Barcelona overcame a stuttering display to edge out Sporting 1-0 in the Portuguese capital.
Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez both wasted excellent chances in the opening 45 minutes, but Ernesto Valverde’s side were fortunate to score a 49th-minute winner through Sebastian Coates’ own goal.
Here are three things we learned…
We didn’t know it at the time, but Barcelona’s season got off to an appropriate start when Real Betis defender Alin Tosca deflected Gerard Deulofeu’s cross into his own net in the opening half of the campaign.
‘Own Goals’ are now Barca’s second highest scorer this season, with Girona duo Gorka Iraizoz and Aday Benitez also getting on the scoresheet for the Blaugrana, whose latest victory came courtesy of yet another own goal – this time from Sporting defender Sebastian Coates.
In fairness, there appeared to be little Coates could have done to get out of the way after a flick from compatriot Luis Suarez bounced off him and over the line from close range, but that freakish rebound did a decent job of summing up the run of luck Barca are enjoying in front goal at the moment.
That kind of fortune surely won’t hold for too much longer, but Barca can enjoy it while it lasts.
This was a game of few chances and one of the major reasons for Sporting’s inability to fashion clear openings was the superb performance of Barca central defender Samuel Umtiti, who was an absolute rock for the visitors.
Up against Umtiti, the home team’s starting centre forward Seydou Doumbia had no sniff of goal, and when he went off injured it was the same story for replacement Bas Dost, who came second to Lionel Messi in last season’s European Golden Boot award but couldn’t muster a single effort on target on this occasion.
The dominance of Umtiti was nothing new, with the French international greatly impressing since arriving from Lyon in the summer of 2016 and looking capable of marshalling Barca’s back line for several years to come. And, at last, fans can enjoy the sight of something they had been awaiting for many years: a natural heir to Carles Puyol in the heart of defence.
Since taking over at Camp Nou in the summer, Barca coach Ernesto Valverde has made several tactical experiments in search of a formula that fits.
At his former club, Athletic Bilbao, Valverde was wedded more or less every week to a 4-2-3-1 formation but he has already shown a lot more willingness to experiment with different shapes for his new team.
In Lisbon, Valverde employed a pretty defensive-minded 4-4-1-1 formation, with Luis Suarez leading the line on his own while Lionel Messi enjoyed the freedom to roam wherever he saw fit. That meant a general lack of attacking flair, with Barca managing just five shots on target all night – and one of those came in the dying stages from substitute Paulinho after an error by Coates.
Other than that chance, Messi and Suarez (two apiece) were the only visiting players to get shots on goal, as Barca looked more concerned with limiting Sporting’s chances at the other end. They did so very successfully, with Marc-Andre ter Stegen only making one real save, and the manner of the victory suggests Valverde will take a pragmatic rather than dynamic approach to big games this season.
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