Barcelona targeting nine La Liga points in a week, starting with Levante
Barcelona have the chance of grabbing a further nine points in La Liga in the next week. The frantic calendar dictates that the Blaugranas, who are currently commanding the league table with an unbeaten record after three matches, having scored six goals and not conceded any, will face Levante away on Sunday, travel to Malaga on Wednesday and host Granada at the Camp Nou next Saturday.
Luckily, Luis Enrique has already shown enough signs to demonstrate that, despite being faced with the challenge of managing a club at which only winning will do for the first time in his career, he knows what he is doing and must be trusted.
His starting lineup for Barca's Champions League debut included nine changes from his previous XI. Despite not playing their best football, the Catalans came away with the victory. Perhaps even more importantly in the long run, many youngsters such as Sergi Samper, Munir El Haddadi and Sergi Roberto were granted valuable playing time at the highest level, boosting their progression.
The Asturian manager is likely to continue to rely on his effective rotation policy in coming weeks, in a clear attempt to keep all his players motivated and challenging for a starting spot by competing relentlessly in training. If that wasn't enough, his decision to regularly invite those who excel at Barca B to join the first-team training sessions, and even make the team if they show more desire than their more experienced colleagues, keeps everyone on their toes on a daily basis.
With only third-choice goalkeeper Jordi Masip (injured) and Luis Suarez (still awaiting El Clasico while serving his four-month ban) unavailable for the upcoming match against Levante at the Ciutat de Valencia, Enrique has plenty of options to choose from.
The dilemma between the posts is likely to continue for the whole season, but the manager's decision on Sunday could be the most telling yet. If Claudio Bravo were given the nod, it could be interpreted that the Chile international is his pick for the league, while Marc Andre ter Stegen would be preferred for European and Copa del Rey football. If the 22-year-old German were chosen, he would have been first choice in every match since recovering from injury, regardless of the competition. Decisions, decisions.
Despite not having been declared match fit by club doctors, Thomas Vermaelen has been training with his teammates for several days now and could very well be given his debut in the next week. Having said that, Enrique is likely to opt for the tallest possible partnership in central defence: An improving Gerard Pique and Jeremy Mathieu (who, believe it or not, recently tested as the fastest player in the whole Barca squad).
Given the quality of the midfielders at his disposal, it is likely that whoever gets picked will perform at the required level and ensure Barca control the game in their usual manner. The Sergio Busquets-Ivan Rakitic-Andres Iniesta triangle seems the most likely choice, but don't be surprised if Rafinha is given a start in either interior position instead.
The question up front is who will accompany the ever-present Lionel Messi. The Argentine wizard has played every second of official football this year and, despite the fact that not resting him poses a risk of early burn-out, the manager is not expected to change his mind on this point against Levante. It appears that Enrique has adapted Pep Guardiola's tactic of allowing Messi to play as much as he wants, whenever he wants, in order to make him feel the focus of the project once again. A brave, sensible move. Let's hope injuries respect the world's best player so that he is fit when it truly matters, in six months' time.
Neymar has upped his game in the last few weeks and, especially given his desire to improve his connection with Messi, has started his decisive second season at Barcelona on the right track. The third attacking spot should go to Munir ahead of Pedro once again. Yes, the 27-year-old also has a point to prove this season but, personally, I would much rather boost the career of the cheeky, skilled, disciplined youngster -- especially given his mind-blowing performances in recent times. His dynamism to interchange positions, ability to drop into a central spot and unpredictability give him the edge despite his obvious lack of experience.
Considering all the points above, here's a predicted lineup for the game against Levante:
Ter Stegen; Montoya, Pique, Mathieu, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Rafinha; Neymar, Munir, Messi
Here's hoping for an extra nine points in the next week. It will certainly not be an easy challenge, but the current positive momentum is filling Cules with optimism, and rightly so.
The quote: "I'm sticking to my guns. I need my whole team, although I'm sure I'll get it wrong sometimes. We can't always win 3-0 or 4-0, but I have total faith in my players" -- Luis Enrique.