The 2011/2012 season will start in three days for FC Barcelona, with the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup. So it's definitely a good time to see how things are looking for Barça for the new season.
To do this, fellow FC Barcelona Featured Columnist Manuel Traquete and I have teamed up to offer you a rather extensive FC Barcelona season preview. The following are 20 questions which we believe cover pretty much all bases. In the even questions, Manuel answered first and then I replied to him, and in the odd questions it was the other way around.
Here's Part 1, with questions 1-10, done by Manuel and published yesterday.
As for Part 2, well, you're looking at it right now.
If your question wasn't answered in the first part, it will definitely be resolved in this one!
Manuel Traquete (MT)
Well, I expect Alexis Sanchez to have a very good season. He's evidently a world-class talent, and should prosper at Barcelona, where he'll get top-quality service from Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Co.
The first season at Barcelona is never easy, especially for such a young player, but Sanchez should be an important player from the very start. He won't be ahead of Pedro, Villa and Messi in the pecking order, but he'll have plenty of opportunities to shine. With Barcelona playing up to 65 matches this season, all four forwards will have to be at their best if Barcelona are to win major silverware.
Barcelona's style seems to suit Sanchez perfectly; he'll be able to showcase all his pace, dribbling and trickery in the fields of La Liga and help Barcelona unlock the parked buses they will inevitably face.
Andrés Ehrli (AE aka me)
Alexis will be a bench-warmer to start it off, but I'm confident he's capable of winning a starting spot eventually.
If he doesn't, let not kid ourselves—he's a gigantic bust.
Alves Piqué Abidal Adriano
Pedro Messi Alexis
I must disagree here. To me, the strongest lineup would be: Valdés; Abidal, Puyol, Piqué, Alves; Busquts, Xavi, Iniesta; Messi, Villa and Pedro.
I just can't see any reason to drop Villa. His first season at Barcelona was extraordinary and he is bound to be even better this season. He's one of the world's best forwards, has great work ethic and he clicks extremely well with Pedro and Messi, with whom he forms the most prolific attacking trio on the planet.
At least for now, Villa is a lock to start for FC Barcelona.
Theoretically, it's possible, although it will obviously not be easy. Barcelona have retained their key players and added even more talent to an already stacked squad. The Catalans are still firmly the best team in the world and are favorites to win the league and the Champions League again.
But if dominating for three years in a row is difficult, doing so for four years is even more difficult. Barcelona will be even more challenged this season, especially by the likes of the ever-improving Real Madrid.
But Barcelona are certainly capable of maintaining their high standards; it's all a matter of keeping focused and motivated, avoiding injuries to key players and getting some lucky breaks on the way (after all, you can't really win without getting a bit lucky at some point).
It's easier said than done, but Barcelona are certainly good enough to win everything again.
I hope so.
But no one's won the CL back to back.
And Madrid is feisty as hell.
Will be fun to watch, though.
Not surrendering counterattacks with balls lost in Barça's own half.
Case in point: Barcelona vs. Madrid in Copa del Rey and Barcelona vs. Manchester United offseason friendly.
Messi, Alves and Xavi being on top form could also help.
But most importantly: Madrid coming in confident they can defeat Barcelona.
Those are all fair points. Judging by both teams' preseasons, Madrid would have to be clear favorites; they had a longer preseason with all their players while the likes of Messi, Alves and Mascherano only returned this week from vacation after the Copa America.
But that doesn't mean Barcelona will surrender the Super Cup (although it is the least important trophy of the season). The squad might not be in top form but they still have what it takes to defeat Madrid yet again. Barcelona will have the lion's share of ball possession, meaning that they will control the game.
Keeping the ball and not making silly mistakes will be key, especially in the first leg at the Bernabeu.
Beating Porto won't be an easy task for Barcelona. With all due respect to Shakhtar, whom Barcelona faced in the 2009 European Super Cup, FC Porto are entirely different and more dangerous opposition. The Portuguese champions have one of the best squads in Europe at the moment and should make life very, very difficult for Barcelona.
Villas Boas' exit might make Porto a slightly less deadly side (it remains to be seen), but their key players remain at the club. In order to beat them, Barcelona will have to play at their best, controlling possession and the tempo of the game and they'll have to be very wary of Porto's counterattacks, especially Falcao and Hulk, who can create chances out of nowhere.
The most important thing is to not underestimate Porto, but I'm sure Pep Guardiola won't make that mistake. As far as I'm concerned, Porto will present a bigger challenge to FC Barcelona than any team in the Champions League last season (they are better than the English sides and will attack more than Real Madrid), Barcelona will need to be at the top of their game to take this trophy home.
