Barcelona seek to extend winning start as Valverde makes a good impression
Things are looking up at Barcelona. There are still questions that need answering, areas of the squad to be improved and bigger tests to come, but four wins and four clean sheets have eased the burden on Ernesto Valverde and his squad.
You'd be forgiven for having forgotten Barca still have some very good players and, perhaps most importantly, that they even have the best of them all. But after a transfer window that saw them lose Neymar, flap around trying to sign a replacement, while also trying to strengthen other positions, and lose 5-1 to Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup, a thick layer of doom and gloom descended over Camp Nou.
In Valverde, though, they have a coach who has remained level-headed. He never let on any frustrations during his early months in charge and now, with the transfer window closed until January, he's grateful to have the focus back on the pitch.
On Saturday, Barca travel to newly-promoted Getafe, where they will look to continue their 100 percent winning start to the Liga campaign. So far they have beaten Real Betis, Alaves and Espanyol, as well as Juventus in the Champions League, and certain trends have been encouraging.
One of the most notable things in the early days of the Valverde era has been the importance of the full-backs, nominally Jordi Alba on the left and summer signing Nelson Semedo on the right.
"What interests me is the present," Alba said this week when asked about the about-turn in his form. "I am looking forward to this year. I'm excited. It's been a while since I felt this sort of enthusiasm. There's a spark and I feel better than in other years. I hope it continues."
Alba's final season with Luis Enrique saw his performances dip and he was even left out of the side for some big matches but his renewed enthusiasm comes from the freedom he's been given by Valverde which has been conditioned, in part, by Neymar's move to Paris Saint-Germain.
"I like to attack the flank and now I am receiving the ball a lot more than before and getting into dangerous areas," Alba continued. "Obviously having the manger's confidence is key, but I am comfortable with the whole coaching team and my teammates and I am taking things in a different manner."
It's a similar story on the right, where former Benfica full-back Semedo is exciting supporters. With Ousmane Dembele in front of him -- an electrifying partnership is brewing there -- he doesn't have quite as much freedom to attack as Alba but, with Valverde encouraging Dembele to go inside at times, there is space.
Ivan Rakitic, like Alba, is another player who looks regenerated under Valverde. The Croatian midfielder has scored in each of his last two games and is offering an energy and goal threat that he lacked last season.
However, whether all three will play at Getafe this weekend is not clear. Valverde has opted to make few changes until now and may decide it's time to give other players some minutes; Javier Mascherano, Sergi Roberto and Paulinho could come into the team at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez.
Andres Iniesta has started four games in two weeks for club and country and may be one of the players in line for a break. However, although it will almost certainly be less than Luis Enrique, it's not obvious how heavily Valverde plans to tinker. He may, though, prefer to hand players a breather on Tuesday, when Eibar visit the Camp Nou.
Whatever team he puts out on Saturday, he will be hopeful of a fifth straight win and a fifth straight clean sheet against a Getafe side that only scored their first goals of the campaign last weekend.
And with Real Madrid travelling to Real Sociedad on Sunday -- like Barca, La Real have begun the season with three straight wins -- it's not out of the question that the Blaugrana end the weekend having extended their four-point lead on Zinedine Zidane's side.
By next weekend, with nine points up for grabs over the coming week -- a trip to local rivals Girona follows Eibar -- Barca will hope to have 18 points from 18 in the league. Yes, that shouldn't be allowed to paper over some of the cracks at the club, but it's not all doom and gloom, either.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.