[dropcap]L[/dropcap]a Liga returned at the weekend, with European and domestic champions Barcelona the team to beat once more this season.
The Catalan giants have been less than convincing in pre-season, with a friendly defeat to a modest Fiorentina side followed by a resounding 5-1 aggregate thumping at the hands of Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup.
It is not often that the Blaugrana are subjected to a 4-0 loss, but San Mamés was the venue of an inspired hammering in the first leg of the pre-season clash.
Returning to the hostile Basque arena for the La Liga opener heralded a better result for the visitors, with Luis Suárez’s well-taken volley securing a 1-0 win for the defending champions.
Despite Barca and their talisman Lionel Messi far from being at their mercurial best against Bilbao, one young man stood out.
Following Dani Alves picking up a groin injury in the first-half, Luis Enrique opted to replaced the Brazilian veteran with youth graduate Sergi Roberto, who, despite playing out of his natural position, put in a commanding performance.
It is a testament to the Catalan club’s thinking that the 23-year-old was selected as Alves’ replacement over fellow substitute Marc Bartra.
Most clubs, away from home against an opponent that had beaten them 4-0 in the same context only a week earlier, would have opted for a central defender such as Bartra to replace the ailing Alves.
Barcelona are not like most clubs, as has been proven over time, with their coach opting to put the Reus-born midfielder into the somewhat alien role instead.
Filling Alves’ shoes, both in the long-term and over the next month that he is sidelined with injury, is a massive job, with the former Sevilla full-back showing that he is a quintessential member of the Blaugrana starting line-up for a number of reasons over time.
However, the South American’s injury could well be a blessing in disguise for the Camp Nou side, with Roberto announcing himself in stunning fashion as a potential contender for a change of position.
The midfielder took to the role with aplomb, looking assured positionally and winning the ball back on countless occasions as the hosts attacked down his flank, probing for a weakness that was not there.
It was his play on the front foot however that had the critics raving, as Roberto repeatedly marauded forward and had the beating of his opposite numbers.
His distribution and delivery was excellent, as you would expect from a La Masia graduate, while his combination play with Messi was the main danger for the Catalan visitors after they had taken the lead.
Roberto has been officially a member of the Barcelona first-team squad for the last five years, but he has returned on frequent occasion to represent the B team and had to make do with fleeting appearances for the senior side.
Following the departure of long-serving midfield custodian Xavi, who opted to spurn the chance to be a one-club man, a door was opened to the likes of the promising Roberto to stake a starting XI claim.
However, the signing of Ivan Rakitić last summer, followed by Arda Turan this off-season, and the evergreen presence of captain Andrés Iniesta, suggests no change in midfield fortunes for Roberto.
The full-back role at Camp Nou is very different to the equivalent position at other clubs, with Alves and Jordi Alba stationing themselves in the midfield line even when Barcelona are away from home.
The defenders are encouraged to bomb forward and over recent years the respective full-backs have been critical members of the vastly successful team in the final third.
The signing of progressive winger Aleix Vidal this summer gives an insight into the Blaugrana thinking, with the offensive wideman eyed up as a potential alternative to Alves in defence rather than being an option further forward.
However, with the Brazilian now on the treatment table and Vidal still unavailable due to the club’s transfer ban, Roberto has a stunning and unexpected opportunity to stake a better regular first-team claim than he has had over the last five years in his natural midfield position.
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