Barcelona takes leap into the unknown after summer of change

After selling five key players, Barcelona begins its La Liga campaign at home to Villarreal on Sunday in unchartered territory.

Lionel Messi in action during Barcelona's pre-season friendly against Girona.   -  AP Photo

After selling five key players and employing a coach more than happy to take on the established order, Barcelona begins its La Liga campaign at home to Villarreal on Sunday in unchartered territory.

Seething from its 8-2 thrashing by Bayern Munich in the Champions League and a first trophyless campaign since 2007-08, Barca has made some big changes and will line up with a very different side to the one that ambled through last season.

Luis Suarez, its second top scorer last season and third all-time marksman, has been handed to title rivals Atletico Madrid, while Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal have also been moved on for next to nothing.

Read: Emotional Suarez proud to have thrived alongside Messi as he heads to Atletico  

Nelson Semedo and Arthur Melo have also made way despite being hailed as long-term solutions not long ago, while the only new arrival so far is midfielder Miralem Pjanic from Juventus, 30, whose best days seem to have passed.

New coach Ronald Koeman had warned of Barca's need to freshen up its squad long before he was appointed and has led the clear-out, calling Suarez and Vidal to tell them they were no longer wanted while urging academy graduate Riqui Puig to look for a loan move.

The Dutchman, one of Barca's greatest ever players, has never been afraid of rocking the boat and will look to exert his authority on a dressing room used to getting its own way.

Chief among Koeman's objectives is to get the team fitter and stronger, while he has also hinted at a different style of play to the plan centred on long periods of possession which Quique Setien unsuccessfully tried to restore last season.

The best news in a dreadful close season, though, was Lionel Messi's decision to end his standoff with the club after threatening to leave.

Also read: Zlatan Ibrahimovic tests positive for COVID-19  

“I couldn't imagine a Barca without Leo and I crossed my fingers hoping he would stay. Now I think he has the same enthusiasm and ambition as always,” said Barca player Sergi Roberto.

Messi appeared to be playing a deeper role in Barca's pre-season games, behind Antoine Griezmann, a relative flop last season, and Ousmane Dembele, who missed the majority of the last campaign injured.

There is also more excitement about 17-year-old forward Ansu Fati after a thrilling breakthrough campaign.

Elsewhere in La Liga, champions Real Madrid play Real Betis at home after an uninspiring goalless draw with Real Sociedad in its first game.

Atletico Madrid host in-form Granada in its first game but will be without coach Diego Simeone as he is still isolating after testing positive for COVID-19.

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