FC Barcelona: The Best Starting XI for the 2011-2012 Season
From 2008 to 2011, Pep Guardiola's squad fully dominated European football, establishing itself as the most dominant and entertaining side on the continent. The challenge for the new season is to extend that period of domination.
Pep Guardiola has the world's most talented squad at his disposal, meaning that it's not easy to pick his best XI. By doing so, he'll have to leave some world-class players on the bench.
That said, here's FC Barcelona's strongest lineup for the new season.
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Goalkeeper: Victor Valdés
No questions here. Victor Valdés is Barcelona's starting goalkeeper and he'll remain so for many years. Over the past few seasons, no goalkeeper has conceded as few goals as Valdés, who's currently one of the best goalkeepers in the world and certainly the best possible goalkeeper for Barcelona.
Valdés is an specialist on one-on-one situations and is the best goalkeeper in the world with the ball at his feet (his pass leading up to Barcelona's first goal against Real Madrid in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal is a prime example of that).
He'll undoubtedly be Barcelona's first-choice goalkeeper this season.
Left Back: Eric Abidal
Éric Abidal is about to turn 32, but he shows no sings of slowing down. After all, when you beat cancer, you can beat everything.
Abidal has been a rock in Barcelona's defense under Pep Guardiola and the left back slot will remain his. His versatility means that he'll also play at center back on several occasions, though.
He might not be as amazing in attack as Daniel Alves on the right, but he's one of the most solid defenders in the world, and he knows the Barcelona system inside out.
Center Back: Carles Puyol
There are question marks over Carles Puyol's fitness. He won't be able to play the Spanish Super Cup and it's still not known when he'll be fully fit again, although doctors expect it to be soon.
However, Puyol simply can't be excluded from Barcelona's strongest XI. When fit, he's arguably the most important member of the team.
Not only is he Barcelona's best defender, he's the captain and vocal leader, and everyone (namely Piqué) seems to play better when Puyol is on the pitch. Puyol's recovery might be the difference between success and failure for Barcelona this season. Even at 33 (soon to become 34), Puyol's importance can't be stressed enough.
He has captained Barcelona to three Champions League titles, one as a center back, one as a right back and one as a left back, which shows just how great and versatile a defender this man is.
He and Franz Beckenbauer are the only players in history to have captained three different Champions League-winning squads, and Puyol will be looking to become the sole holder of this record before he calls it a day.
Center Back: Gerard Piqué
Along with Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué is part of arguably the greatest center-back duo of our days. The two have led Barcelona's defense during this golden era of unprecedented success, and have also won the World Cup with Spain, the first team to win the World Cup without conceding a single goal in the knockout stages.
While Piqué isn't at the same level as Puyol yet (after all, he's only 24), he's a world-class center back in his own right and a perfect partner for Puyol. When Puyol is sidelined, Piqué becomes the leader of the defense, which he has shown he can do quite well.
Right Back: Daniel Alves
In the past five seasons (two with Sevilla, three with Barcelona), no player in Europe has racked up more assists than Daniel Alves in all competitions. Not bad for a right back, eh?
But Daniel Alves isn't just a right back, he's much more than that. He's a right back, a right winger, a right midfielder... Those who watched him in his Sevilla days know that he's a one-man team at times.
He's the world's best right back and a key member of this Barcelona team. He's a solid defender, but his most important contributions are in attack, where he functions like a true right winger, being the only man providing depth on the pitch for Barcelona.
Daniel Alves was one of the most inspired signings of the Guardiola era and replacing him one day will be one of the hardest tasks Barcelona could ever wish for.
Holding Midfielder: Sergio Busquets
Javier Mascherano is a world class player, but Sergio Busquets is the best at what he does. Despite being only 23, he shows a positional sense, awareness, calm and composure on the ball way beyond his years, like a reincarnation of the great Pep Guardiola.
He doesn't miss a pass, he plays it simple yet effective and is the perfect complement to Barcelona's creative players up front.
