21:15 BST, Saturday 18th August, Camp Nou, Eleven Sports
Reigning champions Barcelona kick off their La Liga campaign at the Camp Nou with a late-night meeting with Alaves and it would be a major surprise if the hosts collect anything less than three points.
Barcelona come into the game with a trophy already under their belts after a hard-earned Spanish Super Cup victory over Sevilla last weekend. Alaves, though, will be feeling less sanguine with many expecting them to face a long struggle against relegation this season despite managing a credible 14th place finish last time around.
The ever-expectant home crowd will be fully anticipating a glut of goals against the unfancied Basque visitors but Alaves gained a famous Camp Nou victory a couple of years ago and only suffered a narrow 2-1 defeat last season after leading with 20 minutes remaining. They can afford to enter the contest with a nothing-to-lose mentality.
Barcelona were formidable at the Camp Nou in the league last season, winning 16 games and drawing the other three. Indeed, that loss against Alaves in September 2016 was the last time they were beaten at home in La Liga although they will certainly not be expecting history to repeat itself this weekend.
Last Time Out
Alaves 1-2 Huesca (Friendly)
Alaves saw their pre-season campaign come to a disappointing conclusion with a 2-1 home loss to newly promoted Huesca last weekend.
The visitors went ahead with an early strike from frontman Alex Gallar and, although Alaves mounted plenty of pressure before levelling through Swedish striker John Guidetti shortly before the hour mark, Huesca restored the advantage almost immediately through Gallar and held on for the win.
That friendly loss brought Alaves’s pre-season build up to an end with a mixed set of results: the Vitoria-based side picked up three victories, four draws and two defeats from their long list of preparation fixtures.
They will now look to re-establish the form which saw them win five of their last seven games at the end of last season.
Barcelona 3-0 Boca Juniors (Friendly)
After defeating Sevilla in last weekend’s Super Cup, thanks to a stunning late strike from Ousmane Dembele, Barcelona were back at home for the traditional Gamper Trophy season curtain-raiser with Argentine side Boca Juniors the visitors.
REUTERS/Jon NazcaIt didn’t take long for the hosts to go ahead: summer signing Malcom, making his first Camp Nou appearance, rifling home an angled left-footed shot from 12 yards. Lionel Messi made it two with a trademark dinked finish before half-time.
The scoring was completed early in the second half as Rafinha capped an impressive pre-season by netting number three, running onto a lofted pass from Luis Suarez to score from close range before boss Ernesto Valverde ran through almost his entire squad with a raft of substitutions.
After making a batch of summer signings, Valverde has plenty of options at his disposal. He is likely to stick with the players who were already at the club last season, although a lot depends on whether Dembele has done enough to maintain his place in the starting XI.
Dembele's inclusion or omission could also impact upon the shape selected by Valverde, who opted for a 4-4-2 for much of last season but will probably revert to 4-3-3 – with Messi on the right – if Dembele starts.
Alaves have a couple of important injury absentees with winger Ibai Gomez – who scored the winner in the 2016 victory at the Camp Nou – and Brazilian defender Rodrigo Ely both ruled out indefinitely.
Manager Abelardo Fernandez, a former Barcelona defender, strengthened his squad earlier this week by re-signing veteran defensive midfielder Tomas Pina, who also spent last season on loan with the club.
The visiting boss will select between Guidetti and on-loan Swansea striker Borja Baston in attack.
Key Battle: Sergio Busquets vs Manu Garcia
Although Messi and Luis Suarez grab both the goals and the headlines, the most important member of the Barcelona squad in terms of making the team tick is central midfield maestro Sergio Busquets.
The Spain international is the man responsible for knitting together his team’s build-up play by linking midfield with attack, often looking to spark danger by finding Messi’s subtle movements into space in the final third.
To combat that threat, many opposition teams take the unusual step of carrying out a man-marking job on Busquets, attempting to snuff out Barcelona’s attacks at source and denying Messi the chance to get on the ball by smothering his main supply line.
Alaves have plenty of strong defensive bodies in midfield including Pina and battle-hardened Ghana international Wakaso Mubarak (a walking yellow card if there ever was).
However, the man who will probably be asked by Abelardo to focus most closely on Busquets is skipper Manu Garcia, an endlessly energetic and commendably committed performer who wears his heart on his sleeve and never stops running. This weekend, those qualities will be very necessary.
Coutinho in midfield or on the wing?
In addition to pondering whether Dembele should start, home team manager Valverde must also decide – not just this weekend but for the remainder of the season – exactly where Philippe Coutinho fits into his plans.
Since signing from Liverpool midway through last season, the Brazilian has shown his renowned versatility by playing on both flanks, as an attacking midfielder and in a more withdrawn central role.
The fact that Coutinho can play in several positions is clearly a plus but to get the best out of him – and to develop a smoothly functioning team structure – Valverde now needs to bed the former Liverpool midfielder down into a settled position.
With Neymar and Andres Iniesta having departed the club in the last year or so, there are some big shoes to fill. Coutinho’s ability cannot be questioned and his positioning to start the season will reveal a great deal about Valverde’s vision for him.
Can Alaves retain their ambition?
Alaves possess plenty of attacking potential with the starting striker – probably John Guidetti – receiving support from a pair of wingers who learned their trade in the Real Madrid youth ranks: Burgui and Ruben Sobrino.
It can be difficult for visitors to the Camp Nou to show attacking intent rather than retreating into their shell, marking Messi as closely as possible and hoping for the best.
But Alaves should avoid falling into that trap, and in addition to their victory over Barcelona two years ago they can draw confidence from the danger posed to the reigning champions by Sevilla in last weekend’s Super Cup.
With full-backs Jordi Alba and Nelson Semedo liable to getting caught upfield and Busquets lacking pace, there is a clear opportunity for opposing teams to launch successful counter-attacks if they are brave enough to do so.
Alaves will, of course, focus on defending – but they shouldn’t completely overlook their attacking capabilities.
Prediction: Barcelona 3-1 Alaves
Alaves are capable of giving Barcelona a tougher game than most people are expecting and they might even shock the Camp Nou crowd by taking an early lead while the home team find their rhythm.
But with Ousmane Dembele – if he starts – playing as though he has a point to prove (which, really, he does) and Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez hunting down their first goals of the season, the hosts should eventually prevail.