Barcelona’s post-Messi era begins
Barcelona kicked off a La Liga season without Lionel Messi for the first time in 18 years with a 4-2 win over Real Sociedad at the Camp Nou that should leave supporters cautiously optimistic about life without the GOAT.
Ronald Koeman’s line-up didn’t yield too many surprises, apart perhaps from a debut for Eric Garcia, with Pedri thrust straight back into action alongside the fit-again Frenkie de Jong.
The Barca coach, and Gerard Pique, had spoken before the game about the need to be united this season, and it was fun to watch the players attacking and defending as a team in an impressive opening spell that yielded three goals.
Of course, Barca being Barca there was always time for drama. Two sloppy goals conceded offered La Real hope of an unlikely point until Sergi Roberto killed their dreams with Barca’s fourth in stoppage time.
This wasn’t a perfect performance, of course, but it was probably a lot better than most people expected against a side that finished fifth last season. And don’t forget Barca were without players such as Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembele, and Sergio Aguero.
Man of the moment Pique summed it up nicely after the game too. He told Movistar, “La Real played well but didn’t create a lot of chances. I think we’ll have fun this year.”
It had to be Pique
Pique had hit the headlines before the match after it had emerged new signings Memphis Depay and Eric Garcia would be able to play in the game because of the central defender having agreed a big pay cut.
The 34-year-old’s gesture was widely applauded, and rightly so, but things got even better on Sunday when he scored the club’s first goal of the season. Memphis took over set-piece duties and dropped a ball onto Pique’s head to open the scoring after just 19 minutes. After everything that had happened it seemed fitting it was Pique who got Barca up and running in 2021-22.
It was also a landmark goal for the center-back.
50 - Gerard Piqué has scored his 50th goal for @FCBarcelona in all competitions (22 headed goals), becoming the second defender to reach this milestone for the club after Ronald Koeman (88). Icon. pic.twitter.com/FE4agvV5kZ— OptaJose (@OptaJose) August 15, 2021
Pique may be heading towards the end of his career but his leadership and obvious devotion to the club will be needed this season. As Koeman said after the match, “Pique is the leader of this team, he was last season too.”
Memphis is loving life at Barca
Another player who looks as though he can ease some of the pain of Messi leaving is new arrival Memphis Depay who enjoyed an impressive La Liga debut against Real Sociedad.
The Dutchman is clearly loving life at the Camp Nou and looks determined to make the most of his big chance at Barcelona. Perhaps most importantly, he looks to have the personality required to succeed with the Catalan giants.
Memphis Depay created four chances in the first half vs. Real Sociedad, no player has created more in LaLiga across the opening weekend so far.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 15, 2021
And he has an assist to show for it. pic.twitter.com/FtxU6U46v9
Memphis looked dangerous throughout and looks set to be Barca’s creator this season. His assist for Pique helped Barca on their way, while there were also a few neat flicks and a great effort to lob the keeper from fully 40 yards.
Braithwaite worth keeping around
The much-maligned Martin Braithwaite also helped lift the Messi-gloom. The Denmark international finished the game with two goals and an assist in a fine display by the 30-year-old.
There’s been plenty of talk this summer that Braithwaite will be sold, although the striker’s agent has insisted the Dane is not going anywhere despite all the speculation.
2 - With his two goals against Real Sociedad, @FCBarcelona's Martin Braithwaite is the first Danish player to score a brace in @LaLigaEN in the 21st century. Thrill. pic.twitter.com/kePsDdGJB9— OptaJose (@OptaJose) August 15, 2021
There’s still time left in the transfer market for Barca to sell players, and the club’s financial pressures means nothing can really be ruled out. Yet this was the sort of performance that suggests Braithwaite will stick around, particularly with Messi gone and Aguero out until November. Koeman was certainly full of praise for Braithwaite after the match.
“I think is an example of a professional, he always works for the team and has improved his play,” he said. He helps us a lot and he’s quick and hard to stop. I’m delighted to have players like him.”
Eric Garcia to become Pique’s partner?
At the other end of the pitch there was also a tidy debut in central defense from Eric Garcia as Gerard Pique’s partner. It was something of a surprise to see Garcia go straight into the team ahead of Ronald Araujo, but Koeman explained after the match it was because he had “match rhythm’ after the Olympics.
Defense is an area Barca must improve this season if they are to do anything, and Garcia offered an assured showing in his first outing. It seems the Spain international will battle with Araujo for a place this season but the future may see the two play together.
Koeman’s selection also suggested that Garcia is now ahead of Clement Lenglet in the pecking order, while Samuel Umtiti didn’t even make the squad in what seems yet another message to the Frenchman that he’s no longer required at the Camp Nou