Barcelona will usher in a new era without Lionel Messi when they take on Real Sociedad in their first game of the 2021/22 La Liga this weekend.
It has been a rocky summer for Barcelona, to say the least. In perhaps the most shocking transfer in recent history, Lionel Messi ended up leaving the Catalans after they were unable to renew his contract, signing for Paris Saint-Germain on a two-year deal. If that was not enough, Barcelona were then struggling to register their new signings in time for the season opener due to the bloated wage bill.
However, with senior player Gerard Pique stepping up to take a ‘massive’ pay cut, Barcelona were able to register Memphis Depay, Eric Garcia and Rey Manaj just in time for them to be available when Ronald Koeman & co. set to face off against Real Sociedad on Sunday night at Camp Nou.
Given the turmoil off the pitch and the dread of Messi’s shock departure, the pressure will be on the players to bring some optimism and joy back among the fans during the gloomy period. And their performances in the pre-season, barring the defeat against RB Leipzig, have been largely positive, with the Blaugrana beating Juventus 3-0 last time they took the field in the Joan Gamper trophy.
A winning start will be of utmost necessity if Barcelona are to mount a strong title challenge after coming in third last time out. However, things may not be straightforward against Imanol Alguacil’s Real Sociedad, who have had a decent pre-season as well, winning three of their five games, although they did lose their latest friendly clash 3-1 to CA Osasuna.
Nonetheless, La Real are a team that cannot be taken lightly. Having finished fifth in the season gone by, they will be eyeing to improve on their position. And considering Barcelona’s situation, the visitors will know that their esteemed hosts are there for the taking and will be baying for blood when they step out at Camp Nou on Sunday.
Ahead of this much-anticipated match-up, The Hard Tackle now takes a closer look at both teams.
Team News & Tactics
More than a player. pic.twitter.com/U3TnvMamla
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) August 14, 2021
There have been a couple of boosts for Barcelona on the team news front as Frenkie de Jong has returned to training and will be available for selection, along with the trio of Oscar Mingueza, Eric Garcia and Pedri, all of whom returned recently from their involvement in the Olympic games.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen, however, remains sidelined, as do Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembele and Sergio Aguero. Clement Lenglet is another injury doubt after he picked up a knock in pre-season. Ronald Koeman ended the last season with a 3-5-2 formation but is set to return to Barcelona’s favoured 4-3-3 formation this season.
In the absence of ter Stegen, the onus of guarding the goal will be on second-choice custodian Neto, even though he continues to be linked with an exit from Camp Nou. Gerard Pique ought to man the heart of the defence alongside Ronald Araujo, although Samuel Umtiti is also an option available at the manager’s disposal.
Sergino Dest should edge out Emerson Royal for the right-back slot, with Jordi Alba being the unchallenged starter on the left. Both full-backs will have major roles to play with regard to providing width during the attacking phases for Barcelona. Sergio Busquets will captain the side and anchor the midfield for the hosts.
Despite the return of Pedri and de Jong, Koeman might not risk both together for Sunday’s game. The latter could start, though, along with Sergi Roberto, another player who agreed to the pay cuts along with Pique, Alba and Busquets.
Finally, in attack, the enterprising Yusuf Demir is set for his competitive bow for Barcelona, having impressed during pre-season after being signed for their B team. The onus, however, will be on Antoine Griezmann, who will be the biggest name in the Catalans’ attack now that Messi is no more at the club. He, along with Memphis Depay, who ought to start on the left, will be key for Koeman & co.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Neto; Dest, Pique, Araujo, Alba; de Jong, Busquets, Roberto; Demir, Griezmann, Depay
Ahead of the trip to Catalonia, Real Sociedad manager Imanol Alguacil has several injury issues to contend with. The Basque outfit are set to be without the services of Carlos Fernandez, Nacho Monreal and Igor Zubeldia for the game while new signings Diego Rico and Mat Ryan are also unavailable. The big blow, however, comes with the absence of star striker Alexander Isak, who is also ruled out with injury.
Olympic silver medal winners with Spain, Mikel Oyarzabal and Mikel Merino have been named in the travelling squad by Alguacil and may feature in some capacity at Camp Nou. The visitors should set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation against Barcelona on Sunday night with Alex Remiro guarding the goal.
Andoni Gorosabel and Aihen Munoz should occupy the full-back roles on the right and left sides, respectively, from where they will look to make forward forays time and again. The responsibility of keeping the likes of Depay and Griezmann quiet will fall on the shoulders of Aritz Elustondo and Robin Le Normand.
Asier Illarramendi will have the task of shielding his backline from the driving runs of the Barcelona midfielders, Frenkie de Jong in particular. The former Real Madrid star will have support from Ander Guevara, with David Silva taking over the creative responsibilities from the No. 10 role.
With Oyarzabal unlikely to be rushed back, Portu could find himself starting on the left wing. He has the capabilities to pose a major threat to Sergino Dest, while Adnan Januzaj slots in on the right and looks to exploit any space left behind by Jordi Alba. In the absence of Isak, Jon Bautista is likely to lead the line.
Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Remiro; Gorosabel, Elustondo, Normand, Munoz; Guevara, Illarramendi; Januzaj, Silva, Portu; Bautista
- Barcelona are unbeaten in their last ten La Liga meetings against Real Sociedad (W8 D2) since an away defeat back in April 2016.
- Real Sociedad have lost 64 league games away from home against Barcelona. The last time they avoided an away defeat to the Catalans was in 1995.
- Barcelona have lost just three of their last 28 La Liga matches.
- Real Sociedad are unbeaten in their last four outings in La Liga (W2 D2), with all the games coming away from home.
- Since a defeat to Alaves in September 2016, Barcelona have not lost any of their last 19 La Liga home games against a team from the Basque country (W17 D2).
Player to Watch
In what has been a pre-season marred with problems, Memphis Depay has stood out as a silver lining for Barcelona. Having signed on a free transfer after his contract with Olympique Lyon ran down, the Netherlands international has looked right at home in his new team, impressing with some eye-catching displays in the pre-season.
With Lionel Messi no longer at the club, Sergio Aguero injured, and Antoine Griezmann having blown hot and cold during his two-year run at Barcelona, Depay will have to take over the responsibility of being the main man in Barcelona’s attack this season. With the issues concerning his registration sorted, the ex-Manchester United man will be hoping to endear himself to the Cules with a match-winning display on his Camp Nou debut.
Barcelona 2-1 Real Sociedad
Barcelona, despite all the turmoil, remain a team with quality players across the field. Frenkie de Jong’s return from injury and Memphis Depay’s registration and availability will be a huge boost for Ronald Koeman ahead of the opener.
As for Real Sociedad, while they proved themselves to be a tough team to beat last term, with both Mikel Merino and Mikel Oyarzabal having not had enough rest after the Olympics could impact their chances. Not to forget that La Real have a terrible record away at Camp Nou. While it could a be closely-fought encounter on Sunday, Barcelona should have just about enough to get over the line and make a winning start to the season.