Without so much as a ball kicked yet in the new La Liga season, Real Madrid have already sent out a warning to the rest of Spain and the whole of Europe that they will, very likely, be the team to beat this season.
I was in Cardiff to see them dismantle a brave Sevilla in the European Supercup, and they looked very much like the real deal.
Real Madrid have always possessed blistering pace and massive firepower up front, and now they have a midfield to rival anyone’s, and in Toni Kroos a natural successor to Xabi Alonso.
It’s early days yet, and while there’s still considerable room for improvement in the side’s movement, what they have already shown is that this is clearly going to be a side that can dominate games.
There isn’t a defence in the world that will relish the prospect of facing a front line that comprises the likes of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and a rejuvenated, rested and pain-free Cristiano Ronaldo, not to mention new boy James Rodriguez, who still has much to learn, especially without the ball in a new position as a left-sided midfielder, but will have time to adapt. And then there is Jese, who is still to come back from injury!
Luka Modric carried much of the midfield burden for Real last season, but alongside Kroos this year he will probably play a less offensive role. The German’s positional awareness and good passing skills also mean that the front players will not have to track back as much as they did last season and concentrate more on doing what they do best—namely run defences ragged.
There are personalities all over the pitch coupled with a bench that would make the starting line-up of just about any club in the world.
And it’s personalities that so often make the difference, and that’s where I am having a few doubts about the possible fortunes of Real’s bitter rivals, Luis Enrique’s new-look Barcelona.
How will Enrique handle the new stars in his line-up, particularly with the likes of former leader, Xavi slowly disappearing from the Barcelona hierarchy and the centre of operations both on and off the pitch?
It’s no secret that there are three or four players in the Barcelona set up that feel they should always play. How the new manager copes with the situation when perhaps they don’t could well be the making or breaking of him.
Luis Enrique has only been able to get everyone together this week. As for what system he is going to play, the jury is still out.
The talk is that he is contemplating using three centre-backs either in a 3-4-3 formation, or even perhaps 4-4-2 formation that becomes 3-4-3 when attacking, with a diamond midfield with Messi playing behind the two forwards, and Busquets staying back as the third centre-back.
In any of the formations, the full-backs will have to join the midfield when Barcelona builds from the back, with the three centre-backs in charge of starting the passing game.
Effectively the full-backs will play along the same line as the inside midfielders, with the idea that they can create the necessary width to service Messi around the front of the box just behind Neymar and Luis Suarez.
Prior to the World Cup, Luis Enrique met with Messi to discuss his idea of a high pressure game plan played near the opponents' box—in fact exactly everything that didn’t happen in Brazil where Messi played 50 yards behind where he should have been playing. The Argentinian was impressed.
What we’re probably going to see is a more physical, certainly taller, Barcelona, hopefully in a better position to both defend and attack set pieces than they have been in the past.
At long last, Barcelona have strengthened their defence. Are Jérémy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen the solution? We’ll see. What is clear is that Barcelona have spent around €39 million on the two defenders, which is around about the same as Manchester City have on just one, Eliaquim Mangala from Porto. Old habits die hard. I am pretty sure Mangala and Marquinhos were preferred—Barcelona have ended up with third choices.
They are also looking for a right-back that can play on the wing with Douglas from Sao Paolo very much on their radar, even though Fiorentina’s Juan Cuadrado is not fully out of the picture.
My major concern with the new-look Barcelona is where Andres Iniesta will play. With both Ivan Rakitic and Iniesta in a 4-3-3, they may well struggle, especially if they have to defend deep, because neither player covers as much ground as many other midfielders do. Andres will be taking a lot of the work that Xavi used to do, but unless the side applies that pressure high that Luis Enrique wants, Iniesta will be exposed as he was last season without the ball.
But time will tell. What is clear is that Messi has been given the leadership of the side, and it’s now time for the players to put into practise what the Spanish call that "automatismo," which roughly translates as that instinctive brilliance that often occurs when great players play together in the same side.
And it helps having Luis Suarez training already.
Any way you look at it, it should be another heart-stopping season.
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