Aritz Aduriz produced the best first touch of his 38-year-long life to hand Athletic Bilbao a famous opening day victory over Barcelona on Friday.
The La Liga champions were left stunned when the veteran executed a spectacular bicycle-kick just inside the area from Ander Capa’s cross in the 89th minute to send the home support at San Mames Stadium into delirium.
After an incredibly tight 87 minutes, the veteran made his way onto the pitch and landed the lethal blow seconds later as the Rojiblancos celebrated a 1-0 win.
Barcelona twice struck the woodwork through Luis Suarez and Rafinha but were unable to create enough openings in the absence of the injured Lionel Messi.
New signings Frenkie de Jong and Antoine Griezmann made their debuts for the Catalans but here we focus on the young Dutchman’s performance after his first taste of La Liga action.
Passes (success-rate): 66 (93.9%)
Key passes: 0
This was far from a comfortable debut for De Jong who anchored Barcelona’s midfield in a 4-3-3 system away from home. Inside two minutes, the youngster was decked by an enthusiastic Raul Garcia challenge. The message was clear, he wouldn’t be afforded time on the ball.
Garcia spent much of the encounter shadowing De Jong whenever Barca were in possession before substitute Oihan Sancet took over later in the second half when the veteran dropped deeper.
De Jong was hardly a liability but he didn’t have enough of an influence on the game as he would’ve liked, and certainly didn’t see enough of the ball despite his side dominating possession. His display mirrored Barcelona’s frustrations as they struggled to carve open the home team.
He did a lot of good things but never really took command.
GOT RIGHT – RETAINING POSSESSION
De Jong is completely at ease on the ball and could recycle possession in his sleep. Bilbao went to considerable lengths to ensure he didn’t have things all his own way, yet they could never get the ball off him.
The 22-year-old’s ability to operate in confined spaces, shield the ball and wriggle his way out of a corner is truly special. With an opponent right on top of him in the first half and two more red and white shirts on either side, De Jong received the ball on the edge of the box, went on to dribble inside the area before eventually making space and spreading the ball wide.
There was another moment in the second period when he flicked the ball over Garcia, sold him a dummy and then nonchalantly squared the ball back to Pique. Brilliant.
GOT WRONG – FORWARD PASSES
When De Jong got on the ball he was often faced with an opponent right in front of him, forcing him to play sideways or behind. It was a ploy he struggled to cope with and restricted his ability to play forward passes.
The former Ajax star didn’t play enough penetrative passes to break the lines and put his side on the front foot. Ernesto Valverde ended up bringing Ivan Rakitic on at half-time who proceeded to take more responsibility by trying to drive Barca forward.
There’s a lot more to come from the young playmaker and he showed moments of brilliance. However, his inexperience in a new league was also evident. Didn’t have the authority in the middle that Sergio Busquets so often does. A lot of positives to take from this – despite the defeat – but also a warning that he needs time to settle into his new surroundings.
Barcelona head to Bilbao for a testing opening night clash with Athletic club as La Liga gets underway on Friday night, and the reigning champions will have to do without injured talisman Lionel Messi.
It promises to be an enthralling encounter in the atmospheric San Mames stadium as Barca boss Ernesto Valverde returns to face his former team, with a couple of high-profile summer signings looking to make an instant impact for the visitors.
And the composition of Valverde’s forward line in the absence of Messi is the first of our key talking points ahead of the action.
Messi out, Griezmann in, Dembele under pressure
Skipper Messi has not been risked by Valverde after missing the club’s brief preseason trip to the United States with a calf injury, and he will not be rushed back into action after not playing at all since being sent off in Argentina’s Copa America third-place playoff victory over Chile six weeks ago.
His absence does, however, simplify Valverde’s selection for his forward line as Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele prepare to link up with new arrival Antoine Griezmann.
All three forwards scored as Barca wrapped up their preparatory friendly schedule with a 4-0 victory over Napoli last weekend, and it would be surprising if Valverde opts for anything other than a 4-3-3 formation featuring Dembele on the right wing, Griezmann on the left and Suarez through the middle.
This is a particularly important season for Dembele, who desperately struggled to find any kind of consistency during his first two seasons at the Camp Nou and would dearly love to earn Valverde’s confidence by making a strong start to the new campaign. If he fails to do so, he will doubtless find himself immediately consigned to the bench as soon as Messi is able to return.
De Jong’s time to shine
Messi isn’t the only victim of a post-Copa America hangover, with midfielders Arthur Melo and Arturo Vidal also being left out of the travelling party to Bilbao and Philippe Coutinho highly unlikely to be involved after featuring sparingly in preseason.
That significantly reduces Valverde’s options in the centre of the field, leaving Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and summer signing Frenkie De Jong the likely starters – although Carles Alena and Sergi Roberto, who is expected to feature more in midfield than at right-back this season, provide strong alternatives.
Former Ajax starlet De Jong has provoked particular excitement among Barca fans, producing a series of great performances during the warm-up programme to instantly look at home in his new surroundings.
The Dutchman is showing all the signs of being exactly what the team needs to refresh a midfield which looked listless and tired during the latter stages of last season, and imposing himself in the demanding environment of the San Mames on his competitive debut would be a great way to cement those positive first impressions.
Can Williams power Athletic?
Barca certainly can’t afford to be slow out of the blocks as they face a dangerous Athletic side who were one of the best teams in La Liga during the second half of last season, recovering from a dreadful start which briefly threatened relegation to nearly qualify for European football.
There have been few changes in personnel during the summer, but the man in the spotlight is Inaki Williams. The striker was the rumoured target of a big-money bid from Manchester United during the transfer window, but stayed put and was subsequently rewarded with a whopping new nine-year contract.
Williams has all the makings of a truly world-class striker, combining physical power, searing pace, excellent technical ability and a relentless work rate. The one aspect of his game which has until now been below par, though, is the most important of them all for strikers: finishing.
He has only mustered 33 goals in 157 league appearances so far, but a personal-best tally of 12 last season suggested he is heading in the right direction. If Williams can continue that improvement by leading Athletic to an opening night victory over the reigning champions, his status among La Liga’s very best strikers will be further enhanced.
Barcelona kick off their La Liga 2019/20 season on Friday with a visit to San Mames stadium where they will face Athletic Bilbao.
While the focus of the team is on winning a third consecutive La Liga title, the Catalans are currently involved in tense negotiations with PSG to get back Neymar following two seasons of the Brazilian forward in the French league.
However, coach Ernesto Valverde said he is only concentrating on his team and the players he has right now.
“I only focus in the team and the players I have to face this next game. We’ve always shown great respect for those players from other teams, and Neymar doesn’t belong to us. He belongs to PSG. We will see what happens,” Valverde said.
Lionel Messi is likely to miss the league debut due to a calf injury.