Lionel Messi marked his 400th appearance in La Liga with the opening goal as Barcelona eased to a 3-0 win over Levante at the Camp Nou on Sunday.
Messi’s 365th goal in Spain’s top flight came inside 12 minutes, with Luis Suarez adding the second before the interval and Paulinho completing the victory late on as Barcelona stretched their lead at the top of the table back to nine points over Atletico Madrid.
But it was Messi who broke the deadlock from a Jordi Alba assist, a combination that has proved fruitful on so many occasions this season.
The second goal arrived seven minutes before the interval, as Suarez controlled Sergi Roberto’s fine ball into the box before firing home.
It was the Uruguayan’s 400th professional goal, his 131st for Barca putting him seventh on the club’s all-time list of leading scorers.
Here’s a look at what we learned from the encounter.
Mixed bag from Dembele
This was a real mixed performance from the former Borussia Dortmund. There were flashes of skill and moments of promise, especially after 25 minutes when he cut inside from the right wing and concluded a speedy burst with a powerful drive to force a good save. But Dembele also did a lot of things badly, including a clumsy early pass which allowed Levante to mount a dangerous counter-attack.
Perhaps more importantly, his inclusion served to significantly unbalance the team shape, with his position on the right touchline not really mirrored by anyone on the left-hand side, giving Barca an asymmetrical look.
In fact, it was difficult to see the formation they were supposed to be playing. Perhaps a 4-2-3-1, with Dembele and Andres Iniesta on the wings? Or perhaps a standard 4-4-2 without the ball, switching to a 3-5-2 in possession, with Dembele and Jordi Alba as wingbacks? And then occasionally they’d switch Dembele to the left wing in a conventional 4-3-3.
Whatever they were trying to do, it didn’t look convincing and would surely have been punished by better teams than Levante. Dembele has potential, no doubt, but there’s still an awful lot of work to do before he becomes an effective member of this Barca team.
Coutinho’s challenge…and opportunity
With new record signing Philippe Coutinho reportedly watching from a nearby hotel ahead of his imminent unveiling, the man he is intended to eventually replace took the chance to show exactly how big a challenge the Brazilian faces.
Andres Iniesta produced some beautiful silky touches in the first half, rolling back the years to conjure up some delightful combination play with Lionel Messi and Jordi Alba, showing Coutinho precisely what he will be expected to do with the ball but also working hard without it to maintain the team’s shape – another key requirement facing the new arrival.
However, later on it also became apparent why Coutinho has been so badly needed. Iniesta faded from the game after the break and was then replaced by Andre Gomes, keeping up his record of failing to complete a full 90 minutes so far this season. Iniesta is still a wonderful player but he is running out of steam, and before too long Coutinho will have a chance to make that position his own.
Rakitic excels in the Busquets role
One of Barca’s most important mainstays throughout the last decade has been the soothing presence of Sergio Busquets in the centre of midfield, snuffing out opposition attacks with his calm reading of the game and ticking over possession with a fabulous range of passing.
Busquets was suspended for this game, but he wasn’t missed at all thanks to an excellent performance from Ivan Rakitic, who delivered a more than passable Busquets impression as he occupied a deeper midfield role than usual and executed his task to perfection.
Rakitic hasn’t always looked comfortable this season, with games sometimes tending to pass him by. The former Sevilla captain often looks as though he’s having to play within himself for the good of the team’s structure, but paradoxically on this occasion dropping into a deeper position allowed him to exert a great attacking influence. And even if he eventually loses his automatic starting place in the new-look Barca, the Croat certainly remains an extremely important squad member.
Barcelona are set to spend in the January transfer window, with Liverpool attacker Philippe Coutinho of course being touted as the biggest transfer in world football at the moment.
While the Brazilian is firmly on Barca’s wanted list, there are other areas in which the La Liga leaders can strengthen on the pitch.
Here, we assess the options available to the Barcelona hierarchy and manager Ernesto Valverde in the January transfer market and beyond.
