Another football season has finally begun in Spain. The first matches were played over the last weekend in August. As usual Spain was the last of the major European leagues to start. And promptly close down after just one round of matches due to the qualifyers for the next European Championships. Not the ideal way for clubs to prepare for a long season.
Barça have made a fine start to the season. They have already one trophy, the Spanish Supercopa winning 5-3 on aggregate against Sevilla. They also started the league campaign with a 3-0 away victory over Racing Santander, including a first league goal for their star signing, David Villa. But what are their prospects for what is likely to be a long and hard season ahead?
At this early stage, things look good. There has been quite a turnaround in players with five of the first team squad leaving and three new signings arriving. So it is a fond arrivederci to Ibrahimovic, Henry, Marquez, Chygrinskiy and Touré Yaya. While we offer a warm benvingut to Villa, Mascherano and Adriano. In addition the club has managed to loan out once again a number of fringe players who no longer have any future at the Camp Nou. These include Hleb, Càceres, Henrique and Keirrison. All in all it has been pretty good business in a financial sense for Barça. They only had to make a net outlay of around €10 million. Which given the age of austerity we all live in, is not bad at all.
What about the football though? How will all the comings and goings affect the team`s performance on the field? Here again first impressions are positive. In the first place none of the players leaving were automatic first choices. Touré left precisely because he was second in line behind Busquets for the defensive midfield role. While even Ibrahimovic had lost his place during the run in to last season`s finale. With the arrival of Villa, his place was even less secure. The other players leaving hardly played at all last season. Of course in the case of Ibrahimovic there were other non footballing reasons for his departure
Of the newcomers the big signing was David Villa from Valencia. A proven goalscorer both with his club and the national team, Barça really wanted to sign him last season to replace Eto`o, but this was not possible and Ibrahimovic came instead. However, now they have their man and he is likely to do very well with Barça. Unlike Ibrahimovic he can play anywhere across the front line. In fact some would argue that his best position is attacking from the wide left. This will be crucial for Barça as Guardiola wants a very flexible front three with lots of interchanging of positions. In particular Messi is likely to play as often as not in the centre forward position. At least he might start there, but with complete freedom to move about. In Spain this role is known as the falso delantero.
Javier Macherano is the other big signing. The captain of Argentine is a first class defensive midfielder. It is though, a rather surprising signing, in as much as he has come knowing that he is unlikely to be first choice. However Mascherano has made all the right noises and expressed his willingness to compete for a place and to be at the service of the team. I have always liked Mascherano as a player and this looks like a very good piece of business for the club. The third newcomer is another Brazilian from Sevilla - Adriano. He seems to be a very versatile player who can play either left or right back and also in midfield. He is unlikely to become a regular player but offers good cover for a number of positions.
This is very important for Barça, as Guardiola believes in running a very small first team squad. The current one has only 19 players, including the two goalkeepers. Which is a very tight group for such a long and possibly arduous season. However Guardiola prefers this as it makes for a more competitive squad in which everyone is guaranted to play a fair number of matches. In addition of course, Guardiola will call upon players from the B team to cover any real emergencies. Already some of these youngsters have played for the first team and a few of them will get their chance during the season. So look out for the likes of Jonathan dos Santos and Thiago Alcantara in midfield, and Sergi Gomez, Andrew Fontàs and Marc Bartras in defence.
Once again the main targets will be the league and the Champions League. How likely? It has to be said straight off that winning three league titles in a row is a very, very rare occurrence. It was last achieved in Spain by Johann Cruyff`s legendary Barcelona Dream Team, when they managed to win four in a row between 1991-1994. So an enormous task awaits them. Once again the main challenger, perhaps the only challenger will be Real Madrid. They will be desperate to prevent Barça from winning again and to this end they have not only signed lots of new players, but also a new coach in José Mourinho. Mourinho of course has a great record of winning league titles in Portugal, England and Italy, not to mention the odd Champions League as well. So Real will be hoping that he can repeat the magic at the Bernabéu. Not that even Mourinho will find this easy. Like last year he has to create a winning team from a large number of players, some of whom are very good. If anyone can one is tempted to say that Mourinho is the one to do it. It should certainly make for an exciting season.
As regards the Champions League, once again it is hard to see beyond the usual suspects, with Chelsea, Manchester United, Inter Milan as the most dangerous rivals. Silvio Berlusconi is spending big money again and AC Milan may also prove a real threat. And of course if Mourinho does manage to weave his magic, then Real Madrid will also be in there as real challengers.
All in all this is shaping up to be an exciting and enjoyable season. Particularly with the arrival of Villa, Barça should be an even greater goal scoring threat than last season and look fair to rival the triple winning team from 2009, at least in terms of goals scored. We will need to wait till next May to find out if they can also repeat the winning of titles. Visca Barça!