Despite a perfect start to the season that has seen Barcelona win all five of their matches without conceding a goal, coach Luis Enrique remains keen to see improvement in the backfield. It has been a fine start for the former Barcelona stalwart and B team coach after taking the reins at Camp Nou this summer. Yet, as he prepares his side for the match at Málaga, he will not need to look too far to see that a positive start doesn’t necessarily lead to trophies at the season’s end. A year ago, Enrique’s predecessor Gerardo Martino began with eight straight La Liga wins and went 14 games unbeaten before things unraveled in the second half of the campaign. Unsurprisingly then, there is little complacency from Enrique, particularly regarding his team’s thus far impressive defensive record.
“I still think we’ve got a lot to improve in defense” he said, according to Barcelona’s official website. “And we will improve. That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to concede goals or lose matches. But the team needs to perform much better at the back. We haven’t always gone about things the right way in these matches, but people notice it less because we haven’t dropped any points. It’s an ongoing improvement process, and a search for the context in which we are strongest.”
Enrique will change up his defense from the team that coasted past Levante 5-0 on Sunday, with Jérémy Mathieu and Dani Alves left out of the squad traveling to Málaga. Two of the goalscorers from the weekend will be involved, though, after Neymar and Ivan Rakitic shook off knocks picked up against a Levante side that played more than half the contest with 10 men. Rakitic’s first goal for the club came courtesy of a powerful long-range strike -- the sort of goal that Barcelona, with its focus on short passing interchanges, has rarely produced over the years.
“We’re trying to encourage the midfielders to dare to shoot more” Enrique explained. “I think we need to vary our attacking methods more. Any shot could lead to a goal, so we’ll keep working on that.”
Barcelona still has another month to wait for another attacking option to become available. Luis Suarez is continuing to serve his worldwide ban, but a few hours before Barcelona’s first team takes the field in Málaga, the Uruguayan will be in action in a friendly for Barcelona’s B team. Another summer signing, Thomas Vermaelen, is similarly still waiting for his debut due to injury.
The start to the season for Barcelona’s opponents on Wednesday has been far more mixed. After an impressive opening win over Athletic Bilbao, Málaga was cast aside 3-0 by Valencia, before draws against Levante and Espanyol. The point against Barcelona’s city rivals on Saturday was secured via a last-gasp free-kick from Duda, and the Portuguese midfielder believes that he and his side can pose problems for Barcelona at La Rosaleda.
“Against Barcelona it will be impossible [to dominate possession], but we will try to surprise them,” he said, reports Spanish sports daily AS. “We have pace and good passing. The boss wants us to play with the ball at our feet, and we will have chances to score. We are happy with the team we have, and the important thing is for the group to keep working as it has been.”
Prediction: Barcelona has started the season very solidly, although without yet hitting top gear. That could well continue against Málaga, which, despite having yet to concede a goal in their two home games under new coach Javi Gracia, will surely be unable to contain the likes of the in-form Neymar and Lionel Messi.
Malaga 0-2 Barcelona
Kickoff time: 4 p.m. EDT
TV channel: BeIN Sports
Live stream: BeIN Sports Connect