Starting with defence…
Realistic: Yerry Mina
Outsiders: David Luiz, Andreas Christensen
The 6ft3 Colombia centre-back Yerry Mina is almost certainly the next defender to join the Catalan giants, with arch-pragmatist Valverde making it a priority to strengthen his backline.
Indeed, reinforcements are desperately needed as veteran club stalwart Javier Mascherano is expected to return to his native Argentina or even China this month for €10million.
There is concern, too, with Samuel Umtiti who is reportedly in fledgling talks with Manchester City after the discovery of his €60million release clause .
If both the Frenchman and Argentine depart, Valverde would be left with just Gerard Pique and Thomas Vermaelen at centre-back, which is why a summer switch for Mina will be brought forward.
The Blaugrana signed a first-option for Mina last summer but the Palmeiras defender is expected to complete a €9million move this month.
Valverde could still be left needing another option, though, and that’s where Chelsea misfit David Luiz comes to the fore.
The Brazilian could be available straight away given his public falling out with boss Antonio Conte. The former PSG defender’s experience and ball-playing abilities make him very much in the Barcelona mould but at 30 and after numerous defensive howlers, he is perhaps not an option the club want to turn to for the future.
However, staying on the topic of Chelsea defenders, and Dane Christensen, another centre-back who is confident with the ball at his feet, would be worth a punt.
After a deeply successful loan stint at Borussia Monchengladbach, the 21-year-old has emerged as one of the best young defenders in Europe, coincidentally knocking Luiz out of the Blues first-team.
His youth, grace and tenacity will surely have the likes of Barca paying attention should Umtiti swap Spain for England.
Certainty: Philippe Coutinho
Outsider: Mesut Ozil, Paulo Dybala
Barcelona’s long-term pursuit of Liverpool star Coutinho has been well-documented and the transfer appears to be close to a resolution this month, with the Brazilian expected to join the Camp Nou club for a staggering fee €160million.
Having had multiple bids knocked back for the Kop No10 in the summer, Barca will not want to miss out this time around and there’s no doubting the 25-year-old would prove to be a hit in La Liga.
It’s easy to an argue that Coutinho is a player that they need, too – especially if they are going to start challenging for the Champions League again in future seasons and thwarting the domination Real Madrid have enjoyed under Zinedine Zidane in each of the past two years.
To put Coutinho in the same side as Lionel Messi and the returning Ousmane Dembele makes a Barca’s XI truly world-beating. Add in the experience of Luis Suarez and the talent in midfield areas then it would be a fascinating mix of star names.
The incoming Brazilian is viewed as the long-term replacement heir to Andres Iniesta – but let’s not forget the Barcelona legend is still playing fine football and only agreed lifetime terms with his boyhood side last summer.
There is a school of thought that Barca should have waited until the summer to sign Coutinho, given the fact they are nine points clear at the top of La Liga and he is cup-tied for the second phase of the Champions League.
Should president Josep Maria Bartomeu feel the club should not usurp the money they spurgled on Dembele for Coutinho, then Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil is surely an alternative.
The World Cup-winning German, who has been impressive of late for Arsene Wenger’s Gunners, is out of contract in June and therefore able to speak to other clubs as of now.
Ozil’s Real Madrid connection could be an issue, and although he is far from a Los Blancos cult hero, crossing the divide may not go down well. At 29, the attacker may see his next move as the final big one of his career and to land a player of Ozil’s quality on a free is nothing to be sniffed at.
Technically, he is still as good as anyone and created more chances (119) than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues last year. However, his questionable work-rate and energy levels don’t compliment a free-flowing front formation in which much of the onus will be on working hard to press and get the ball to Messi.
It’s worth throwing Dybala’s name into the hat but rumours linking the former Juventus man to Spain at this current time are pure speculation – and it won’t happen anytime soon.
