A quartet of fine individual goals, including Lionel Messi’s 2019/20 opener, saw ruthless La Liga champions Barcelona roar into the international break with an ominous 4-0 victory against Sevilla, despite finishing with nine men.
Momentum gained via the midweek, come-from-behind victory against Inter Milan in the Champions League was built upon at Camp Nou on Sunday. Not even the 87th-minute dismissal of debutant Ronald Araujo for a pull on substitute Javier Hernandez, then subsequent red card for a protesting Ousmane Dembele, could truly sour the night.
A stupendous few days for Uruguay hit man Luis Suarez continued with a sublime 27th-minute bicycle kick to open the scoring against Julen Lopetegui’s sixth-placed visitors. The rampaging runs of Chile midfielder Arturo Vidal – selected in place of Spain anchor man Sergio Busquets – gained reward when he slid home a quick-fire from Brazil conductor Arthur’s penetrative pass, before France winger Dembele – in for compatriot Antoine Griezmann – skilfully checked back and slotted into the bottom corner to make it 3-0 with 10 minutes left of the opening period.
The Catalans then kept their visitors at arm’s length, prior to Argentine icon Messi netting a textbook 78th-minute free-kick to move onto 37 goals in 38 games versus the visitors. This result placed Barca into second spot, while Sevilla – who will point to more missed chances from new striker Luuk de Jong – have now lost three of their last four top-flight fixtures.
Here are the player ratings:
Marc-Andre ter Stegen 6: Did well to deny Sergio Reguilon, then saved by post from De Jong.
Sergi Roberto 6: Nondescript night for Roberto. Looks more comfortable at right-back.
Jean-Clair Todibo 6: Made a few solid headers, however night was soured by removal via injury in second half.
Gerard Pique 6: Picked up the booking required to feature in El Clasico. Guided Todibo through game, before injury.
Nelson Semedo 7: Showed versatility, yet again, on the left flank. Put in the cross for Suarez’s eye-catching goal.
Arturo Vidal 8: Burst forward to latch onto Arthur’s pass for the second justified his start, at expense of Busquets.
Frenkie de Jong 7: Sublime first-half pirouette brought gasps of approval from Camp Nou. Did well at base of midfield.
Arthur 7: Pair of assists for the burgeoning Brazil international. A force to be reckoned with.
Lionel Messi 7: Continued his bullying of Sevilla, statistically his favourite opponent, with a second-half free-kick. Is clearly working his way into shape after a disrupted summer.
Luis Suarez 7: What a week for the Uruguay superstar, whose got three world-class goals in two games.
Ousmane Dembele 5: Did so well to take his goal, then spoiled night with sending off for dissent. Ups and downs.
Sergio Busquets 6: Another one to get booked in 88th-minute melee. Dropped after poor recent form.
Ivan Rakitic 6: Called back into action. Produced one wild shot.
Ronald Araujo 3: A dream debut for Barca turned into a nightmare when dismissed for tugging Chicharito.
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Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde has a big decision to make ahead of his team’s tough meeting with Sevilla at Camp Nou on Sunday night.
In fact, he has a few decisions, starting in the centre of defence where he must choose whether to replace the suspended Clement Lenglet with the inexperienced Jean-Clair Todibo, or by repositioning a more senior player.
At the other end of the field, Valverde is dealing with the conundrum of how to deal with Lionel Messi’s continuing rehabilitation from the injuries which sidelined him during the opening weeks of the season. Messi played the full 90 minutes for the first time in three months as he helped his team earn a 2-1 Champions League victory over Inter Milan on Wednesday, but is it realistic to expect the skipper to play another full game just four days later?
The biggest decision facing Valverde, however, is in the centre of the pitch, where he faces a dilemma over a long-serving and iconic stalwart of the club: Sergio Busquets.
There can be no doubt whatsoever that Busquets has been a magnificent performer for Barca over the last ten years, playing a fundamental role in arguably the greatest team in history as he helped Xavi and Andres Iniesta control the middle of the field and orchestrate their passing carousel.
Time, though, spares nobody. Busquets is now 31-years old and showing all the signs of wear and tear you would expect from a man who has played nearly 700 games for club and country in the last decade. He is also surrounded by different team-mates, who play in a more direct manner with less obsession over dominating the area of the pitch he patrols.
