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.
Few teams are scrutinised like Barcelona. It is ‘only’ four years since their last triumph in the Champions League but following successive comeback calamities, Lionel Messi and company have felt the scalding heat from fans and pundits alike.
As such, it only seems right to pore through their personnel and assess their worthiness for the new season. So here you have it: each player reviewed and rated ahead of the new La Liga campaign, starting for the Blaugrana at Athletic Bilbao this Friday.
I’m sure you’ll agree with every word written. This is the internet, after all …
***** – top three in his position
Marc-Andre Ter Stegen His £12m purchase from Gladbach in 2014 is not talked about enough – what a steal. Superb shot-stopper with the distribution to match, his only peers are Atletico’s Jan Oblak and Alisson at Liverpool. *****
Neto Ideally Barcelona would have kept Jasper Cillessen but with the Dutchman pining for a first-team role, Neto came the other way from Valencia. He has been a solid piece to a generally stingy Valencia defence over the last two seasons but his distribution skills leave a lot to be desired. Injury will rule him out of the season’s start. ***
Nelson Semedo This is a huge year for the Portugal right-back. Sergi Roberto has been preferred at right-back for the majority of the last two seasons – rightly or wrongly – and Semedo has been guilty of the occasional defensive lapse. However, he is set to start the season as first choice and can provide the team with more balance as a natural option on the flank. ***1/2 (Potential)
Gerard Pique It was a tale of two halves for Pique last year. Simple mistakes littered a horrendous end to 2018, but he picked himself back up and forged a fine partnership with Clement Lenglet. Don’t mention the Liverpool match though … ****1/2
Jean Clair-Todibo The 19-year-old Frenchman certainly looks the part but there are rumblings that his progression is not going as well as hoped. Just two appearances last season – and there’s so much competition at centre-back. ** (Potential: ***1/2)
Clement Lenglet Samuel Umtiti’s knee injury handed his compatriot Lenglet the ideal opportunity and boy did he take it. The 24-year-old does the basics well and has the ability to spray long passes out from the back. Umtiti has a fight on his hands. **** (Potential: ****1/2)
Moussa Wague Rookie no more. The 20-year-old who turned heads for Senegal at the World Cup last summer is now an official member of Barca’s first-team squad. Overlaps on the right a joy to watch but defensively astute, too. *** (Potential ****1/2)
Jordi Alba Alba was as guilty as anyone for Barcelona’s Champions League shortcomings, but there are few players you’d rather have bombing on from the left. Undisputed first-choice but purchase of Junior Firpo should light a fire under him. *****
Samuel Umtiti What to make of Umtiti? It all depends on his knee. At his best he is calmness personified either on the ball or in pursuit of it. However, now he is under pressure from Lenglet – still only 25, this season could define his future. ****1/2
Junior Firpo One of the few constant performers from Real Betis’ helter-skelter 2018/19 season. He struggled in the recent pre-season game with Napoli so expect an acclimatisation season. Alba’s not a bad tutor to learn from. ***1/2 (Potential ****1/2)
Ivan Rakitic The Croatian may be the fall guy as Frenkie De Jong’s arrival adds yet another body to Barca’s sardine tin of midfielders. The 31-year-old remains a quality player, but is he dynamic enough compared to the new crop? ****
Sergio Busquets The 2018/19 campaign certainly wasn’t the Spaniard’s crowning glory, but it would be harsh not to afford him the benefit of the doubt. Competition with De Jong may well eke the best out of him once more. ****1/2
Philippe Coutinho Very good player, wrong fit. Not quite a winger in a 4-3-3 and not quick of thought enough to replace Andres Iniesta, Coutinho simply needs a team to let him be the main man. That won’t happen with Messi around. Could be gone before September. ****
Arthur The Brazilian struggled a touch at the back-end of last season from a physical standpoint, but it was an otherwise fine debut season for the Brazilian. Returns from Copa America on high – you just want to see a little more production and Barca now have a surfeit of talented deep-lying midfielders. **** (Potential: ****1/2)
Rafinha Terribly unlucky with injuries and looks like he’ll finally be cut adrift with Valencia sniffing around. What could have been – has more of a direct skill set and is a bigger goal threat than many of Barca’s midfield men. **
Carles Alena Could Alena be squeezed out between De Jong’s arrival and La Masia darling Riqui Puig? He is the cookie-cutter metronome passer you’d expect, but has proved his left foot can fetch goals. At 21, he now needs more games and they’re beginning to look scarce. *** (Potential ****1/2)
Sergi Roberto A player any squad in the world would be delighted to have. Versatile, diligent and possesses more than a smidgen of class. He is set to return to his natural position of central midfield this season, though the competition couldn’t be tougher. ***1/2
Frenkie De Jong He was born in a different country but the Dutchman may as well have been made in Catalonia. Though Barca don’t truly need De Jong, his passing, dribbling, frame and tactical understanding all scream legend in the making. No team can pass up on a player such as him given the chance. ****1/2 (Potential: *****)
Arturo Vidal The Chilean has reportedly been full of grumbles ever since rocking up at Camp Nou last season over a perceived lack of game time. He is however more than a useful powder keg to possess if Barca’s midfield need waking up. ***
Riqui Puig Having turned 20 this Tuesday, Puig’s path to footballing manhood may take a temporary turn as a loan move is being discussed. He is a final third locksmith and, dare it be said, Iniesta’s heir. *** (Potential: *****)
Luis Suarez When he’s hot he’s sizzling, when he’s cold he’s glacial. Whether it’s the effects of age or not, Suarez is not the consistent force of yore. If the Copa America and pre-season is anything to go by – with three goals in three games – we’ll get the fiery version to start the season, which is handy given Lionel Messi’s injury concern. ****1/2
Lionel Messi A special six-star category for the footballer par excellence. There are only two worries with the Argentine. One, that he remains fit, and a calf tear – albeit minor – is not the best of starts to 2019/20. The other is the quality of his supporting cast. De Jong and Antoine Griezmann to be nominees for best actors in a supporting role? ******
Ousmane Dembele The man who has admitted to not knowing which foot of his is the strongest has the world at (both of his) feet. A more mature Dembele has reportedly been on show in Barca’s pre-season and now he has an attacking French frere in Griezmann around. Can he tear down thoughts of a first-choice ‘SMG’ trident in Ernesto Valverde’s mind? **** (Potential: *****)
Antoine Griezmann The World Cup winner developed into an out-and-out striker for Atletico Madrid and he’ll have to play a more fluid role at Camp Nou. For a player of his work-rate, ingenuity and demonstrable flexibility that should not be a huge problem. No defence in the world would want the 28-year-old, together with a rabid Suarez, bearing down on them. *****