An encouraging start for new-look Barcelona
Luis Enrique's new-look Barca are sitting comfortably at the top of the La Liga table after a couple of matches in which belief, pride and consistency were key. The manager's stamp is becoming increasingly visible and, while it is obviously far too early to make a convincing judgement, there is a sense of renewed optimism in the air after the disappointing season under Gerardo Martino.
Encouragingly, there are several factors that show that the unprecedented investment of over 162 million euros during one of the busiest transfer windows in club history is beginning to pay off.
The Catalans' board announced its intention to attract a significant number of fresh faces to the Camp Nou in order to rebuild a squad that was clearly in decline. Having made up to nine additions, one could be inclined to think that they have done fairly well overall. The players signed may not have been their first preferences, but at least the squad as a whole is much more balanced and the coach can choose between no fewer than two players for every position in his formation.
Judging by the performances seen so far, including preseason, the signing of Ivan Rakitic was a fantastic move. The Croatian international has boosted the midfield in a way that only few could have predicted, adding much-needed physicality, hunger and long-distance shooting. The former Sevilla captain has been given a starring role from the moment he joined and has certainly not disappointed, often looking as if he had been playing alongside Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta for several seasons.
After years of frustratingly awaiting the arrival of an experienced, reliable centre back, the board opted to sign Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen. Obviously, Cules would have been happier to welcome world-class defenders such as Thiago Silva or Mats Hummels instead, but considering the many goals leaked due to lack of height in recent seasons, we can at least say that the Blaugrana back line is stronger than last season -- both in terms of numbers and quality.
Enrique has trusted Mathieu in both official matches so far, with the former Valencia captain adding valuable extra speed and aerial presence. Apart from the Frenchman, and after only 180 minutes of football, the Asturian manager has also fielded Gerard Pique, Marc Bartra and even Javier Mascherano as centre backs. If, as club doctors expect, the injury-prone Vermaelen manages to make a full recovery, the competition for a starting spot will be ferocious -- whoever dips in form is bound to be instantly relegated to the bench by the no-nonsense Enrique.
Claudio Bravo has started both official matches, looking fairly comfortable between the posts and making a couple of difficult saves. Sure, Barca's opposition so far hasn't necessarily been of the highest level if compared to the likes of Bayern Munich or Real Madrid, but the Chilean international certainly hasn't looked out of place. It will be interesting to see if Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who was director of football Andoni Zubizarreta's first goalkeeping choice during the transfer window, is preferred to Bravo now that he has finally recovered from the terribly timed back injury that has kept him on the sidelines over the past two weeks.
Rafinha has been given plenty of trust by Enrique, the coach who, let's not forget, knows the young Brazilian better than most after a whole year together at Celta. Thiago's brother has started both La Liga matches so far, definitely a step in the right direction in order for him to establish himself at Barca. Let's hope that his ability to play in different positions is an advantage, rather than a hindrance, and that he can become more than a backup impact player to call upon only when regular starters are unavailable.
Douglas was Barca's late surprise signing. I am still shocked by his arrival, especially considering the fact that both Dani Alves and Martin Montoya are ahead of him in the fight for the starting spot at right back. However, many reports are highlighting the 24-year-old's pace and fitness so, at least for now and until he shows what he is capable of while wearing the Blaugrana, I am prepared to give him a vote of confidence while he adapts to his new environment.
Meanwhile, Luis Suarez continues to focus on getting to know his new teammates in tailor-made training sessions and taking part in practice matches while eagerly awaiting the day when his four-month ban is finally lifted. Undoubtedly, the fans are excited to see how their star signing of the summer will improve the attack and whether his association with Lionel Messi and Neymar is as good as their individual résumés suggest.
Let's hope that the many Barca players who will spend the next two weeks away on international duty playing meaningless friendlies all return safe and sound and can build on their positive start to the season.
The Quote: "We've restructured in depth. It's the biggest reshuffle in club history, with 24 changes in all. We will make the fans proud of the team again. We are where we want to be. The situation and the squad are right to get us back competing again. The summer transfer market started for us in the spring. We believe we have been conscientious with this planning, we have taken our time and thought carefully about what we were doing. The arrival of Luis Enrique complies with the requirements of understanding the way we play and being courageous enough to accept this challenge." -- Zubizarreta.