Madrid, Aug 17 (IANS) When their Sunday's Spanish La Liga match at home to Levante kicks off at 6 pm local time, fans and players of FC Barcelona will be relieved that a difficult pre-season has come to an end.

The summer started in the worst possible way with Tito Vilanova forced to step down as first team coach in order to continue his fight against cancer. Vilanova was rapidly replaced by Gerardo 'Tata' Martino, given the job of evolving but not radically changing the Barca game plan, but Martino didn't arrive until the pre-season was well under way, reports Xinhua.

He wasn't helped by a schedule which saw Barca collect more air miles than time on the training ground as they flew to Germany, Norway, Israel, Thailand and Malaysia in a dizzying schedule.

No sooner had they returned to Barcelona than Cristian Tello, Victor Valdes, Andes Iniesta, Pedro Rodriguez and Jordi Alba were on a plane to Ecuador with the Spain national side for Wednesday's friendly match, finally arriving in Barcelona again Thursday with what must be a dictionary definition of jet-lag.

Martino has had to cope with a lack of signings, with the club's search for a central defender starting to assume tragicomic proportions, but he will take comfort that there have been few changes to last season's title winning squad, meaning the side can almost be recited by heart with Javier Mascherano still covering for Carles Puyol and Neymar in for David Villa, who was sold to Atletico Madrid.

With respects to Lionel Messi, who is likely to play despite suffering a muscle problem in midweek, Neymar will be the star attraction after his signing from Santos and the Brazilian has given signs of his undoubted talent, although the club has designed a program to help 'beef him up' after losing weight with suspected anaemia this summer.

Alexis Sanchez is also in favour after an impressive summer has seen him play more than any of his companions and the goals scored by the Chilean winger have helped forget his confidence crisis from last season. His willingness to run himself into the ground for the cause fits in perfectly with Martino's policy of pressing high in the opposition half.

That will be one of the big problems for Levante, who will present a new-look side at Camp Nou under a new coach, Joaquin Caparros.

Murmurings of match-fixing allegations at the end of last season saw a clear-out of Levante's veteran defence with younger players drafted in along with the experienced Caparros, who has a talent for getting the best out of a limited squad.

He does favour a packed defence and direct style of play, however, and that is going to gift Barca the ball for long spells of pressure, so expect the familiar script of the irresistible force of Barca's attack.


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