FC Barcelona vs. Real Sociedad: Predicting Barca's Starting XI
We are now just one week away from the start of Barcelona's 2012-2013 La Liga season.
It has been a long, eventful summer, but Cules will now get to see their team back in action as it tries to recapture the league title from Real Madrid.
There were very few transfers and promotions made this summer, but the team will still look very different, as it now has Tito Vilanova at the helm instead of Pep Guardiola.
Barcelona opens its season against Real Sociedad, which has improved its club with Gonzalo Castro and a few other signings.
With Real Madrid looking as strong as ever, Barcelona will not be able to drop many points this season, so starting strong against the Basque side is key to Barca's title hopes.
What follows is the starting XI Barcelona is expected to field against Real Sociedad.
Keeper: Victor Valdes
Valdes is well-rested after not having played in the Euros this summer.
He will try and improve on last season's disappointing performance, which was arguably his worst in Blaugrana.
Only 91 shots on target were taken against Barcelona, but Valdes saved just 60 (66 percent) of them according to WhoScored.
That low percentage was the worst of all La Liga keepers who appeared in at least half of the league matches.
Right-Back: Dani Alves
Alves is another South American who was able to take the summer off.
The Brazilian showed some frustration with the club for not being more vocal about his place within it, but both sides seem to have moved on from that.
Now Alves looks to solidify his place as the best right-back in La Liga and arguably the best in football.
Centre-Back: Javier Mascherano
Last season, Mascherano was one of the club's key players.
At different points in the season, Barcelona was forced to play without Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Eric Abidal.
Mascherano stepped up well and, while he was far from perfect, kept the team in lots of games and grew as a central defender.
He was so good that the club extended his contract to 2016 this summer.
With Carles Puyol only just getting back to training with the club, Mascherano will likely start in his place.
If the club legend is fit to start, you can bet he will be on the pitch against Sociedad.
Centre-Back: Gerard Pique
Last campaign was one to forget for Pique.
Before the season started, Pique was widely recognized as a top-five centre-back in football. Now, an injury-ridden season has shown the true fickleness of fans and analysts.
Pique only managed 22 appearances for Barcelona last season, his lowest total since returning to the club.
Any time he finally caught good form, he wound up suffering another injury that set him back further—such as against Milan.
That inconsistent play carried into the Euros this summer, but Pique should be rested up now and aims to be back to his usual self by midseason.
Left-Back: Jordi Alba
Not a bad bit of business by Barcelona.
At the end of last season, it was clear that the priority in Barcelona's transfer window was left-back.
The attack had failed the club in Europe and domestically, but that was more due to injuries that devastated the club.
The target was known well before the season ended and even before the season started—former La Masia player, Jordi Alba.
Just as with Cesc Fabregas the year before, Barcelona somehow negotiated a fee that was surprisingly low for its former academy player.
Valencia sold the left-back to its rivals for just €14 million. Alba later went on to be Spain's best defender at the Euros this summer.
Midfielder: Sergio Busquets
Behind Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets was Barcelona's most valuable player last season.
Not only was he the only of Barcelona's world-class midfield trio that stayed healthy, he was also the center of Pep Guardiola's further conversion to the 3-4-3 formation.
Playing as a hybrid sweeper, Busquets shielded a very weakened three-man defense and made the entire back half look far better than it actually was.
Many non-Barcelona continue to let events of years past cloud their judgment—speaking of his cheap theatrics—and say Busquets is overrated, but Blaugrana fans should not let those critics bother them.
After all, we are talking about a player nowhere near his prime who was in the discussion for best at his position before the even turned 23.
It is still debatable that Sergio is the best defensive midfielder in Spain, but since players at his position usually do not peak for another five years or so, Busquets could become the best defensive midfielder of his generation.
It seems like non-Barcelona fans just keep waiting for this club legend to slow down only to be disappointed every season.
Xavi is perhaps the best midfielder of his generation—definitely the most successful—and by the time he hangs up his boots, will be considered one of the greatest of all time.
Many understandably say that he lost a step last season. That may be true, but he plays so well at his deeper position that he could lose two steps and still not be a detriment to his team.
Plus, despite the slight decline that some claim he started last season, Xavi scored more goals last year than ever before.
Look to Thiago to get significant time this season, but Xavi will still be the key to Barcelona's success.
Midfielder: Andres Iniesta
For my money, Andres Iniesta is the best midfielder in football.
The Euro 2012 Player of the Tournament has surpassed his teammate Xavi to take the crown and is the standard that other footballers are measured against.
He was the driver behind Spain's success in Europe and the World Cup and is the best player in Barcelona along with Lionel Messi.
Cesc Fabregas will help keep Iniesta rested this season, but there is no doubt who the leader of Barcelona's midfield will be for years to come.
Left Wing: Cesc Fabregas
My regular readers will remember how vocal I was against playing Fabregas up front last season.
My opinion hasn't changed. Unfortunately, Fabregas' success playing up front at the Euros will likely keep him as a regular on the wing while Iniesta plays in midfield.
If not, look for Pedro to start and get back to being one of the most dangerous wide men in the league now that he is healthy again.
Centre-Forward: Lionel Messi
Javier Mascherano recently issued a warning to opponents that Messi is in killer form after a long holiday this summer.
Europe would be wise to take heed.
Last season, Messi had the greatest individual season in European history, statistically speaking. But while his numbers were great, the team suffered and so did he.
Messi had to carry nearly all of Barcelona's scoring load as the team was decimated by injuries to its three first-choice forwards.
In the end, that pressure and extra load was a bit too much for Messi and caused his form to slip a little in the Champions League.
More important than a slight dip in form was that the injuries to his teammates made it much easier to control Messi, since he was the only legitimate scoring threat on the team.
Unlike Ronaldo, Messi didn't have a 20-goal threat to take attention away from defenders.
Now with David Villa, Ibrahim Afellay and Pedro looking healthy, Messi could be due for another monster year—this time with major silverware to show for his efforts.
Right Wing: Alexis Sanchez
If there is one thing Barcelona is incredibly blessed with, it's wingers. At the position, Barcelona is the deepest squad in Europe.
Alexis Sanchez had a solid season last year in his first season in Spain, but some viewed it as disappointing.
If 12 goals in 25 appearances from a winger not known for his goal scoring ability is disappointing, I'd love to know what the rest of Europe would say to Alexis joining their own teams.
Sanchez will be the first choice on the right side while David Villa slowly recovers. Villa and other youth players will be ready to spell the Chilean from the start.
Sanchez allows Messi to swap places and move out wide, which gives the Argentinian a lot of space to roam while also opening up lanes for Alexis and Fabregas when defenders are pulled to their left.
If Sanchez can stay healthy all season, 12-15 goals would be a reasonable expectation.
How do you expect Barcelona to line up against Sociedad?
Will Carles Puyol and David Villa jump into the starting 11 from Week 1 or will they be slowly integrated into the lineup?
What about in attack? Will Tito Vilanova opt for a bigger scoring threat out wide or will Cesc Fabregas' great form from the summer earn him a starting spot?
Please leave your comments below as we begin the 2012-2013 La Liga season.
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