Lionel Messi has returned to fitness as Barcelona begin their La Liga title defense with the visit of Levante on Sunday. The 26-year-old missed Argentina’s friendly with Italy on Wednesday with a thigh strain but has returned to full training with the Barcelona squad ahead of their first competitive match of the campaign.
It has been a summer of significant change at the Camp Nou. Tito Vilanova was forced to suddenly step down after just one season in charge as he continues to battle throat cancer and in his place has stepped Gerardo Martino. It is a big assignment for the former Paraguay and Newell’s Old Boys coach to lead a side with Barcelona’s expectations with no experience of managing in Europe. Still, Martino has achieved plenty of success in South America and is very much a disciple of the high-pressing style that Pep Guardiola employed with such incredible success during his four-year spell.
The Blaugrana enjoyed a mixed season last campaign as they dominated in the league, but came up short in resounding fashion to Bayern Munich in the semifinals of the Champions League. In an effort to once again be the team to beat in Europe, Barcelona completed their long pursuit of Brazilian star Neymar. However, despite their efforts, the club has yet to secure a central defender to plug what became a leaky defense at critical times last season. Yet, Martino has claimed that, with Carles Puyol due back in the coming weeks, he is comfortable with his squad as it is.
“I know what the Club’s position was,” he said, according to Barcelona’s website. “What I’m saying is that if ‘Puyi’ [Puyol] is OK, then with [Gerard] Pique, [Marc] Bartra, [Javier] Mascherano and Adriano or [Sergio] Busquets we’re fine. And if something happens, we have the winter transfer window in three months’ time.”
After missing out on Europa League qualification last season, Levante decided not to renew the contract of coach Juan Ignacio Martinez and have instead turned to former Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao and Mallorca boss Joaquin Caparros. Several players have joined Caparros at Levante, although with little money being spent. The most high-profile of the arrivals is Austria international Andreas Ivanschitz.
D: Dani Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba
M: Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta
F: Pedro, Messi, Neymar
D: Lopez, Vyntra, Navarro, Juanfran
M: Diop, Iborra
Rios, Zhar, Ivanschitz
Prediction: Levante are likely to come to the Camp Nou and try and keep things tight in their opening match of the season. But virtually at full strength, and with Neymar adding an extra dimension to their attack, Barcelona should score a comfortable win.
Barcelona 3-1 Levante
Where to watch: The Primera Division clash will kick-off at 1 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by beIN Sport, with a live stream available on beIN Sport Play.