BARCELONA, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde called on his players to look beyond the gloomy atmosphere around the team as they begin their Liga season against Real Betis at home on Sunday.
Barca’s preparations for the campaign have been thrown into chaos by the departure of Brazilian forward Neymar to Paris St Germain for a world record fee. They have also been left without Luis Suarez for a month after the Uruguayan hurt his knee in Wednesday’s 2-0 Spanish Super Cup defeat by Real Madrid.
The loss at the Santiago Bernabeu sealed a 5-1 aggregate win for Real, prompting defender Gerard Pique to remark that he felt inferior to Madrid for the first time in a decade.
New signings Paulinho, Gerard Deulofeu and Nelson Semedo have been met with a lack of enthusiasm from supporters, while efforts to prise Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho away from Liverpool have so far been unsuccessful, leading to concerns that Barca are lagging behind champions Real heading into the new season.
“With respect to Suarez’s injury, these things can happen, while losing to your biggest rival is always a problem and a disappointment,” Valverde said in a news conference on Saturday.
“The departure of Neymar was sudden, unexpected and has changed the script for us. We all need to work in the same direction, but in a different way. These are obstacles that we need to overcome and above all not look back.”
The coach said Pique could play against Betis after recovering from a thigh strain, while Andres Iniesta was still unavailable through injury.
He also said Brazil international Paulinho, who was unveiled on Thursday after completing a 40 million euro ($47 million) move from Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande, needed more time to adapt before playing for his new side.
Sunday’s game at the Nou Camp has taken on extra significance after Thursday’s deadly attacks in Barcelona and the coastal town of Cambrils, which killed at least 14 people and left more than 100 injured.
“It’s an extraordinary and awful situation and we show our absolute solidarity with the victims of the two attacks,” Valverde said.
“Yesterday was a difficult day. These things put all the small problems we face in our lives everyday into perspective.”
A minute’s silence will be held before the game, as in every fixture in Spain’s top two divisions this weekend, while Barca’s players will wear “Barcelona” on the back of their shirts instead of their names as a tribute to the victims.
$1 = 0.8503 euros Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge