No Messi? No Suarez? No problem for Barcelona

Date published: Thursday 29th August 2019 9:07

Following the surprise opening-day defeat at Athletic Club, Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde would have undoubtedly been feeling the pressure ahead of Sunday’s game at home to Real Betis.

Barça’s fans have become accustomed to success, and the knives have been out for Valverde among a section of Barcelona fans for whom merely winning the league at a canter is not enough. If defeat at San Mamés was followed by failure against Betis, the rumblings of disquiet among the fans could have grown into something more tangible.

Valverde was unable to call on the injured Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez, and led with the unfamiliar front three of Antoine Griezmann, Rafinha and La Masia graduate Carles Pérez.

The heat was turned up on Valverde when Nabil Fekir put the away side in front after 15 minutes, but Barça didn’t panic and grew into the game, going in at half-time with the scores level thanks to the impressive Griezmann.

That seemed to bring Barça’s confidence flooding back, and within the first 15 minutes of the second half they were 4-1 up, with goals from Griezmann, Pérez and Jordi Alba. Substitute Arturo Vidal came on and made it five, before Loren Morón thwacked the ball into the top corner from range to pull one back for Betis.

The evening was also notable for the introduction of 16-year-old Ansu Fati, who became the second youngest Barcelona player ever when he replaced Pérez in the second half.

While Valverde was enjoying the sweet succour of victory, his rival Zinedine Zidane wasn’t having such a happy time.

Only last week, a 3-1 victory at Celta had given Zidane’s Real Madrid an ideal start to the season, but on Saturday their weaknesses were exposed as they laboured to a 1-1 draw at home to Real Valladolid.

Los Blancos dominated possession, but were impotent in attack. They looked to have grabbed an ugly victory when Karim Benzema received the ball on the edge of the box, turned and struck emphatically into the corner of the net after 82 minutes, but as has so often been the case for Madrid, Guardiola proved to be their undoing.

That’s Valladolid forward Sergi Guardiola (no relation), who equalised in the 88th minute to rob the club he supports of two points.

Zidane came in for a bit of stick from fans and media alike for selecting a team that bore a strong resemblance to his preferred starting line-up from three years ago, with no new signings or youngsters in sight. Even James Rodríguez started. Marca’s headline on Tuesday read ‘Zidane loses his immunity’, referring to the fact that some Madridistas are starting to tire of the Frenchman’s persistence with the old guard and lack of tactical imagination.

But while the old guard struggled, Ødegaard did not. The young Norwegian, on loan at Real Sociedad from Real Madrid, scored a late winner for the Basque side as they edged out Real Mallorca 1-0 at Son Moix.

La Real’s rivals Athletic Club picked up a decent point in an unremarkable 1-1 draw at Getafe, while the league’s remaining Basque sides Eibar and Alavés served up a pair of snoozefests with 0-0 draws against Osasuna and Espanyol respectively.

More excitement was to be found among the Valencian teams, particularly in Levante’s 2-1 win over Villarreal on Friday night. Having suffered at the hands of VAR for much of last season, Levante finally got some redress. At 1-0 down in the second half, the referee awarded a penalty after consultation with VAR. José Luis Morales took it, but Andrés Fernández made a superb triple save to deny the Levante captain. Enter VAR again. As Fernández had been off his line when the kick was taken, a retake was ordered. This time, Roger Martí stepped up, and made no mistake.

Five minutes later, Fernández committed a bizarre foul on Martí in the box, and the Levante striker placed the resultant penalty into the exact same spot to win his side the three points.

Levante’s city rivals Valencia were not so lucky. They were outplayed on their trip to Vigo by a much improved Celta, who won 1-0 thanks to a superb back-heel flick from Gabriel Fernández. Despite missing a late penalty, Denis Suárez was the star for Celta, and seems much happier back in his native Galicia after his struggles in Barcelona and London.

After two games, there are only two sides with 100% records. Sevilla maintained their perfect start under Julen Lopetegui with a hard-won victory over a spirited Granada side at Los Cármenes, with Joan Jordán grabbing the only goal of the game.

Atlético Madrid are the other side with two wins from two. Despite Diego Simeone experimenting with a new, slightly more adventurous formation, their first two games of the season have both ended with the classic Simeone-era scoreline – 1-0 to Atleti. Substitute Vitolo came on to grab the points for the rojiblancos in the second half in a game of few chances against Leganés at Butarque.

Hero of the week: Diego López, who produced a series of outstanding saves to earn Espanyol a point at Alavés.

Villain of the week: Andrés Fernández. The Villarreal keeper’s errors gifted the three points to Levante in a game his side should have won comfortably.

Performance of the week: Barcelona, who bounced back from last week’s defeat in emphatic fashion, despite the absence of Messi and Suárez.

Goal of the week: Plenty of options this week, but Gabriel Fernández’s perfectly executed back-heel for Celta against Valencia wins it for me. Commiserations go to Karim Benzema and Loren Morón.

Dan Bridges

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