For the tenth straight season, Barcelona began their La Liga campaign with a win, this time blowing Alaves out of the water to the tune that the final score doesn’t do it justice. While Barcelona struggled to break through Alaves’ defense for most of the opening hour of play, the floodgates opened after a moment of Lionel Messi magic from a free kick midway through the second half. Philippe Coutinho added an insurance marker before Messi would add another at the death.
Barcelona started their first La Liga match of the season with a largely expected starting eleven. The only really surprising aspect came in midfield where Sergi Roberto took the pitch from the opening minute, with Nelson Semedo at right-back, while Coutinho took his seat on the bench.
It was an imposing lineup against a team that holds the feat of being the last team to defeat Barcelona (in La Liga) at the Camp Nou which came on 10 September 2016. Barcelona were also looking to extend their impressive unbeaten run to begin the new season, and the Catalans came within inches of taking the lead just two minutes in, but Messi’s shot from the right side went just wide of the far post.
The hosts continued to attack, allowing Alaves very little. From the early going it was evident that the visitors were going to spend most of the game defending, with only the rare counter attack to offer their defenders a break. There were numerous occasions when all eleven Alaves players were in a tight box with the highest player no further than 30-yards from Fernando Pacheco. But Barcelona were showing patience in attack, waiting for an opening. One presented itself around the fifteen minute mark when Lionel Messi sent a long pass to spring Luis Suarez, but the Uruguayan couldn’t control the ball with only Pacheco to beat.
With Barcelona showing patience and Alaves defending with numbers the pace of play left much to be desired. The Catalans were clearly struggling with chance creation against a very defensive Alaves, who also caused plenty of problems to Barcelona last season at the Camp Nou, taking a first half lead only to succumb to a late 2-1 defeat.
Barcelona finally had a quick break in the 28th minute after an Alaves free kick in Barcelona territory. A lucky bounce and a quick pass left Ousmane Dembele with a two-on-one with Messi, but the former couldn’t get the ball past the diving Víctor Laguardia who read Dembele’s idea of sending Messi alone on goal. With the missed opportunity on the counter, it was back to trying to break through the parked (air)bus. Dembele would have another chance to set up a teammate in good position five minutes later, but this time Pacheco was able to collect the ball before it could reach Suarez for what would’ve been an easy tap in.
Even though Alaves’ defense was holding, Barcelona were slowly but surely starting to create more and more half-chances. While these chances weren’t coming in quick succession, they were coming, none better than in the 38th minute when Messi won a free kick 25-yards out from the right side, practically ideal for the Argentine. Messi indeed took the shot, but like in Tangier a week ago he was denied by the frame of the goal, this time the crossbar. Unlike in Morocco though, Gerard Pique’s shot off the rebound missed the target.
Just seconds later, Barcelona had another excellent opportunity to open the scoring, this time Messi turning provider, setting up Dembele, but the Frenchman’s shot was well saved. Another two minutes later Suarez was played through but he too couldn’t find the target. Barcelona’s attacks continues until the halftime whistle, but despite all of Barcelona’s dominance the two sides went into the break scoreless.
Barcelona started the second half with a personnel change, with Semedo staying inside the dressing room as he was replaced by Coutinho on the pitch. As a result of the change Roberto went from the midfield to the right side of the defense. The hosts were quickly back on the offensive and just two minutes in Alba went on goal from the left side. But the first half theme continued as Pacheco prevented a goal with a close range save.
With the 15 minute halftime break for some recovery, Alaves’ defense appeared to be once again firing on all cylinders. Barcelona were committing everybody forward, but there was again no space to operate. With the middle so incredibly congested, Alaves were willing to sacrifice the both wings as there was simply no chance to find anybody in the danger area.
Barcelona’s dominance in every facet of the game was evident, but even a shot advantage of 15-2 at the one hour mark didn’t result in a positive outcome for the Catalans. But Barcelona’s 16 shot, which came in the 64th minute, finally resulted in the lead. Messi again won a free kick in a dangerous spot, a bit closer than the one in the first half. With everybody expecting an attempt over the wall, the defenders jumped, but the Argentine went under the wall, fooling everybody and scoring the opening goal. Two minutes later Messi fired another shot seemingly destined for the far post, but once again he was denied by the post – his third shot off the frame in two official games.
With the preferred scoreless draw off the table, Alaves and manager Abelardo had to make some changes. All three Alaves substitutions came in quick succession, one due to an injury, and Alaves opened up - slightly. The visitors were still defending with numbers, but they gifted a good chance to Suarez in the 73rd minute, but the Uruguayan’s funk continued with a shot right at the goalkeeper.
Ernesto Valverde made his second substitution in the 77th minute, with Arthur getting his La Liga debut in place of Dembele, resulting in Coutinho moving higher up the pitch. Alaves, from a deep free kick, created their second half-chance of the match moments later, but on the far post neither of the visitors’ attackers couldn’t direct a shot on goal.
Alaves started to play in the final fifteen minutes and Barcelona finally had some space to work with. In the 82nd minute Messi exploited every inch of it to play Coutinho through on goal. One-on-one with Pachecto, Coutinho went for the far post, but yet again Pacheco kept Alaves in the game. The very next minute, the two were again going head-to-head, but this time the Brazilian would not be denied from 14-yards out.
Immediately after the goal, Arturo Vidal was handed his league debut as Sergio Busquets was given some rest after a couple rough hacks to his legs throughout the game. The match was decided after Coutinho’s goal and both sides were looking for a quick final whistle though Barcelona still launched the occasional attack in an effort to balance to scoresheet after some inexplicable misses earlier. It appeared as if the score would not change again, but in the very last play of the game, Suarez found Messi inside the area with a lovely over the top pass. Messi controlled the ball under pressure before calmly slotting the ball into the back of the net.
With the win Barcelona moved into a first-place tie with Levante. While the few fans that made their way to the Camp Nou had to wait a long time for the first goal of the season, Barcelona’s 6000th in history – which was like the 5000th one scored by Messi, Barcelona deservedly started their title defense with a big win. Next on the agenda is the first road trip of the season as Barcelona travel to newly promoted Real Valladolid.