He's also exceptional at covering for Daniel Alves and Gerard Piqué's overlaps. He'll surely be the owner of this position in the Barcelona set-up for many years to come.
Center Midfielder: Xavi Hernandez
This man needs no introduction. Xavi Hernandez is the heart of this Barcelona side (and Spain too) and the focal point of their system. The tiki taka wouldn't be as effective without Xavi.
He might be already 31, but he shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. No one can orchestrate a midfield as well as Xavi and no one can pass the ball better than Xavi, who's probably the best passer in the game's history.
Xavi Hernandez is the one pulling the strings for Barcelona, controlling everything they do going forward. Keep Xavi out of the match and you have a very good shot at beating Barcelona.
It's easier said than done, of course. No one has really found a way to contain Xavi.
Attacking Midfielder: Andrés Ineista
One of the best players in the world, and surely the best attacking midfielder today. His duo with Xavi is arguably the best midfield duo in football history. The two have led Barcelona and Spain's midfield for the past few years, with the known results.
While Xavi pulls the strings, sets the tempo and keeps the game ticking, Iniesta's primary job is to run at defenders, dribble past players and link with the forwards. His dribbling is in the same league as Messi's, it's almost impossible to take the ball from Iniesta.
He also tends to take over in the biggest matches, making him an even more valuable asset to the club.
Left Forward: David Villa
He came, he saw and he conquered. David Villa's first season at FC Barcelona couldn't have been more successful.
He took no time adapting to the club and the system, he fully gelled with Pedro and Messi and he scored an excellent 23 goals (and 11 assists). His work rate was exceptional and took Barcelona's high pressure to yet another level.
Now in his second season, Villa should be even better: we can expect him to maintain the high level shown in 2010-2011 and probably score even more goals.
Right Forward: Pedro Rodriguez Ledesma
Pedro was promoted to the first team by Pep Guardiola in 2009 and he hasn't disappointed.
He has scored more than 20 goals in each of his two full seasons at Barcelona, holding the best goals per shots ratio in the team (one goal for each two shots). He's one of the best shooters and finishers in football at the moment.
He might not be as good a dribbler as Messi or Iniesta, but he's a vital member of the team. He might not do fancy stuff, but he surely knows where the net is.
Besides, if Villa's work rate is excellent, what can you say about Pedro, who's always running and harassing opponents?
He also links up perfectly with Messi and Villa, with whom he forms the most prolific attacking trio in football these days.
Center Forward: Lionel Messi
Does this one even need any explanation?
Keeping Messi out of the lineup would be a crime against football, one which would certainly get Pep Guardiola fired. It's not only Barcelona fans who want to see Messi play, it's every true fan of the beautiful game.
Lionel Messi is the greatest player in the greatest and most popular sport in the world. People are paying for their tickets to see Messi play. They'd riot if he didn't!
Other Players with a Major Role to Play
As you might have noticed, this lineup is exactly the same that defeated Real Madrid 5-0 in that historic and unforgettable November night. It's Barcelona's vintage XI.
But the season is long (Barcelona can play up to 65 matches) and Pep Guardiola will need to rotate his squad a lot to keep everyone fresh.
In defense, the likes of Andreu Fontás (CB), Adriano Correia (LB/RB) and Maxwell (LB) will be called upon on several occasions, with Javier Mascherano being a possibility for the center back role also (especially if Carles Puyol doesn't fully recover).
Given that Barcelona are a bit short on defense, youth players like Bartra and Muniesa might need to be called upon as well.
In midfield, Javier Mascherano will provide cover for Sergio Busquets, while Seydou Keita, Ibrahim Afellay, Thiago Alcantara and maybe even Cesc Fabregas will be more than enough cover for Xavi and Iniesta.
In attack, new signing Alexis Sanchez will slowly be integrated into the team, but he will surely have a role to play. He offers things that Villa and Pedro do not (pace, dribbling...) and will provide a new dimension to Barcelona's attack.
It's a long season and everyone will have a role to play. Barcelona have the best starting XI in the world, but that won't be enough. They need their squad players to be at their very best if they wish to continue their successful run.
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