Being one game into our 2016/2017 campaign it is a fair time to look ahead and see what we have in store for us, the good Culés of the world that lose sleep over a spherical object not reaching an anticipated net. Also known as fans, we all share one thing in common in August – none of us are losers. At least not yet. We spend the summer first either rejoicing and basking in the glory, for a few, or analyzing what went wrong, for the rest.
Barcelona objectively had a successful season, but being the lucky sons of guns that we are, we are spoiled rotten. And despite Liga and CDR trophies, I’m sure what sticks out as a sore thumb is the quarterfinal exit from the Champions League that prevented us from, first of all, possibly being the first ever to defend the title, and consequently stopping our arch-nemeses from lifting their 11th.
It added insult to injury because it also came on the heels of our loss to Madrid in La Liga at home and was the major upset in a string of shocking results that put our league campaign under question and pretty much just left everyone with the sensation of being smashed in the face with an ironing board. So we did what everyone else did – we analyzed. And what’s more, seems like our board did too this time, participating in the transfer market so much that Sport and MD hardly had time to ask their writers to make something up.
Either way, summer flew by quick enough, and here we are. Hopefully somewhat fresh (but more on that later), and hungry to get back to where we rightfully belong, at the top of it all. Now, it’s fair to say that no matter the season, we are always in the run for top awards. And even the most skeptical Culé (you know who you are) starts August quietly hoping that all their biggest fears prove wrong, and we continue making history, as we have been this past decade. But, to make things interesting for all of us, and because I missed writing stuff, let’s try and break it down as much as possible, play a bit of devil’s advocate, and try to assess what we can look forward to. Having a core group of players that has almost remained intact in the last few years, it would be fair to look at our current “veteran” squad first and foremost.
So, except for Dani Alves (and now maybe Bravo), our starting XI has not been changed. We have our three forwards, our midfield, and three of four defenders that played most of our big matches last year. Let’s not even look too much into the Bravo case now, as we do have Ter Stegen, who, too is someone we are familiar with by now and can fully rely on to start however many matches needed. The two biggest topics of interest here, are, of course, how will we deal with Dani’s absence, and secondly, how will we deal with such things as fatigue, injuries, etc.?
Now, as far as fatigue goes, we are better stacked this season than before, so let’s just get that out of the way. Reinforcements have come, and as of now, they are all pretty great. Arda may still be a big question mark, but with Denis, Gomes, Rafinha, S. Roberto, we are ok. There is a fair chance to say that Iniesta may be seen less frequently. Not because we don’t want to see him, rather because with him you never know, as far as his health goes. He was in stellar shape last season, but that was one long season, and with the Euro – albeit short-lived – he may feel the after-effect of it. It is not a question of whether or not we have someone to substitute him, it is rather do we or don’t we have anyone ready to take over in his absence? And despite great talent from the newbies, it is not just that Iniesta is still the quickest, smartest and most talented of all of them, it’s also about the mental aspect he brings to the game. He is a calming effect on everyone around including the fans and he is, of course, our first captain.
Seeing him on the sidelines is still too painful for anyone who loves the game, and it will have a demoralizing effect. Having him fit does not mean that we need to play him every game. It does, however, mean that he will be there to lead us in the big matches. And we do need that while the youngsters take their time to learn and adapt. The same can be said for some of our other integral players, for example, Messi, Suarez, Busquets. We managed to cover decently for Messi in the first half of last season, with Suarez and Neymar manning the attack as wonderfully as hoped for. But that was a short while, and we all know that in the long run, Messi is irreplaceable. So is, in my opinion, Busquets. And as far as sheer goal scoring and presence up top, I can’t even wrap my head around how we managed to play football without Suarez all these years before his arrival. The man was our holder of most games and minutes last season right until the point he hurt himself and subsequently missed Copa America. This may be a blessing in disguise, but there is also a lot to learn from. First of all, we do need to rest our players, but I realize that I’m not exactly illuminating anyone here. We do also need to be lucky. Because no matter the reinforcements we get, there will always be a risk of something going wrong. So, while we have more players to count on and less games to play (no Club World Cup for us!), we will still have to rely on something that is completely out of our hands – fate.
Now, as far as Dani Alves is concerned. He will forever be a legend in Barcelona, and no matter his age, filling his shoes will be quite a feat. Both Roberto and Vidal are quality players, the former being more cautious than Alba, meanwhile the latter, while apparently having somewhat of a struggle last season, has been a starting right back in previous clubs, and did a superb job in the position. Either way, it will not be the same game plan as before. Perhaps it won’t be worse, because we all know the disadvantage of having two of the most attack-oriented wingmen out there – it weakens the defensive effort. Roberto is not fast enough to run away after Neymar or Messi, so he will play a more defense-oriented role. And with Alba still being one of the fastest wingers out there, it could be a safer approach. Considering that we have all the reason to believe that our attacking three, given they stay fit, will only be getting better, it is fair to say that we can expect, perhaps, that not much will change in terms of our turnover, but positioning and duties may be altered. And given a healthy squad, I believe Luis Enrique will stick with the same starting XI minus one that he has relied on previously. Because no matter the talent, I do think it takes time to truly gain the confidence of the manager to be a regular starter. Make no mistake about it, fitting into Barca is an art all on its own. The blaugrana DNA requires time to seep into one’s system. On a side note, another fair prognostic would be that Messi and Suarez will continue to be BFFs and will get matching tattoos. A bit farther fetched, but a big hope of this specific writer, is Suarez showing up to a match with a full beard and bleached hair. Obviously, someone has been sponsored by these beard products.
