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La Liga is back in session. The summer is over. The slate has been wiped clean with a damp cloth and is ready to be written upon. And as reigning champions FC Barcelona open league play on Sunday evening at 6.30pm CET at the New San Mamés, it’ll be their first chance to chalk up some points, their first step towards the ultimate goal, which is to finish at the top of the class for the second straight year; to replicate, or even improve upon, the magna cum laude-esque achievements of last season, when they aced core subjects like The Geometry of Passing, Team Chemistry, and Goalscoring Statistics, while almost entirely rewriting one other — The History of Football.
Newly tenured head coach Luis Enrique is back and is once again leading a class of elite performers consisting of both new pupils and familiar faces, all of them ambitious and motivated and united by their desire to complete their daily work and to be fully prepared for the 38 league tests scheduled during the ten-month-long 2015/16 season.
The Catalans will be flying to the Basque capital on Sunday morning minus several notable names — Neymar (the mumps), Douglas (hamstring), and Adriano Correia (groin) have all spent time in the infirmary recently, while defenders Jérémy Mathieu (yellow card accumulation dating back to the end of last season) and Gerard Piqué (the first of a four-game suspension) will also miss match day number one.
Although Neymar has recovered he is still not one hundred percent, hence Luis Enrique's decision to keep the Brazilian out this weekend. “Neymar started training [Saturday] … given his illness, how he comes on will determine when he will be available,” explained the coach.
A healthy Jordi Alba returns to the fold and will be joined by Barça B players Juan Cámara and Gerard Gumbau.
Here’s the full squad for Sunday’s trip to Bilbao — Goalkeepers Marc-André Ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo; defenders Dani Alves, Marc Bartra, Javier Mascherano, Thomas Vermaelen and Alba; midfielders Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Andrés Iniesta, Rafinha, Sergi Roberto, Gumbau and Cámara; forwards Munir El-Haddadi, Sandro Ramírez, Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi.
Luis Enrique spoke to the media on Saturday morning and — although Sunday’s clash will be Barça’s third straight against Athletic following last week’s two games in the Spanish Super Cup — he explained why he believes this first match in La Liga is somewhat of a different beast.
“Despite the fact that we have played against them twice already, the context of the game will help us more than the previous two. We'll be fresher with more good training sessions under our belt while, on the other hand, Athletic are coming off a demanding and important game,” he said.
Athletic Club manager Ernesto Valverde offered his view, expressing a newfound confidence after his team’s 5–1 aggregate victory over Barça last week that handed them the Spanish Super Cup, their first title in 31 years: “We know we can beat them and we know the level of concentration required to do it. We’re going to go all out.”
FC Barcelona leave behind them a preseason that included respectable showings in four matches in the 2015 International Champions Cup, a win in the annual Joan Gamper Trophy, and a gaudy fourth title of the year in a wild UEFA Super Cup win over Sevilla. Nevertheless, last week’s disappointing defeat to this Sunday’s opponents have Barça hungry to get back their mojo and take a big first step to repeating as La Liga champions.
Athletic Club’s brief high after knocking off the Catalans in the Spanish Super Cup came crashing down when the Basques coughed up a 2–0 halftime lead before falling to hosts MSK Zilina of Slovakia by a score of 3–2 in Thursday's first leg of the UEFA Europa League’s preliminary playoff round. With the return leg scheduled for 27 August and Athletic heading into Sunday's opener on just two days' rest, Ernesto Valverde will be forced to pull off a juggling act in order to keep his squad fresh and give them their best shot at both games.
FC Barcelona has won eight, drawn five, and lost three in their last 16 league visits to Athletic Club dating back to the year 2000 … The last time the Basques hosted the Catalans in La Liga was on match day 28 of last season when Luis Enrique’s squad won 5–2 at the New San Mamés … Curiously, in those last 16 Athletic-Barça games since the turn of the millennium, only one hat trick was scored. And who might that have been? None other than Luis Enrique himself, who on 3 February 2001 found the net three times in a 7–0 blaugrana rout … Sunday will mark the sixth time Barça have opened league play at Bilbao. The previous five yielded three wins, one draw, and one loss for the Catalans.
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