Football had been the last thing occupying the minds of the people of Barcelona in the run up to the Azulgrana’s La Liga opener against Real Betis at the Camp Nou on Sunday night. The thoughts and prayers of Catalonia and of wider Europe were rightly with the victims of the terrorist attack the previous Thursday which has now claimed the lives of 15 innocent people.
Ahead of the game a minute’s silence and a show of unity were held and the home team decided to wear the name of the city on the backs of their shirts instead of the players’ names. Numerous seats were also visibly empty as people were still coming to terms with what has occurred.
When the game got underway the first chance of note fell to former Evertonian Gerard Deulofeu who flashed the ball past the far post with a flick from a precise Sergi Roberto cross that dissected the Betis defence. That was after just two minutes. Just two minutes more had passed when Lionel Messi picked up a loose ball on the edge of the box and fired a curling effort past the left-hand post.
Barcelona are still trying to find a solution since Neymar Jr’s surprise defection to Paris Saint-Germain and an injury to Luis Suarez in the Supercopa has depleted Ernesto Valverde’s pack further. The former Athletic Bilbao coach is waiting for the board to reinvest the €222m from the sale of the Brazilian but Barca’s pursuits of Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool and Ousmane Dembele of Borussia Dortmund are stalling. Jean Seri of Nice is looking more likely.
The home team’s frailty was highlighted by their visitors from Seville who are also under a new manager – the former Las Palmas coach Quique Setien. And Betis grew into the game as the clock ticked on. Displaying competence on the ball and a willingness to pass that will hopefully prosper with more time on the training pitch.
Despite the sprouting on show from the visiting team, it’s an almost impossible job to shackle the Argentine maestro. He ruffled the top of the net with a 13th-minute free kick which just went over the crossbar and then saw a shot whistle past the side of the post. His next free kick smashed the upright dead on. Mandi scrambled the ball away from danger. Betis keeper Adan’s clean sheet was living on borrowed time.
On 36 minutes in was gone – Messi the architect. Barca’s number 10 charged to the edge of the D before feeding Deulofeu whose attempted return flicked off the foot of Betis left back Tosca and into the net.
The next three minutes defined the game. Sergio Leon looked all set to level the scores when one-on-one with Ter Stegen but his ponderousness allowed Mascherano enough time to get back and make an expert tackle. Initially, it looked like a penalty but replays showed the former Liverpool player’s acumen. That was the sliding doors moment. Barca played it forward and more Betis indecision cost the visitors dear. Centre-back Zouhair Feddal failed to clear the ball near the corner flag and got robbed by Deulofeu who squared to an on-rushing Sergi Roberto in the centre of the box to slot home and effectively end the game as a contest.
The second half saw no more goals but chances for Messi – who struck the post two more times – and a golden chance for Aleix Vidal who was too casual and gave Adan the opportunity to save.
Alba could easily have seen red in the 52nd minute for a lunge on Matias Nahuel. He was late and his studs scraped down the Betis player’s shin. Yet in typical style, Alba still had the audacity to lambast the referee for booking him.
Another positive for Los Cules will be the performance of Nelson Semedo who showed skill, composure and pace on his home debut. All signs that he has the attributes needed to develop into first-team mainstay and finally offset some of the fallout from the departure of Dani Alves.
Now the attention will turn back to the transfer market to see if they can get anymore deals done before the deadline. On the night Valverde’s men got the job done and hopefully brought at least some smiles back to a city that is still in mourning.