Post-international break and Anoeta. Two concepts that in recent years have scared the life out of Barcelona. If players didn’t fall victim to the “FIFA virus” while playing for their country then they would return jet-lagged from trips to all four corners of the world.
Real Sociedad’s stadium, meanwhile, had not been a happy hunting ground for Barca in La Liga. Between 2011 and 2017, they didn’t win at Anoeta in the league, losing five games and drawing two. A trip to San Sebastian after an international break then? Don’t even go there.
Except things have changed on both fronts. Barca finally won at Anoeta last year, snapping a seven-game winless streak there in La Liga and ending what had become the most talked about curse in Spanish football.
As for the international break, you can’t contract the FIFA virus if you don’t play for your country — insert meme of guy tapping his finger on his head, having just thought of something.
Coach Ernesto Valverde has had the luxury of working with around half of his squad during the last two weeks. Those that remained in Barcelona even got four days off to spend with their families last weekend. Importantly, among those players that hung around, were Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba.
“The fact that we have some players that not had the wear and tear [of international football], like Pique, Messi and Alba, could be an advantage, yes,” Valverde said in a news conference on Friday at the club’s training ground. “They were able to rest and avoided a lot of hassle, in terms of travel, and covering a lot of kilometres… It’s better [for us], I am not going to lie.”
In addition, those that were on international duty returned fit and, in most cases, early. Luis Suarez was back on Tuesday, having played just once with Uruguay, for example. So to were France internationals Samuel Umtiti and Ousmane Dembele. Brazilian duo Philippe Coutinho and Arthur Melo were the only latecomers, returning to the city Thursday, and the latter won’t travel north this weekend as a result.
Other than that, Barca are in the privileged position of having a fresh squad to tackle the seven games they have in 23 days before the next international break. It’s a position which they have not been familiar with in recent years.
A fresh Messi is one of the big things Valverde will look to take advantage of as the season really kicks off over the next month, with the return of the Champions League and regular midweek games, but it will also be the first chance for the coach to demonstrate that this summer’s transfer business really has boosted Barcelona’s depth.
“It’s clear we’re going to need all the players, not just 11 for these upcoming games,” he added. “I have to have in mind that there only three games between first two games [against La Real and PSV] and we’re coming off the back of the international break. Some players played more, others less, some more recently, some have small problems… It’s something I have in mind because now we have games every three days and it’s possible there will be changes.”
Summer arrivals Arturo Vidal, Clement Lenglet, Arthur and Malcom could finally get a chance to make their mark (although the latter two will not feature this weekend) having failed to start a league game between them so far — Barca have won three out of three so far and lead Real Madrid on goal difference at the top of the table.
Games against PSV Eindhoven, Girona, Leganes, Athletic Bilbao, Tottenham and Valencia could see them handed their first opportunity. Vidal and Lenglet may even get their first chance at the newly renovated Anoeta this weekend (don’t worry, there are assurances that the newly laid pitch won’t cut up like Real Valladolid’s did), which still represents a daunting trip for Barca but one no longer cursed.
Barca have not been in such good shape following an international break for years.