Reigning champions Barcelona opened their La Liga campaign with a 1-0 loss at Athletic Bilbao in stunning circumstances on Friday night.
Barca were second-best in the first half and needed a trio of saves from Marc-Andre ter Stegen, but also hit the woodwork twice through Luis Suarez – who then departed through injury – and his replacement Rafinha.
The second half was a cagier affair with few clear chances at either end, and the game appeared to be heading harmlessly towards a goalless draw until, with two minutes left, a piece of magic happened…and that’s the only way to start our review of the action.
Aduriz gives La Liga a flying start
After two seasons of Barcelona waltzing to the title by March, this was exactly the result neutrals needed to give the new campaign a flying start and spark hope that this season’s title race will be far more competitive.
And the nature of the winning goal could not have been more romantic or dramatic, as Athletic legend Aritz Aduriz came off the bench and, with his very first touch, rifled home a stunning overhead volley from close to the edge of the box to give Marc-Andre ter Stegen no chance.
It was a genuine contender for goal of the season on the very first day of the season, made even more remarkable for the fact that Aduriz is 38 years old and is far better known for powerful headers than flying acrobatics.
The Athletic legend, who is entering into his 11th campaign with the club over two separate spells, has already announced that he will retire at the end of the season and he will probably only play a bit-part role from the bench in the coming months. But even if he does nothing else before retiring, this moment of sheer brilliance is enough to ensure he will never be forgotten by Athletic fans – and it will also have been celebrated wildly by supporters of Real and Atletico Madrid. The title race is on!
Midfield conundrum for Valverde
The teamsheets contained a surprise with Barca boss Ernesto Valverde leaving stalwart midfielders Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic on the bench, instead selecting Sergi Roberto and Carles Alena to play alongside new signing Frenkie De Jong.
With Busquets and Rakitic both in their 30s, that selection was a look to the future and perhaps an indication of how Valverde would like his team to evolve over the coming campaign, but it was not a successful move and the Barca coach quickly abandoned the new policy with the half-time introduction of Rakitic in place of Alena.
The visitors were much more comfortable after the break, with Rakitic sitting deeper, next to De Jong, and helping his team dictate play. In fact, the team shape was a clear 4-2-3-1, with Rakitic and De Jong forming a double-pivot, impressive sub Rafinha on the right of attack, Ousmane Dembele on the left and Sergi Roberto through the middle in support of Antoine Griezmann.
And although the personnel will greatly change in due course, perhaps that is the formation Valverde is planning to become his template this season: Lionel Messi supporting Luis Suarez in the middle, Griezmann on the right and, on the left…a certain Neymar?
Suarez and Messi sidelined for must-win contest?
Barca’s opening day loss will certainly unload a barrage of criticism upon Valverde, who has been left with very little credit in the bank after his team’s consecutive Champions League collapses in the last two seasons.
Following the debacle at Anfield in May, it was inevitable that Valverde would come under the hammer as soon as his team suffered a setback in the new campaign. Worryingly for the Barca boss, not only has that time has come at the very start of the season, but it has also coincided with the absence of his two key attacking players, Messi and Suarez.
The former was absent from kick-off, left back in Barcelona after suffering a calf injury in training a couple of weeks ago. And Suarez joined him on the sidelines before the break, also suffering a calf injury which will be fully assessed on Saturday.
There is, then, a real chance that Valverde will be without both Messi and Suarez for a game which has become an absolute must-win encounter: next Sunday’s home meeting with Real Betis. A narrow slip-up in a tough road encounter will be swiftly forgotten if it is followed by a resounding home win, but it would leave Valverde under enormous pressure if points are dropped against Betis next weekend.
Messi, surely, will do everything to get back in time for the game. And Valverde will need him more than ever.
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