The key is being very aware of what Hulk and especially Freddy Guarín try to do when they counterattack.
News flash: The most dangerous Colombian on Porto is not named Falcao; it's Freddy Gaurin.
The Colombian destroyed Villarreal in two counter plays.
I don't want that to happen to Barça.
Not dying on an airplane crash.
Or walking under a ladder after seeing a black cat.
Otherwise, easy does it: Barça should win it with no problem at all.
I personally wouldn't be so confident; after all, the 2009 victory wasn't exactly a walk in the park. In fact, all looked lost until Pedro scored an unexpected goal in the dying minutes.
Barcelona are clearly the strongest team in this competition, but you should never underestimate anyone. Santos have a pretty good, with quality Brazilian talent; they could definitely upset Barcelona if the Catalans don't bring their A-game. But yes, on paper Barcelona are clear favorites to take the trophy home.
This one is simple. If Barcelona keep the same consistency shown in the past two league editions, they will win the league again. It's a big if, though.
In the past two seasons, Barcelona have completely shattered the previous league point record, with 99 and 96 (the previous record was 92, in a 42-match league). If Barcelona can rack up that many points again, they'll certainly win their fourth consecutive title.
The key is of course to slip up as little as possible (less than Real Madrid anyway) and of course, the Clásicos. The league is such a two-horse race right now that losing both Clásicos is pretty much a death sentence for either of the Spanish giants. A loss and a draw is recoverable; two losses is almost impossible to recover (Barca/Madrid would have to win pretty much every other match to win in those circumstances).
Reaching top form for the Clásicos will be crucial, especially the second Clásico at Camp Nou, where the title will most likely be decided. In the past six league Clásicos, Barcelona won five and drew one; it'd be very important to continue this streak.
The key is not losing any points basically.
My only fear is that Barça needs to be at a very high level to win that many games.
Madrid thrives at winning while playing rubbish.
So advantage Madrid, there.
Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United could be even better this season. Not to say what they could be if Sneijder arrived.
Real Madrid, obviously. Though I expect their level to be very similar to last season's.
The Villas-Boas-less Porto could impress this season as well.
Those should be some of the biggest rivals. Real Madrid have quite a fantastic squad this term, and Manchester United are always a threat under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Porto are also one of the favorites; they have a fantastic squad, considerably better than their 2004 crop who won this competition. André Villas-Boas' new club, Chelsea FC, could also potentially challenge for the title, as well as Manchester City—and even Bayern Munich, who will host the final.
That said, I would be very surprised if the Champions League trophy didn't go to Spain again. Barcelona and Real Madrid are the two best teams in the world by a distance. As strong as the other contenders are, Real Madrid are clearly the biggest threat to Barcelona.
Well, it's certainly the greatest team of this generation and the greatest since Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan. I believe few would argue against this; we haven't seen a team dominate the sport in such emphatic fashion since that great AC Milan side.
It's pretty hard to say if it's the greatest of all time, especially since I wasn't around to watch other great teams of the past live. Besides, we should wait till this team's cycle is over before we judge them. If these three years of dominance were fantastic, four or five years of dominance would only add to their legendary status. Let's wait and see where this cycle ends.
Let's stop dancing around the issue, Manuel. You think exactly what I think.
They are. And anybody that doesn't see it is lying their face off.
Alexis will win a "starting spot" instead of Villa, but both will see lots of playing time.
Cesc will arrive and contribute from the bench like Thiago.
Abidal will prove himself as a legit starter in the middle instead of Puyol.
I don't agree with the first one—I think Villa will retain his starting spot (although Alexis will also get plenty of playing time). I do agree that Cesc will contribute from the bench if he arrives and that Abidal will be a great replacement for Puyol if the latter doesn't recover fully.
My bold prediction is that Barcelona will win the league undefeated. They lost one match in 2009/2010 and two in 2010/2011 (one after the league was already won). It's perfectly conceivable that they might become even more consistent and go undefeated in the league. Breaking the 100-point mark and the 107-goal record is also possible, but only if Real Madrid push Barcelona until the very end, which didn't happen last season.
But these are just (very) bold predictions.
In a slightly less bold one, I believe that even if Fabregas comes, Thiago will end up ahead of him in the pecking order—he's that good.
Well, as a famous cartoon once said, "That's all folks."
From both Manuel Traquete and I, we hope you enjoyed this preview and we wish a happy and entertaining 2011/12 season for all you Culés out there.
In case you missed Manuel's piece, here's Part 1, with questions 1-10.
If your question wasn't answered, feel free to answer it in the comment section below and Manuel and I will do the best to provide you with one (even if you don't like it).