Realistic: Antoine Griezmann
Outsiders: Mauro Icardi, Alexis Sanchez
Atletico Madrid star Antoine Griezmann has been lined up for a €100million switch and there are plenty of rumours that some kind of arrangement has already been made, with Barca chief Bartomeu having met the forward’s family.
The return of Diego Costa to the Spanish capital and sluggish form of Griezmann, with the striker only netting five league goals this term, has only heightened talk his exit from the Wanda Metropolitano.
Griezmann would obviously be a star acquisition and a replacement, long-term, for Luis Suarez and the 26-year-old knows the league better than most. The France star is the focal point Barcelona need and his unselfish play and ability to create and link-up with those around him could help Messi.
The fact he has also been a thorn in the side of Real Madrid over the past couple of years is another attraction but it’s a deal Barcelona won’t be able to pull off alongside Coutinho in January. It may well have to wait until the summer though questions could be asked as to whether he has actually improved as a player in recent times.
Inter Milan captain Mauro Icardi is a man also touted as a striker who fits the bill, but Real Madrid are also chasing his signature. Both he and Alexis Sanchez – the former Barcelona man who is available on a free next summer – are very much alternative options but could potentially involved less paperwork.
Barcelona travelled to Celta Vigo for the first leg of their last 16 Copa del Rey clash on Thursday night, with our player in focus, Jose Arnaiz, scoring in a 1-1 draw.
The 22-year-old was given the chance to shine by boss Ernesto Valverde again, following his goal in each leg of the previous round against Real Murcia.
And he didn’t disappoint.
Arnaiz took just under 15 minutes to break the deadlock at Balaidos, showing off his predatory instincts inside the penalty area.
It means the Barcelona No.37 has now scored in each of his three first-team appearances for the Catalan giants to date this season, after banging in goals aplenty in the Spanish La Liga 2.
Here, we analyse his performance during 71 minutes of action on Thursday evening.
THE MATCH ITSELF AND ARNAIZ’S POSITIONAL PLAY
The La Liga giants rested a host of stars for the trip to Vigo, but the first XI still possessed plenty of quality as well as the substitutes’ bench – featuring the returning Ousmane Dembele.
For Arnaiz, who signed for Barcelona from Valladolid in August, he had the chance to lead the line with support from Andre Gomes on the left and Nelson Semedo on the right.
It was working for the visitors as Arnaiz grabbed the early opener but Pione Sisto cancelled out that strike in the 31st minute – and it ended all-square.
Incidentally, the world’s second most-expensive player, Dembele, came on as a second-half sub for Arnaiz to play competitive football for the first time since suffering a hamstring injury back in September.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) January 4, 2018
The young talent was a fox-in-the-box, holding his position just outside the penalty box before moving inside as Denis Suarez’s lovely run and pass found Gomes, who squared the ball across the penalty area for the winger-cum-striker to slot home with his left peg.
It was clear evidence that he has an eye for goal and is composed under pressure when presented with the chance to finish.
Aside from his goal, Arnauz held his position as the central frontman – occupying two centre-backs – but wasn’t afraid to drop deep from time to time to collect the ball or indeed hassle and harrie the opposition.
In the second-half, Lucas Digne’s pin-point cross to the back stick found the head of Arnauz, and despite doing well to get a good connection on the ball, the angle worked against him.
With more game-time in the first-team, he should start to improve his link-up play and awareness of bringing other runners into play with greater regularity.
Likewise, his first touch and fleet-of-foot when dribbling with the ball looked a bit similar to a certain Barcelona No.10, but his final pass needs working on. Fitness-wise, he looked to be suffering from a touch of cramp before being replaced late on but that is only natural for someone who hasn’t played that many games of late.
If Arnauz’s rise continues, the diminutive Spaniard could press the likes of Deulofeu, and dare I say it, Dembele, for a first-team spot especially for the rest of the La Liga season.
Make no mistake that the Barcelona starlet’s skill level is still raw but the Catalonian club have more than enough there to work with. Certainly, expect to see Arnauz feature more regularly in the coming months.