Lacking scoring punch, Barcelona open season with lowered expectations
For the first time in a very long time, Barcelona do not start the season as the favourites to win La Liga.
Barca have won Spain's top flight in six of the past nine years, but they didn't win it last year, and no one really expects them to win it in 2017-18. A turbulent preseason ended with a 5-1 aggregate defeat to Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup, and there's a feeling that -- not for the first time, admittedly -- a golden generation of players is finally declining.
They begin their league campaign against Real Betis at Camp Nou on Sunday, as they did last year when they won 6-2 with Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi sharing five goals between them in Neymar's absence. The Brazilian forward has now gone for good, and his world-record transfer to Paris Saint-Germain undermined Barca's summer.
New coach Ernesto Valverde, who has been thrown in at the deep end after replacing Luis Enrique, admits it has unbalanced his team, who will also be without the injured Suarez this weekend.
"The injury to Suarez is something which can happen," Valverde said in his pregame news conference on Saturday. "Losing Neymar was sudden, it was a surprise and it's changed our plan a little. But now we all have to pull in the same direction and not look back."
Valverde added what could be interpreted as a nudge in the board's direction to stop messing around and get deals done for Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho before the transfer window closes later this month: "I would like to have a squad that matches the demands made of us."
Dembele and Coutinho are the two players the club is chasing with the Neymar money, but neither Borussia Dortmund nor Liverpool are rolling over for Barca, who will start the season with just one member of the now-defunct MSN front line. They need attacking reinforcements.
At least the available member is M. But even though Valverde says Messi is the best in the world, he stresses that the Argentine superstar needs help. He didn't rule out playing him as a false nine against Betis, where he did so much of his good work in the early years of his career under Pep Guardiola, but it's more likely Paco Alcacer will start in place of Suarez; Messi will be either wide, with freedom to roam, or a No. 10.
A trip to Alaves follows next weekend before the international break, after which Espanyol are due at Camp Nou for the Catalan derby on Sept. 11. Suarez will miss all those games, and Alcacer, a €30 million signing from Valencia last summer, would benefit from three successive games in his natural position. He has rarely been afforded such luxury since his move.
As well as no Suarez, there's no Andres Iniesta, while new arrival Paulinho won't play because his paperwork has still not cleared. In better news for Valverde, Gerard Pique did train on Saturday and has made the matchday squad.
It all contributes to hope for Betis, who arrive in Catalonia optimistic of an upset and certainly not dwelling on last season's mauling under Gustavo Poyet, who has long gone along with his successor Victor Sanchez del Amo.
Quique Setien is now in charge, and Betis are one of the Liga sides to have caught the eye in the summer. They lost Spain Under-21 star Dani Ceballos to Real Madrid but have recruited well: Cristian Tello joined from Barca, returning to the Spanish league after spells on loan with Porto and Fiorentina, and the winger makes Sunday's squad despite being an injury doubt.
Javi Garcia, Andres Guardado, Sergio Leon, Victor Cameras and Ryad Boudebouz also feature on a long list of signings which, on paper, looks to have improved a side that ended last season in 15th position.
And in Setien, Betis have a highly rated coach. His past six months at Las Palmas went off the boil, but there were external reasons for that. Before then, he'd impressed. The Canary Islanders played a lovely brand of football and went toe-to-toe with Barca and Madrid on more than one occasion. It looks promising for Betis, who have already sold over 48,000 season tickets for the new season.
The green-and-white half of Seville is expectant, and that could make Barcelona nervy on what will be an emotional evening. Following Thursday's terrorist attacks on Las Ramblas and in Cambrils, which left at least 13 dead and over 130 injured, extra security will be in place at Camp Nou and there will be a minute's silence before the game. The players will wear black armbands and "Barcelona" will replace the home side's names on the back of their shirts.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.