Having begun with a 7-0 thrashing of Levante, the Tata Martino era at Barcelona quickly hit a lower key with a hard fought Supercopa draw at Atletico Madrid and a narrow victory at Malaga last weekend.
With a wealth of talent at his disposal, it is arguable that Martino has yet to decide on his first choice starting line-up, shuffling his pack to find the right combination. The Coach has rotated players in most positions except, ironically, in central defence, where Barca are perceived to be weakest.
Aside Victor Valdes – and this season could be his last – Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano have notably started all three matches so far. Martino appears to have discarded the inexperienced Marc Bartra and, despite much speculation around the signing of a central defender, is pinning his hopes on the return of Carles Puyol in mid-September.
Martino has seen Dani Alves and Jordi Alba, his two strongest full-backs, on the right and left respectively, but has also toyed with Adriano in both positions. Alex Song and Sergio Busquets have filled the ‘pivot’ role in midfield – and both could be stop-gap central defenders – while Cesc Fabregas has impressed both in attack and from deep midfield positions.
New signing Neymar has yet to make a start, but scored a crucial goal at the Vicente Calderon, and Barcelona’s fans are impatient not just to see the Brazilian play at Camp Nou, but to do so as part of a dream partnership with Lionel Messi. Interestingly, in the absence of the injured Argentine, Martino replicated the tactical system employed by Vicente del Bosque for Spain, running a front three of Pedro Rodriguez, Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez, and Fabregas in the False 9 role.
Centre-backs Pique and Mascherano are expected to play in tandem once again in tonight’s encounter with Atletico at Camp Nou, and again this Sunday at Valencia. Martino had all his first team players available for training, bar Adriano, as Barca prepared for the Supercopa clash.
Martino will have been concerned about his team’s inability to deal with Atletico’s physical approach at times in the first leg, though he denied that it was that physicality that gave Los Colchoneros a degree of dominance last Wednesday. Barca will be expected to take the game to their opponents at Camp Nou, while Atleti Coach Diego Simeone could frustrate Martino by trying to park the bus.
Having ruled out signing a defender, Barca are reported to be looking to bring in a forward at a ‘bargain’ price before the transfer window closes next Monday. Chelsea pair Fernando Torres and Juan Mata could both be in the frame. Neither appear to be at the front of Jose Mourinho’s mind at Stamford Bridge and both could be in Barca’s price range. At the same time, Martino has denied any interest in signing Iker Casillas if the out of favour goalkeeper should leave Real Madrid.
Whatever line-up he selects, Martino will have chosen the right one if Barca land their first silverware of the season tomorrow night. Whether it is the right one for the long season ahead is another question entirely.