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Jul 20, 2014

Deulofeu, Halilovic shine for Barca

Stoke City have completed the signing of striker Bojan Krkic from Barcelona on a four-year contract.

Barcelona achieved a narrow 1-0 win against Recreativo Huelva in their first friendly in preparation for the 2014-15 season. Juan Roman scored the goal for the Blaugrana, who enjoyed 63 percent of possession, created 15 goal-scoring chances and attempted 11 shots, five of them on target and one to the post.

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Key 1: With most of the squad's internationals still on holiday after their World Cup duties, manager Luis Enrique opted to field many promising youngsters from the Barca B squad. The Asturian's first lineup included only three first-team players (Jordi Masip, Martin Montoya and Sergi Roberto) in what could be interpreted as a glimpse into a brighter future where La Masia graduates are, once again, given the chance at the highest level as soon as ready.

Newly signed Alen Halilovic didn't waste a second to prove his worth. Despite being only 17 years of age, the former Dinamo Zagreb playmaker stepped up to the challenge and led the Blaugrana midfield with his fresh vision and continuous dynamism, always eager to push forward and find spaces in the final attacking third. The Croatian teenager showed that, if trusted and given appropriate guidance, he could compete for a starting spot in the first team in the not-too-distant future.

The inclusion of substitute Gerard Deulofeu after the halftime break spurred Barcelona on and, ultimately, unbalanced the game in the Catalans' favour. The ambitious youngster, in his first appearance after returning from his loan spell at Everton, was a constant nightmare for rival defenders due to his blistering pace and unpredictable movement. The 20-year-old winger proved that he is more than ready to challenge Pedro's and even Neymar's playing time once the season starts.

Gerard Deulofeu, seen here in an April 2013 match, hopes to make an impact at Barcelona in 2014-15 after last season's year-long loan at Everton.
Gerard Deulofeu, seen here in an April 2013 match, hopes to make an impact at Barcelona in 2014-15 after last season's year-long loan at Everton.

In fact, Luis Enrique's men only managed to find the net after Recreativo goalkeeper Dani Sotres failed to deal with one of Deulofeu's incisive efforts effectively, allowing Juan Roman to calmly score after making the most of a loose ball inside his area. While it is clear that the difference between Recreativo and Barca is vast in terms of quality and budget, I would like to highlight that both teams gave it their all and this was quite an entertaining match despite both teams having only just returned to training after the summer break.

Key 2: Despite the absence of many of his key players, it was reassuring to see that Luis Enrique decided to opt for the traditional 4-3-3 formation which has brought so much success to the club in recent years. While it is fully expected that Luis Enrique will introduce some variations (especially if he is to accommodate world-class superstars such as Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez), knowing that his starting point is the Catalans' proven philosophy is a huge positive.

Early reports indicate that Luis Enrique has put a huge emphasis on enhancing the players' fitness ahead of the new season. Considering the much more physical approach that recent tournament winners such as Bayern Munich, Real Madrid or the German national team have added to their game, this is definitely another step in the right direction.

Key 3: With sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta still researching the market to find the two centre-backs the squad has been crying out for during the last three seasons, Luis Enrique used the match against Huelva to give young defenders Frank Bagnack, Edgar Ie and Diawandou Diagne a chance to prove their worth. Personally, I felt that the latter performed particularly well, passing confidently from the back line and tackling convincingly when challenged.

Having said that, it is obvious that Zubizarreta must complete the signing of a world-class centre-half as a matter of urgency. The latest reports continue to point toward the imminent arrival of 30-year-old Jeremy Mathieu, but considering the fact that Valencia refuse to sell him for any less than 20 million euros, I would also consider other options such as Mats Hummels, Jan Vertonghen or Daley Blind -- all of whom are also established, yet much younger alternatives with plenty of potential to become even better in years to come.

The quote: "Recreativo Huelva took the game seriously. They showed dedication and we had chances. But we can't draw conclusions yet. It's too early. Our players have to be analysed over the course of the different games we play. It would be wrong to single out individuals at this stage. It's an atypical preseason, but we're getting a chance to look at the reserve players. The game was good for our fitness after the first week of work. Future signings are a matter for Zubizarreta and the negotiations have to be carried out in secret." -- Luis Enrique.