Now, onto the reinforcements. What can we say about them except that it seems that we have been doing good as far as talent goes. This is not a business piece, so I will not go into arguments about the financial side of it, and once we are into the season, that point of argument gets lost, since we have to learn to work with what we have without looking back. But as far as quality per price, I would argue that every player we have acquired is well worth their cost. If we end up getting Paco Alcacer, that would be another top quality player that can bring so much excitement to this already stellar team. So far, we have only seen two newbies play an official match, Denis and Digne getting a chance to show their worth. And so they did. Both are high-quality players that theoretically fit into the Barcelona system. Now, whether or not they are ready for a clasico is a different question, and as previously stated, I bet that Luis Enrique wouldn’t risk playing either one unless obligated to. However, they will be perfect for the second-half of the rankings teams in the Liga, which will let the rest of the team be 1) rested and 2) hungry to get back in there. And healthy competition has never hurt anyone either. Here’s to hoping we don’t run into a case of what Arda Turan seems to be struggling with, mainly, finding his feet in a much faster paced Barcelona. And, no less importantly, let’s hope Luis Enrique does not have a falling out with anyone, because every season he finds someone he has issues with at one point or another. Every new prospect we have is interesting, so much so, that it is hard to even predict who will shine brightest (though I would love to hear who you guys are putting your money on). It would be a waste to see egos clash, as they have before.
Speaking of Luis Enrique, this is an important season for him with Barcelona too. He is very similar to Guardiola in the way he approaches his own contract. He keeps us on our toes in terms of how long he intends on staying with Barcelona and it seems that lately, being Barcelona’s manager is a job laden with pressure and stress. These guys literally age a decade in a year. Having said that, while we are looking at the Guardiola parallels, Pep’s third year was a huge success that won us almost everything and gave us our first acronym, MVP, that was setting records of it’s own. Enrique seems to have the same weapons at his disposal with the current squad, with an even better attack, a no less powerful midfield, and seemingly an improved defense, with the only wildcard being how well Dani’s absence will be dealt with by his successors. If Enrique continues with the same energy he has so far shown, there is no reason to think that this might not be his most successful season so far. Enrique has shown us that he is a little bit more flexible than Guardiola was in his mindset. He is ok with adjusting and that has proven a big plus. Looking at how open he is to acquiring new recruits, it could be assumed that he is interested in pursuing this Barcelona project for a while longer. And if he is as invested as it seems, that can also mean longevity and success as a bigger picture. Who says this has to ever end, right?
Now, as long as we are on the legacy topic of this current squad, it is only fair we take a minute to look at those who want to prevent this from happening. Specifically, our upcoming opponents. It seems that there has been a lot of movement on the transfer market this year, player and manager wise. Madrid seems to remain quiet for now, but England has quite the project brewing over on their end, and Bayern will be extremely exciting to watch under Ancelotti, who, in my opinion, has been the best Madrid manager in terms of his personality and achievements as of late. Sacking him was very much in Madrid’s style, but just as undeserved. Needless to mention, Juventus seem to be only getting stronger and stronger as they offshore their top players, while the likes of Borussia will be fun to watch if for nothing else than fist pumping our very dear Marc Bartra along.
As far as La Liga is concerned, no matter what England thinks, this is still the strongest national league out there and every team is dangerous. We will see how it all works out, as it is still too early to tell, but Sevilla seems strong and willing with Sampaoli, and this considering the amount of players that left. Atletico and Madrid have no reason for slowing down, while the rest of the top ten will have so much to fight for this season, there is no way any of them will be a walk in the park. It should also be a very interesting Champions League, where we can only hope that Madrid, for once, will not be cruising their way to the final, but that’s what dreams are made of. All in all, it is fair to say that we will be our own biggest rival when it comes to crucial moments. We all know when we are at our weakest and so do our oppponents. It will all be in our hands to try and handle these situations as best we can, hoping we learned from past mistakes. We have every reason to believe that the investments we have made this summer mean that this is exactly what Luis Enrique is thinking about when it comes to bettering the team as a whole.
To round this up, let’s just face the fact that no matter how effortless Barca makes it look at times, there is no such thing as an easy season. We have personal goals to reach, dreams we hope to achieve. But, as fans, aren’t we just as set on wanting to see Madrid dethroned from the CL pedestal? Won’t it be bitter to strip off the world champion badge at the end of this year and possibly, probably in fact, see Madrid stick it back on their chests? We want to win every title we contend for. We want to win clasicos, derbies, and stand over our toughest opponents. We want to set new records, see beautiful goals, and avenge for the absolutely unfair UEFA Best Player in Europe shortlist that has recently surfaced. We have got the current highest goal scorer in the world, the best player in the world, we’ve got a magician, the best attacking trio, and we have the best players in every given position for us. Which is not to say that every player we have is the best compared to everyone else out there. But we have to trust that he is the best for us. We watched players prosper under Enrique, and we can be sure that this will continue as we play and incorporate new faces into the squad.
As far as speaking from the heart, no matter what we do, we can be sure we will miss Dani Alves because he was one of a kind. We have to believe that his replacements will make him proud, and once we reach all our goals and surpass whatever it is we dreamed of, we can lift a trophy and give a wink to the guy that gave his heart to us for many seasons. Even if we have to beat Juventus along the way! Let’s hope that we will. We have everything we need for it!