By 90Min
August 16, 2019

For the first time in almost a decade, Barcelona will be forced to play the opening game of the season without the talismanic Lionel Messi. 

The La Liga champions kick off their title defence with a trip to Athletic Bilbao on Friday, and go into the opener in sizzling form, having won four out of their five pre-season matches - a defeat to Chelsea in July the sole blemish on the record. 

They have been a Messi-less entity throughout their preparations, however, having lost their captain to a calf injury in the opening stages of pre-season, and will continue in his absence with a trip to the Basque region after Ernesto Valverde confirmed he wouldn't be risked. 

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“We never like to risk any players and much less someone like Leo," he said. “He still hasn’t returned to training with the team and while we are happy with his progress, individual training is very different to playing a match. We are going to wait and see.”

It means we will be seeing the first Barcelona opener since 2009 that doesn't feature the Argentine from the start, with a victory over Sporting Gijon in the 2009/10 season opener the last time he was sidelined at this stage.

It may prove to be a good omen for Barca, however, as goals from Bojan, Seydou Keita and Zlatan Ibrahimovic secured a 3-0 win back then, and the first of 31 victories that would secure an historic 99-point season - although Real Madrid pushed them all the way, finishing on 96. 

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Since then, Messi has scored 14 goals in the nine opening La Liga games in which he has featured, but in his stead they have a reasonable stand-in in the form of summer signing Antoine Griezmann. 

The Frenchman will likely join Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele in a deputy front three, as each of the forwards vie to keep their place in the side upon Messi's eventual return. 

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