Messi is sublime but Valverde opts for caution in Barcelona win over Alaves

Andy West 19/08/2018
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Barcelona got their La Liga title defence under way with a 3-0 victory over Alaves on Saturday night, but it wasn’t as easy as the scoreline suggested with the visitors offering stern resistance to spark fears of a stalemate among home fans.

The deadlock was finally broken, inevitably, by Lionel Messi, who also scored with the last touch of the game after a second goal from Philippe Coutinho.

But there is plenty of food for thought for Barca boss Ernesto Valverde, starting with his initial team selection – which kicks off our key talking points from the game.

VALVERDE PLAYS IT SAFE 

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Sometimes it appears that Valverde just can’t help himself.

The experienced coach arrived at Barcelona last summer from Athletic Bilbao with a reputation as a well-organised and astute but rather cautious and pragmatic tactician, and that reputation stayed intact during his first season at the Camp Nou which resulted in a league triumph based on defensive solidity and the attacking spark of Messi.

This summer Valverde’s attacking ranks have been bolstered with the addition of exciting winger Malcom and the return of creative midfielder Rafinha, creating pre-season speculation that the coach was ready to direct a more attacking, open approach.

But just when we started to think Valverde might have been ready to flirt with a touch of tactical recklessness, his first teamsheet of the league season dampened those expectations: no Malcom, no Rafinha, and not even Philippe Coutinho.

Instead, there was a solid but decidedly one-paced midfield trio of Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets and Sergi Roberto, with the consequence that his team’s first half performance had plenty of control, but not enough spark.

He rectified things with the half-time introduction of Coutinho, and hopefully the additional attacking edge shown by his team as a result – including a well-taken goal by the Brazilian – will convince him to make such decisions 45 minutes earlier in the future.

SUAREZ STILL STRUGGLING

Another excessively cautious element of Valverde’s game management in this opener was the fact that he didn’t name either of his back-up strikers, Paco Alcacer or Munir El-Haddadi, in the matchday squad.

That left just one centre forward, Luis Suarez, who is looking well below his best at the start of the season and produced several heavy touches and loose passes.

The Uruguay striker’s struggles were made plain with just over 15 minutes remaining, when a defensive mistake gave him a direct route clean through on goal. It was the kind of chance that an in-form Suarez would have ruthlessly gobbled up without any trouble, but on this occasion he could only prod a tentative left-footed strike which visiting goalkeeper Fernando Pacheco saved with ease.

Suarez remains a world-class striker and he will soon come good, that is surely not in doubt. In the meantime, though, having him as the only striker in the squad – never mind the team – is a strange decision from Valverde, especially when he preferred to have five midfielders on the bench instead.

If Munir or Alcacer don’t play now they probably never will, and surely Barca can’t get through the whole season with only one striker, especially one who is 31 years old?

MESSI DOES IT AGAIN

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With Valverde playing it overly safe, Suarez struggling and Ousmane Dembele continuing to be promising but erratic, Barca needed something else to overcome Alaves on Saturday night. And that something, very predictably, was Lionel Messi, who provided the key contribution by scoring a brilliant free-kick to break the resistance of the visitors.

By the time Messi cleverly rifled a low second-half free-kick under the leaping defensive wall, he had already hit the bar with another set-piece in the opening period, and created the game’s best chance from open play which Dembele could only fire too close to Pacheco.

He then went on to hit the post with a curled shot before finishing the game in an appropriate manner by casually stroking home his second goal with the last kick of the game.

And that contribution, once again, was more than enough to help Barca escape with a victory which could easily have only been a draw without his inspiration. With so much uncertainty around him – Suarez’s form, Coutinho’s status, Dembele’s unreliability – at least Messi provides one stable element which can always be relied upon.

Without any doubt, he made the difference again on this occasion and Messi’s presence is the only reason his team can be considered favourites for the title.

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Barcelona player ratings: Lionel Messi is a maestro but Ousmane Dembele is erratic

Andy West 19/08/2018
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Barcelona are back and so is Lionel Messi.

The Argentine scored the Blaugrana’s 6,000th goal La Liga as the defending champions secured a 3-0 win over Alaves at the Camp Nou on Saturday.

