Barca's ideal starting XI
It's that time of the year again! With the first official game of the season only a week away, the Barcablog.com readers have spoken and chosen the players who, in their opinion, should make Luis Enrique's ideal eleven.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen is the preferred option under the posts with 83 percent of the votes, well ahead of Claudio Bravo. The former Borussia Monchengladbach goalkeeper has impressed during preseason by showing remarkable reflexes when faced one-on-one, great positioning in set pieces, and calmness when passing the ball on the floor. If the German can recover on time from the back injury he suffered in training this week, he should be manager Luis Enrique's preferred choice from the very first game.
Forty-nine percent of fans have opted for a Gerard Pique/Thomas Vermaelen partnership in central defence, with the Pique/Jeremy Mathieu combination in second with 19 percent of votes.
If Enrique manages to motivate Pique to return to his former excellence, the Barca back line should be much more solid than in previous years, regardless of who his defensive partner may be. Already 27 years of age, the three-time FIFA World XI winner should be reaching his peak, leading by example after all those years alongside the legendary Carles Puyol. It truly is up to Pique himself to make a conscious decision to step up and stop his obvious decline in form during the last couple of seasons.
Personally, I believe that Mathieu will take very little time to adapt to the Barca formation and should be Pique's partner, at least initially. After far too many seasons struggling to defend set pieces effectively, my feeling is that fielding the two tallest centre-backs in the squad together is the best way forward. The Frenchman's aerial ability, speed when tracking back and plenty of experience in La Liga will be a huge boost. Sure, Andoni Zubizarreta did pay too much for the 31-year-old's transfer, but considering the deal has already been closed, it is now time for supporters to move on and stand by their new signing.
Having both Vermaelen and Marc Bartra desperately trying to challenge for their starting spots would increase the competition and, ultimately, benefit the team as a whole. Barcelona has not had this many options at centre-back since the Pep Guardiola era and, despite the new signings not being of the calibre of world-class defenders such as Thiago Silva or Vincent Kompany, the improvement in terms of numbers and quality is obvious.
Unsurprisingly, 88 percent of Cules believe Jordi Alba should be given the starting spot as left-back. To be honest, that is probably the easiest decision that Enrique will have to make, as Alba's desire to win at all costs, blistering speed and ability to unbalance games when overlapping are a lethal weapon Barca can simply not do without.
In contrast, endless debate has been caused in regards to the right-back position. While 89 percent believe Dani Alves should start when considering the current squad, 80 percent also believe that signing the Brazilian's replacement is a must.
Personally, I am shocked by reports that the Barca board have discarded the signing of Juan Cuadrado and are about to close a deal on Douglas from Sao Paulo. Let's hope that such information is simply a negotiation strategy as, quite frankly and with all due respect, nobody in their right mind would prefer the virtually unknown Brazilian to one of the stand-out players who took Colombia to the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
Cules would be far from impressed if Cuadrado's essential signing can't be completed because Zubizarreta ran out of money by blowing the club's transfer budget by paying over-inflated prices for Mathieu, Bravo or Vermaelen.
Surprisingly, 69 percent of Cules would like Javier Mascherano to start ahead of Sergio Busquets. In my opinion, Enrique can count himself lucky to have the problem to choose between them.
After years of being unfairly expected to excel as centre-half because of the board's poor squad management, the courageous Argentinean should make a return to his preferred position. His stellar performances at the World Cup showed that he can lead from within when given enough trust and responsibility.
However, I still believe that Busquets has the edge. His understanding of the Barca mechanisms, speed of thought and accurate passing are second to none. If, as expected, Xavi is given a more secondary role within the squad, then Barca's new No. 5 must be his successor, the engine that ensures the Blaugrana machine keeps on ticking.
The partnership of Andres Iniesta and newly arrived Ivan Rakitic was favoured by 74 percent of votes. The overwhelming support for the former Sevilla captain ahead of club legend Xavi clearly reflects the fans' desire to move forward by introducing new blood into the team. The talented Croatian has been one of the stars of Barca's preseason thanks to his ability to run from deep, move into goal-scoring positions and find open teammates with ease.
With that in mind, it seems that it will be up to Iniesta to ensure Barca's traditional pass-and-move philosophy continues. Obviously, a more direct, less predictable approach is necessary, but the essence of the club's formation must remain, and there is nobody better than Don Andres to protect the legacy.
A massive 94 percent would field Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar in their starting eleven, which is hardly surprising given their undeniable quality. The manager now has the difficult task to ensure they can all enhance each other's games while still performing as well as expected on an individual basis.
Enabling enough spaces to run into, understanding when it would be best to face rivals one-on-one or predicting each other's movements will only come with meticulous planning during training and the right attitude from all involved. The three South American stars have no option but to put their egos aside and work together for the overall benefit of the team.
Messi amassed 86 percent of the votes for the central striking position ahead of Neymar and Suarez. However, I would personally start the Uruguayan in a more central position (once he returns after his ban, of course) and allow La Pulga to roam around freely around the team's attacking third, trying to run into wherever the gaps may be.
After more than a decade at Barca, many rivals are beginning to learn how to defend against the diminutive No. 10, and a new approach is needed. Personally, I do believe a less-restricted role behind Suarez (with the Uruguayan creating spaces by locking defenders within their back-line) would allow Messi to either find teammates with his mind-blowing passing skills or dribble his way into goal-scoring positions.
Having Neymar as a wide open reference, preferably on the left wing, should make the Blaugrana's attack even harder to predict, keeping opponents constantly guessing and chasing shadows. After a difficult first season under terrible off-the-field pressure, it is now time for the young Brazilian to deliver the magic of which everyone knows he is capable.