Predicting Barcelona's XI to Face Levante in La Liga Opener
A new season gets underway in Spain this weekend, and La Liga aficionados will no doubt be keeping a watchful eye on the Primera Division.
New Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino will look to continue Tito Vilanova's league success, while imparting his own ideas on Los Cules—his ideas about increased verticality were prevalent in their friendly wins over Santos and a Thailand XI—and fending off the advances of Carlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid in the title race.
Expect the Camp Nou to be packed to the rafters on opening night, as the Catalan giants play host to Levante in Martino's competitive home bow and as new signing Neymar does likewise.
Here's an attempt at predicting Barcelona's starting lineup against Levante on Sunday evening:
Goalkeeper: Victor Valdes
Despite suggestions that Victor Valdes would be leaving Camp Nou this past summer, the veteran of over 500 games for the club remains.
A six-time La Liga winner, Valdes will once again be first-choice in the coming campaign, with Jose Manuel Pinto his understudy.
Defenders: Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba
Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique remain unquestionable first picks for Los Cules. Alba enjoyed an excellent debut season, while Pique's calmness and ability continue to place him as an integral member of the defence, despite a couple of dips in form over the last 18 months.
On the other hand Dani Alves may be coming under ever greater pressure for his starting spot following a somewhat indifferent 2012-13 and the rise of Martin Montoya. Nonetheless, expect the Brazilian to start the season as first-choice defender on the right.
Additionally, the partner for Pique at the centre of Barca's defence remains in question. Club legend Carles Puyol continues to struggle with injury, a new signing is yet to be forthcoming while midfielder Alex Song nor Marc Bartra have done enough to suggest that they're the answer in that role.
Therefore, Javier Mascherano may once again get the nod to start the new season in his secondary role at centre-half, having so often proved capable against La Liga's lesser lights.
Midfielders: Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas
A long summer was endured by all involved with the Spanish national team, who reached the final of the Confederations Cup, but few will have felt it as much as 33-year-old Xavi Hernandez.
Xavi was part of the Spanish international group who returned to training later than those who weren't involved, but given his age and injury struggles in recent seasons, may be allowed further rest in a game they'll be expected to win on opening day.
In his absence, expect first-choice pair Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta to start, alongside, potentially, Cesc Fabregas.
Therefore, no doubt having sought assurances about his role and place in the Barcelona pecking order, and given his good form in preseason where he has taken like the proverbial duck to water with regards Martino's more vertical style, a starting spot on opening day would be an intelligent act of appeasement by the powers that be.
Forwards: Pedro Rodriguez, Lionel Messi, Neymar
Lionel Messi remains Lionel Messi and as such his place in Barcelona's starting XI is beyond question.
Brazilian wunderkind Neymar, fresh from his dazzling displays at the Confederations Cup that left many of his critics eating their words, is also set to start this match. The 21-year-old is Barcelona's big-money summer signing, and it'll be expected that he makes his competitive bow from the start on opening day as he seeks to further ingratiate himself with the culture of the club, as well as his new teammates.
The third spot, nominally playing from the right flank, would appear to be a direct battle between Spanish international and La Masia graduate Pedro and Chilean flyer Alexis Sanchez.
Alexis endured a somewhat poor 2012-13, but his form has shown signs of improvement during preseason.
Nonetheless, Pedro has had a solid 2013 for both club and country, and having looked sharp and hungry to impress since return to action with Los Cules at the end of July, I'd expect him to get the nod come Sunday evening.