Barcelona face tough Sevilla test
"The treble is the past, now I'm interested in the sextuple."
That was the mission statement Barcelona coach Luis Enrique sent out in his first managerial news conference this summer, the Asturian attempting to shift his squad's focus from past glories to future challenges as quickly as possible.
As fierce a competitor as any, he would like nothing more than to equal his old friend Pep Guardiola's feat of winning six trophies within a calendar year at the Camp Nou, having already matched the Catalan's record treble.
Doing so is no mere formality however. Barca's first hurdle en route to the sextuple is a big one. On Tuesday they will travel to Tbilisi, Georgia, to contest the UEFA Super Cup with Sevilla and while domestically the Blaugrana are undoubtedly the more powerful side of the two, in Europe the Andalucians do not conjure up happy memories for them.
The last time the two teams met in the UEFA Super Cup, the final score was embarrassingly one-sided and not in Barcelona's favour.
Sevilla dismantled their compatriots in Monaco back in 2006. Renato opened the scoring early on, Freddie Kanoute doubled the lead, then Enzo Maresca sealed the deal with a penalty, won after the late Antonio Puerta took no less a defender than Carles Puyol to the cleaners.
That result hurt Frank Rijkaard badly, who saw the euphoria of winning a league and Champions League double quickly tempered.
It was one of the first signs that all was not quite right in his Barcelona team despite their recent success, hinting at the implosion that would soon follow.
Possibly the best squad in the history of the club, that Super Cup-winning Sevilla side was one of immense quality driven on by a once-in-a-generation player in the form of Dani Alves (who will line up against them on Tuesday).
Yet even if Unai Emery's version slightly lacks the same concentration of individual talent, the back-to-back Europa League winners still have more than enough quality to cause Barcelona problems.
More crucially, they also have unpredictability on their side after the events of the summer.
Luis Enrique's staff are meticulous and he will be able to call upon an abundance of analysis from Barcelona's two meetings with Sevilla last season.
Yet much of that information may have been made redundant by the changes in the cast that now makes up Emery's side.
More than 10 players have left the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan since the 2014-15 Europa League final, including three members of the starting line-up, and almost as many new faces have since joined.
The Sevilla side that lines up on Tuesday night will be a significantly different one to the team that Barcelona familiarised themselves with, presenting new challenges.
Gone is main striker Carlos Bacca, scorer of 49 goals in two seasons, yet also scorer of none against Barcelona.
Starting in his place is a man who did manage to find the net against the treble winners, French forward Kevin Gameiro. Less physically imposing than Bacca but more efficient and with better link-up play, Gameiro has scored 38 times in two years in Spain, more often than not doing so from the bench.
Determined to make a statement in his first season as Sevilla's focal point in attack, a big performance from the former PSG man in the Super Cup could also be a way of grabbing Didier Deschamps' attention ahead of a home European Championship next season. Barca need to take care; motivation is not in short supply for the player.
Trusted with the No. 9 shirt after Bacca's departure, Gameiro can't approach a starting role in the same way he did playing as an impact sub who entered games when opponents were tired.
Emery is well aware of that and like any top coach, is looking for ways to better exploit his new main striker's strengths.
One such move is a shift to 4-4-2 in preseason, a system that the Basque coach has toyed with in previous years but could never quite get to function due to the lack of compatibility between Bacca and Gameiro.
The addition of Ciro Immobile on loan from Borussia Dortmund now makes a two-man forward line much more feasible.
Luis Enrique needs to prepare for the eventuality of Emery switching system from the 4-2-3-1 that Barcelona coped relatively well with last year to a midfield four.
Most obviously, that would mean a different challenge for both Gerard Pique and his defensive partner, who may find they are under more pressure when building from the back without the luxury of having a free man in defence.
The Catalan side's central defensive pairing need to be sharp and that hasn't always been the case in preseason.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Barcelona could be coping with wide man Yevhen Konoplyanka.
A hot property after helping to take Dnipro to the Europa League final, Sevilla sporting director Monchi worked his magic once again this summer, beating Atletico Madrid to the Ukrainian's signature despite the Colchoneros offering a better salary.
With quick feet, a wicked shot from distance and the placement to go with it, he will start on the left flank, cutting inside -- an ideal position from which to exploit his main strengths.
If Ivan Rakitic allows his concentration to slip and doesn't provide adequate help for Alves on Barca's right, Konoplyanka, who thrives on big games, can punish them for it.
Barcelona are evidently still favourites to come away from Georgia with the silverware, but it only takes one error to see a final slip away, not to mention a sextuple.
The Catalans know a thing or two about winning trophies but so too do Sevilla, who have the advantage of unpredictability on their side.
Well aware of the damage it could cause, Luis Enrique will need to work hard to avoid a repeat of Monaco in 2006.