Messi swept in a delightful free-kick midway through the second half before substitute Philippe Coutinho curled home a superb superb second before the Barca captain doubled his tally late one.

Here, we rate both sides as Ernesto Valverde’s side kicked off their defence with a comfortable victory.

BARCELONA 4-4-2

Ter Stegen 6. No serious saves to make, but he dealt with a couple of crosses well. One loose pass out from the back.

Semedo 6. Strong in defence and adventurous coming forward. Pretty unlucky to be substituted at half-time when Valverde became more aggressive.

Umtiti 7. Dominated opposing striker Sobrino in the air and was more than a match for anything Alaves could throw in his direction.

Pique 7. Made a good intervention to deny Sobrino a shot from Gomez’s cross and, like Umtiti, he looked untroubled all night.

Alba 7. Doesn’t yet enjoy a telepathic connection with Dembele but still made some dangerous incursions into the box, especially after the break.

Busquets 6. Played a little more advanced than usual, appears to be have been given more responsibility for creating by Valverde.

Roberto 6. A couple of heavy early touches and this wasn’t his night. Attempted to offer penetration inside the box and improved after moving to right-back.

Rakitic 6. Unusually stationed on the left of the midfield trio. Played a good early ball over the top for Messi but otherwise restrained.

Dembele 6. Always looked dangerous but erratic end product. Poor finish with a big first half chance and was replaced in the second half.

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Messi 9. Dragged an early right-footed shot wide, hit the bar with a brilliant free-kick, released several killer passes and scored twice. Maestro.

Suarez 6. Still struggling to find his rhythm, producing some heavy touches, but never stopped trying and assisted Messi’s second goal with great pass.

SUBSTITUTES

Coutinho 8. Came on at half-time and instantly added an attacking spark, looking to create on the edge of the box and netting a great goal.

Arthur 6. Appeared for the last 15 minutes to shore up the midfield, and did a tidy enough job on his league debut.

Vidal 6. Received a big ovation when he appeared late on and immediately showed his greatest quality by winning a tackle to spark an attack.

ALAVES 4-5-1

Pacheco 8. Decent save from Dembele in the first half and more good stops from Alba, Suarez, Coutinho and Messi in the second half.

Martin 6. Vulnerable against Dembele but stuck at it. Made a key block to deny Messi clean route through. Didn’t even try to attack.

Laguardia 7. Directed the back four with authority and showed excellent anticipation, also strong and swift in the challenge before tiring late on.

Maripan 7. Made a good clearance from Alba cross and did really well to deny Suarez in the second half. Solid performance all round.

Duarte 6. Played physically on Messi, watching his man well to close down space. Poor use of ball and didn’t get forward at all.

Wakaso 6. Worked hard in midfield and did a sensible containing job, but his use of the ball was frequently very poor.

Torres 6. Snapped into challenges, with too much aggression when he was booked for fouling Busquets. Taken off when Barca went ahead.

Garcia 6. Disciplined display from the visiting skipper on the left of the central midfield trio. Closed down Rakitic and Roberto well.

Gomez 6. An occasional threat down the right, looking Alaves’s most dangerous attacker. Didn’t always track Alba’s runs as well as he should.

Jony 5. Tried to lead Alaves’s attacks down the left but had little joy against Semedo. Substituted midway through the second half.

Sobrino 5. Sent a difficult header wide in the first half but made little impression. Came off with an apparent hamstring injury.

SUBSTITUTES 

Baston 5. Became a second man in attack as Alaves pushed for a leveller but had little impact as he received little service.

Marin 5. Played the final stages down the left wing but couldn’t get the better of Roberto and offered little threat.

Burgui 5. Former Real Madrid and Espanyol forward welcomed by jeers from home fans, and that was the last we saw of him.

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Live Barcelona Blog: Will Barca defend their La Liga title?

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Good morning, Barcelona fans. Alan Cooper here, along with the rest of the Sport360 team, bringing you the latest news from the Camp Nou.

As ever, get in touch with us throughout the day on Twitter and Facebook.

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Ernesto Valverde

Ernesto Valverde

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Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde says he will not make the Champions League their priority over retaining the La Liga title this season.

The Catalan giants have won the league in seven out of the last 10 season but have struggled in Europe, advancing to only one final since 2011.

Read more here.

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