FC Barcelona started La Liga after the treble with understandable doubts and cautions after the 4-0 defeat at San Mamés. Even with Jordi Alba’s last-minute recovery, Vermaelen beat Bartra for a spot in the starting XI and Mascherano played as centre back on the right side given Piqué’s suspension. There were too many passes between the centre-backs and Busquets, bringing difficulties to connect with the midfielders. Messi was again surrounded close to the right wing and Rafinha was on the left receiving balls with his back to the goal, instead of having the space needed as attacking midfielder. There was expectation but not the initiative.

Without dangerous scoring chances, a clash between Aduriz and Dani Alves caused the Brazilian to pull his groin and he was replaced by Sergi Roberto. Barcelona is now enduring more physical problems and injuries in two weeks of official matches than almost the entire last season. However, by chance or not, from this moment on Barça was able to keep the ball and make progress in the opposite field with some conviction. Up to that point, the blaugrana attacking approach was only the long passes to Luis Suárez. With surprising aplomb, Sergi Roberto stepped onto the area frequently, using along the match his midfielder abilities to dominate the space and to decide when to attack, minimizing speed shortcomings.

30 minutes into the game, a technical mistake by Elustondo offered Suárez the chance to control the ball in the area and receive the defender’s foul. The referee granted the penalty, but Iraizoz blocked Messi’s shot. A few minutes afterwards the Basque goalkeeper blocked once again the goal, this time following a combination between Suárez and Sergi Roberto. By then, Iniesta already ruled the match and Athletic were forced to defend harder every ball.

The second half began with Balenziaga’s injury and the feeling was that Messi would have more freedom for the rest of the game, with De Marcos moving as left back. Two close scoring chances preceded the opening goal. So far, Rakitic had been erratic and had contributed little to the game, but the Croatian connected beautifully with Jordi Alba, who crossed the ball at the first touch to the heart of the area, where an unmarked Luis Suárez smashed it to the back of the net. Alba’s play was essential to deny the defenders the time they needed to cover the zones and rewarded the striker’s everlasting hard work.

The strike reinvigorated Barça, who could score the second goal following another Sergi Roberto’s attack after a great play by Rafinha. The improvised fullback didn’t hesitate and his shot touched the crossbar whilst Messi and Suárez were open. Valverde tried to react looking for more muscle than talent, subbing in Gurpegi and Ibai. However, it’d be another substitution which would decide the last third of the match. An intimidating Aduriz tackled Busquets’ ankle and stripped away the culés dominance. Bartra came into the pitch, Mascherano was moved to the midfield and they faced the remaining minutes with the same defensive triangle that was recently beaten by four goals at the same stadium: Bartra, Vermaelen and Mascherano. Only Mathieu was missing.

Yet the Belgian had a reliable performance, winning the aerial duels and avoiding to complicate himself. There was though, a certain lack of cohesion from his part with the rest of his defensive teammates, showing some doubts while executing the offside trap, thus playing some meters closer to his own keeper, a different situation when Piqué is on the pitch.

The last minutes also showed some sparks by Messi. The Argentinian headed to the locker room at halftime with evident annoyance after missing a penalty, but he returned with a play worthy of his brand, dribbling three rivals and finishing with a mellow shot directly to Iraizoz. In a couple of weeks that same play will probably end up in goal, but Messi is showing the lack of fitness proper of a pre-season. On the other hand, Luis Enrique decided another striker such as Sandro was more appropriate to hurt Athletic instead of a midfielder to control the match. Claudio Bravo didn’t face any danger, yet the team finished the contest on its own half, an uncommon situation.

The win gives Barcelona the longed peace after the Super Cup, but this match confirms that a difficult first half of the season is awaiting for the champions. The away matches at Vicente Calderón, Sánchez Pizjuán, Mestalla and Bernabéu will come, and among them the first matches of the Champions League. Pedro is off to Chelsea and any added injuries in the starting eleven will demand more physical efforts and different tactical approaches. Barça is also playing against itself and its recent success.

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Article translated from Spanish to English, originally published at the Perarnau Magazine by Daniel Cana. Martí Perarnau is one of Grup 14's partners.

WRITTEN BY: Perarnau Magazine

The Perarnau Magazine was founded by Martí Perarnau, former high jump athlete, currently working as a journalist and known author of "Pep Confidential". The magazine is one of Grup 14 partners, publishing their content in English and Spanish.