Reigning champions Barcelona will begin the defence of their La Liga title with a home game against Deportivo Alaves on Saturday night.

The 2018-19 La Liga season gets underway this weekend and current title holders Barcelona will kick off the new campaign against Alaves at Camp Nou.

The Catalans had a spectacular season last time out, brushing aside the threat of rivals Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid with great ease on their way to the title. Despite the legendary Andres Iniesta leaving at the end of the last season, Barcelona have strengthened their squad with some exciting additions, chief among them being two Brazilian youngsters Arthur Melo and Malcom.

After a dodgy start to the pre-season, where they lost to AS Roma and AC Milan and had to rely on penalties to get past Tottenham Hotspur, Ernesto Valverde’s men kicked off the season on a high, beating Sevilla 2-1 on their way to lifting the Spanish Super Cup last weekend. They followed it up with an impressive 3-0 win over Boca Juniors to win the Joan Gamper Trophy earlier in the week.

Alaves, on the other hand, finished in the 14th spot in the league last season and will come into the new term hoping to improve on that outcome. Abelardo Fernandez’s men had a somewhat mixed pre-season, as they won three out of their nine fixtures, while losing two. Their last game ended in a 2-1 defeat to SD Huesca.

However, they will be no pushovers for the champions, having defeated the Blaugrana at Camp Nou in 2016 – which remains the champions’ last home defeat in the La Liga till date and suffered a narrow 2-1 defeat last season after leading with 20 minutes remaining.

Team News & Tactics

Barcelona

The Catalans will be without the services of midfielder Denis Suarez, who picked up an injury on their pre-season tour of the US. All the four new signings – Malcom, Arthur, Arturo Vidal and Clement Lenglet will be in contention for selection for Barcelona’s season opener on Saturday night.

While Valverde preferred to set his team up in a 4-4-2 formation for most of the last season, the former Athletic Bilbao manager has looked to use the 4-3-3 setup in the past few games and is likely to stick with that against Alaves.

German international Marc-Andre ter Stegen is a guaranteed starter between the sticks for Barca this weekend. He will be protected by a back four comprising of Nelson Semedo on the right-side and Jordi Alba on the left-side. Both full-backs are potent threats going forward and will be key outlets for the Catalans.

Experienced campaigner Gerard Pique should start in the centre of the defence, alongside new signing Clement Lenglet, with compatriot Samuel Umtiti only returning from a successful World Cup campaign.

Sergio Busquets is all but guaranteed to anchor the midfield for the home side against Alaves this weekend. The consistent and reliable Ivan Rakitic should get the nod ahead of new signings Arthur and Vidal, while the third midfield slot will be taken up by Brazilian Philippe Coutinho, who will be looking to start his first full season with Barca on a high.

Club captain Lionel Messi will be Barcelona’s biggest threat as usual, starting out on the right-side of the attacking trident. He will link up with Uruguayan centre-forward Luis Suarez, while Frenchman Ousmane Dembele will look to provide the cutting edge from the left-flank on Saturday, meaning new signing Malcom misses out.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba; Rakitic, Busquets, Coutinho; Messi, Suarez, Dembele

Alaves

Abelardo will miss the services of last season’s top scorer Munir El Haddadi, who is back with Barcelona after the expiry of his loan spell. Key defender Rodrigo Ely is a notable absentee for Alaves, while they have been boosted by the return of winger Ibai Gomez. Ruben Duarte and Dani Torres are also likely to come back, after missing the last pre-season match.

El Glorioso are likely to set out in a traditional 4-4-2 setup and will look to take the game to the Catalans, in hope of repeating their heroics from two years ago. 26-year old Fernando Pacheco is a definite pick between the sticks and is likely to be in for a busy night, should Barcelona get into their elements.

He will be hoping for support from his central defenders Ximo Navarro, who arrived this summer and Victor Laguardia to keep the home team out. Martin Aguirregabiria should get the nod at right-back, while another new signing, 21-year old Adrian Marin, is in line to start on the left-side of the back four, ahead of Duarte.

Jony Rodriguez, who joined on loan from Malaga, is likely to start on the right-flank for Alaves and cause problems cutting inside on his stronger left-foot. With still some doubts over Gomez’s physical condition, Burgui could get the nod on the opposite wing for the visitors. Captain Manu Garcia will hold fort in the middle of the park, along with Mubarak Wakaso, with new signing Tomas Pina likely to miss out.

Former Manchester City striker John Guidetti, signed from Celta Vigo this summer, will lead the attack for Abelardo’s side, having scored in their previous game. He is likely to be partnered at the top by Ruben Sobrino, ahead of on-loan Swansea City striker Borja Baston.

Probable Starting XI (4-4-2): Pacheco; Aguirregabiria, Navarro, Laguardia, Marin; Jony, Garcia, Wakaso, Burgui; Sobrino, Guidetti;

Key Stats

  • Barcelona have won 28 of their last 31 home matches in the Spanish top-flight.
  • The Catalans have won 9 of their last 10 matches against Deportivo Alaves in all competitions, with the only defeat coming at Camp Nou in 2016.
  • Barcelona captain Lionel Messi has been directly involved in 38 goals across all competitions in the calendar year 2018.
  • Barcelona have scored at least 2 goals in 9 of their last 10 matches against Deportivo Alaves in all competitions.

Player to watch

Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona)

Time to shine (Photo courtesy - Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)

Time to shine (Photo courtesy – Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)

Having signed for a mammoth fee last summer, the French speedster failed to live up to the billing in his debut campaign with the Spanish champions. Injuries did not help his cause and the January arrival of Philippe Coutinho further dented his chances in the first-team.

Naturally, there were a lot of murmurs of a summer exit surrounding Dembele, more so following the arrival of Malcom – a player of similar profile, in the transfer window.

However, the French World Cup winner showed he meant business, netting the winner against Sevilla last weekend, firing Barca to the Spanish Super Cup triumph. Another solid showing on Saturday should set the tone for a strong season, as Dembele looks to prove a point and establish himself as a key man at Barcelona.

Prediction

Barcelona 3-1 Alaves

Alaves have caused Barcelona a lot of difficulties on their previous two visits to Camp Nou in the La Liga and despite a mixed pre-season, they are still capable of holding their own against the champions.

While Barcelona might take some time to settle into their rhythm, once they get going, they have too much quality for Alaves to be able to stop them. In Messi, Suarez, Dembele and Coutinho, they have some of the finest attack-minded players in the game and that is likely to reflect in the scoreline on Saturday night. As a result, we at The Hard Tackle predict a winning start for the reigning Spanish champions this weekend.