Despite the late start to pre-season training and the even later return of their South American internationals and their new arrivals, not to mention injuries to key players, Barça have made an incredible start to the new season. Already two cups have been added to the collection. The only contretemps came in the final of the Copa Catalunya, which they lost to Espanyol in a battle of their respective youth teams.
However everything else has been wonderful. The Spanish Supercup was won 5-4 in aggregate over two thrilling matches against a very good Real Madrid. This was followed by the European Supercup which Barça won 2-0 against a fine Porto team. In between Barça managed to beat Napoli 5-0 to win their own late summer trophy - The Gamper. And yesterday they beat Villareal in their opening league match, also by 5-0. Not bad going and we’re still in August.
The team that beat Villareal gives us a good glimpse at the strengths and weaknesses of the current squad. One of the many talking points of the summer was whether Guardiola would resurrect the famous 3-4-3 formation of Johan Cruyff’s fantastic Dream Team. And lo and behold, this was the formation that turned out against Villareal. However before we all get too excited there are a couple of reasons why this might just be a one off or at best an infrequent choice. In the first place, the team were missing all but one, Abidal, of their experienced defenders. Piqué, Puyol, Adriano and Maxwell were all injured, while Alves was suspended for the game. So with very few players to choose from, only playing three defenders made a lot of sense. Though a back three of Abidal, Busquets and Mascheranno is unlikely to appear again. Secondly as this article in Zonal Marking points out, 3-4-3 is the ideal system to counter Villareal’s own unusual 4-2-2-2 formation.
Whatever the reason, the system worked pretty much to perfection as the 5-0 scoreline shows. The match also put to rest another of the summer’s talking points, namely that Fàbregas and Thiago could not play together in the same team. Well, both played yesterday and both were outstanding, scoring a goal apiece. Fàbregas played at the head of the diamond shaped midfield four and pretty much interchanged positions with Messi, causing all kinds of trouble for the Villareal defenders. Thiago played alongside Iniesta at the heart of the midfield and in addition to scoring the first, set up the final pass for two other goals. Barça have now done the almost impossible - they have strengthened what was already the best midfield in the world. With the undisputed two best attacking midfielders in Xavi and Iniesta they now also have, arguably the 3rd and 4th best attacking midfielders in Fàbregas and Thiago. Awesome. As Mascheranno is likely to play more often as a defender, Keita , as he did yesterday, will probably share the defensive midfield role with Busquets.
Up front, while Barça have lost two players, Bojan and Jeffren, the one they have gained, Alexis Sanchez, is a much better player and more suited to the Barça style than either of the other two. He started yesterday and scored a very good goal. He is strong, pacy and a good dribbler. Perfect for Barça. He will provide stiff competition for Villa and Pedro and no doubt will provide Messi with the occasional rest. In addition the team can welcome back Affellay when he returns from injury. While unlikely to threaten the first choice four, he is a useful and pacy player to have in reserve.
So, all in all, Barça appear to be have a stronger, more competitive and more versatile squad than last year. As Real Madrid have already demonstrated, it is once again likely to be a two horse race for the league title. Real will be even more competitive, if that is possible, than last year. Guardiola will be hoping to win a fourth title in a row, an achievement to equal the great Dream Team of Johan Cruyff and only achieved once before that - Miguel Muñoz’s Real Madrid of the early 1960s. They went on to win five in a row, an as yet unmatchable achievement. The other immense challenge for Barça is to become the first team to win the Champions League two years in a row. Real Madrid will again lead the challengers along with Manchester United, Chelsea and the riches of Manchester City. Barça’s first group match is against AC Milan, so that should give us an early indication of how the might fare against the best in Europe.
It will take an almighty effort to retain one of their titles from last season and an even greater effort to retain both. This squad with Guardiola as their guide has the resources to do so, though as in any sporting challenge you need the Gods to be with you. Whatever, it promises to be an even more exciting season than the last one. Visca Barça!