For those reasons, he is starting to look, in short, over the hill. Busquets has never possessed particularly impressive physical powers, but in the past his lack of speed and dynamism were masked. Now, they are being brutally exposed and making him a liability.
Perhaps the starkest indication of his struggles yet came in Wednesday’s meeting with Inter, when the Italian team were far superior in the first half as they regularly succeeded in driving through the middle of the pitch and towards Barca’s area, virtually without impediment as Busquets looked on helplessly. Antonio Conte’s men also made a point of harrying Busquets in possession, constantly looking capable of robbing him of the ball in a dangerous part of the pitch.
Early in the second half, Valverde took remedial action. Busquets was replaced and Frenkie de Jong and Arthur – who had been playing either side in a classic midfield trio – were positioned more centrally in a double-pivot in front of the back four.
Barca’s improvement was instant and dramatic, with the new midfield duo establishing a control and calmness which had been entirely lacking in the first half, while the advanced position of substitute Arturo Vidal – taking advantage of the security offered by de Jong and Arthur – added an entirely different dimension to the team’s previously toothless attack.
The contrast between Barca’s vulnerability with Busquets and their effectiveness without him must surely have set thoughts running in Valverde’s head – and, in truth, those thoughts were probably already there, because Busquets has been looking frail for a couple of years now, with Wednesday’s struggles only really reaffirming what had gone before.
The future of Barca’s midfield, and maybe even the present, will probably consist of the Arthur and De Jong double axis protecting the back four and providing a solid base for another midfielder – Vidal, Sergi Roberto, Carles Alena or maybe even Messi – to roam forward in support of the attack.
Busquets, of course, could adapt and play alongside De Jong or Arthur in the double-pivot himself – he did so with huge success next to Xabi Alonso for many years in the Spanish national team.
But the hard truth is that, against top-class opposition, Busquets no longer looks good enough. His qualities are being drowned out by his deficiencies, and many pundits are starting to conclude that his time in the limelight could be coming to a close.
Sunday’s team sheet should provide a big club over whether Valverde shares that belief.
Lionel Messi was back in the starting line-up, but it was Luis Suarez who proved to be the Camp Nou’s champion with a brace to earn Barcelona a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Inter Milan and him the Carolina Herrera hero of the day.
Love him, hate him, you can’t help but rate him, especially in the twilight of his career where he’s had his struggles with both form and fitness.
It was far from vintage from the hosts – second best for long periods – but it was vintage Suarez, who delivered two sublime finishes to rescue his side.
After a dull draw – that they were lucky to get – in Dortmund on matchday one, Barca were staring down the barrel of just one point from their first two Group F games.
In a group containing Inter and Dortmund, that could have proved precarious. And while there was much to admonish the Blaugrana for on Wednesday, Suarez papered over the cracks with two pristine finishes in the second half.
For a long time it looked as if an Argentine – no, not Messi – would steal the headlines after Lautaro Martinez made it 1-0 to become the first Inter player to score at the Camp Nou since 1970.
But Suarez acrobatically volleyed Barca level just before the break and then calmly took a Messi pass in his stride, striding through the away defence and slotting past Samir Handanovic and stealing the show.
AGE – 32
SHOTS – 3
ON TARGET – 3
GOALS – 2
MINUTES – 90
It’s hardly desperate times for the Spanish giants, but they certainly needed a lift after a patchy start to the season – both domestically and abroad.
And, with Messi nowhere near his best and perhaps unable to inspire his side like only he can, responsibility fell on Antoine Griezmann and Suarez’s shoulders to step up.
This task was made even taller when Martinez gave the visitors the lead. But while Griezmann continues to toil in Barca blue and burgundy, Suarez basked in the heat and intensity of the moment to deliver two sizzling strikes.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as the veteran Uruguayan put in a clinical display of finishing to rob the Nerazzurri of a historic victory.
He’s been dogged by jibes of being in a rapid decline, yet two finishes of the highest order, on the grandest stage, will force his critics into an even quicker retreat. Suarez is still a showstopper.