Barcelona's best XI picks itself: Ousmane Dembele wide and Philippe Coutinho deeper
A World Cup-disrupted preseason has not been ideal preparation for Barcelona's defence of La Liga, but coach Ernesto Valverde has everything he needs going into Saturday's opener against Alaves at Camp Nou.
The tour of the United States featured a mix of players on the fringes of the first team and youngsters from Barca B. The only players that took part in the International Champions Cup who look set to start the season as regulars in Valverde's side are goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen and right-back Sergi Roberto, who spent preseason playing as the deepest of three central midfielders.
So with 11 of his senior players only returning to training during the last fortnight, Valverde has been forced to use the Spanish Super Cup win over Sevilla and the Joan Gamper trophy fixture against Boca Juniors as an express preseason.
With those two games out of the way -- and with only Carles Alena and Denis Suarez injured at the moment -- Barca are now ready to open their campaign this weekend. Or, as Valverde put it on Wednesday: "It's time for the gunfire to start again."
Despite angling for a move, backup goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen's professionalism has seen him stop short of demanding a transfer. There will be no compassion shown by Valverde, though. The Barca coach wants the Dutchman to stay but he will not make any gestures to ensure that happens. Ter Stegen is his No. 1.
The defence almost picks itself, too. Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti will be paired in the middle of the back four, if not this weekend then definitely when it really matters, but Clement Lenglet has arrived from Sevilla for €35.9 million to put pressure on them.
Sergi Roberto holds the right-back spot but starts the season as the member of the defence under the most pressure. Nelson Semedo's fine form in recent friendlies, coupled with a ridiculous amount of pace which has earned him the nickname "motorbike," make the right full-back spot one of the most disputed positions in the side.
The same can't be said at left-back. Lucas Digne's transfer to Everton means Jordi Alba's only competition comes from B team players Juan Miranda and Marc Cucurella.
In the middle of the pitch, Barca are facing the unknown: a midfield without Andres Iniesta. One constant, though, will be Sergio Busquets, who will once again be the invariable in front of the defence. Alongside him, early signs are that he will be paired with Ivan Rakitic and Philippe Coutinho. The latter could also see himself used wide in a 4-4-2 or as a left forward in a 4-3-3 formation.
The options to rotate in midfield look good, too, regardless of if Barca swoop for Paul Pogba, Frenkie de Jong or Adrien Rabiot in the coming weeks. New signings Arthur Melo and Arturo Vidal will fight for a spot while Rafinha, Carles Alena, Denis Suarez and Sergi Roberto offer depth.
Valverde preferred a 4-4-2 formation last season but this summer's games have suggested he could shift more towards a 4-3-3 (or even a 4-2-3-1 at times). Though it's all just numbers really, given the tendency and flexibility of this team to change shape depending on the way a game is progressing and whether they have the ball or not.
Completing the side, obviously, are Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi, who has replaced Iniesta as captain and, despite being 31, remains under pressure to be Barcelona's go-to-man.
The final place in the team looks like it is Ousmane Dembele's to lose. His wonder goal won the Super Cup against Sevilla last weekend and Valverde will give the young winger the chance to leave last season's injury disappointment behind him. The Frenchman looks set to start wide on the left, be that as a third forward or a fourth midfielder.
Other attacking options include €41m summer signing Malcom and, for now at least, Paco Alcacer and Munir El Haddadi.
It certainly feels like Valverde has better options in this, his second season, than he did last year. Lenglet provides better cover for Pique and Umtiti, Iniesta's gone (and irreplaceable) but the balance and variety in midfield looks OK; Malcom adds pace and directness further forward; Coutinho and Dembele are expected to take huge strides forward after being given time to bed in last season.
However, while that depth is important, winning the Champions League -- which Messi revealed is the top target this season -- may require a consistent XI. Valverde pretty much knows what his is, although, given the nature of preseason, we may be forced to wait a few more weeks until he reveals his hand.