Camp Nou, Barcelona – Groans followed the gasps, and then came chants of “Messi! Messi! Messi!” The realisation set in that he was to depart, his game was over, and later on, it would be confirmed that he would be out for at least three weeks, an arm fracture keeping him out of next weekend’s clasico against Real Madrid. But at the Camp Nou, in the moment there and then, more pressing matters were at hand.
Leo Messi could not have left his side in a better position, just over 20 minutes played and Barcelona were two goals up against Sevilla in the top of the table clash. One of them came from a neat one-touch through-ball Messi assist that allowed Philippe Coutinho to curl a sweet strike into the top corner in the second minute. Messi scored the second himself 10 minutes later when he ran inside and shot into the far corner.
In many ways, Messi gave Barcelona the victory despite only featuring for the first quarter. The 65 minutes that followed ended in itself as a draw, 2-2, and raised many questions about Barcelona and Sevilla. It is, of course, crude to suggest that had Messi stayed on the pitch then things may have well fallen into place differently – and no one could deny that Messi playing in a sling would probably still be as good as most – but the miss was palpable and encouraged Sevilla to seize the initiative.
The pressures going into this match were noticeable both on Ernesto Valverde and Barcelona. Four games without a win required a response, but Valverde was keen to emphasise that despite the sticky moment that his side found themselves they were still only a point off the top of the table. The league leaders at the beginning of the matchday were, in fact, Sevilla and, although possibly harsh to say so, that was mainly through default.
There is no doubt that Pablo Machin has brought renewed vigour to Sevilla since joining in the summer, his emphasis on wing-play and the use of a 3-4-3 system has enabled them to score plenty of goals, but conceding has been an issue. Being top of the pile after eight matches came as a result of winning four consecutive matches – including a comprehensive 3-0 beating of Real Madrid – whilst those amongst them struggled for consistency.
This match was, therefore, a chance for Sevilla to show that they do mean business, and winning away at the current league leaders, only 24 days after beating the current European champions, would be a statement of intent irrespective of their opponent’s current troubles. It was consequently surprising to see how Sevilla addressed the match; the early goal did no doubt strike fear and signalled the intent of their hosts, but the Andalusians struggled to make any meaningful headway in a rather one-way first-half.
The loss of Messi overshadowed the affair, but it did stir the visitors into action. The latter stages of the half saw Sevilla playing more confidently with the ball at their feet. A run of corner-kicks late on in the first-half presented chances for a goal that would have no doubt seeded doubt into a Barcelona defensive not currently as robust and stable as normal.
The second period began very much as the first had ended, with Sevilla dominating. Jesus Navas and Arana Lopez on either wing were energetic and skilful with their deliveries into the Barcelona penalty area. Andre Silva, the second highest goalscorer in La Liga this season with seven, did not have his shooting boots on and couldn’t convert.
What Machin’s system does allow is for Pablo Sarabia and Wissam Ben Yedder, the two wide attackers, to exploit the space between centre-back and full-back that has been widened by the running wing-backs, thus providing another more intricate option rather than crosses from deep. One such intricate piece of play from Navas should have seen Sevilla awarded a penalty; his cross into the area clipped Jordi Alba’s raised left arm and another VAR official could well have awarded it.
Sevilla’s best chance of the match so far, though, came just after the hour mark, and none more so was the unpredictable nature of this La Liga season seen than on the pitch in the minutes that followed. Another Navas cross – this one from deeper and more dinked – was met by the head of Silva, Marc-Andre ter Stegen leapt and managed to stretch a right hand to the top corner where the ball was heading. Ter Stegen was still on the floor when Franco Vazquez latched onto the rebound and shot towards the near post, but the German should true goalkeeping reflexes to launch himself from a lying position into a wide starfish shape to deny in spectacular fashion.
In the same passage of play, Barcelona countered towards the Sevilla goal. Luis Suarez was one-on-one with Tomas Vaclick and tried to round the goalkeeper, but the Czech left an outstretched arm available for Suarez to trip over. Referee Martinez Munuera pointed to the spot and with that, the game seemingly ended. The spot-kick still had to be dispatched, but Suarez dusted himself down to do just that; hard and low into the bottom left corner.
Sevilla did bite back, however, when Sarabia created space outside of the Barcelona area and struck a rather hopeful effort towards goal, but a deflection off former Sevilla defender Clement Lenglet turned the shot from savable into a goal. A much needed clean sheet for La Blaugrana had dissipated. The three-goal lead was restored though when Ivan Rakitic – also formerly of Sevilla – struck a well-executed shot across the Sevilla penalty area and beyond Vaclik into the corner of the net.
Ter Stegen performed yet more heroics to keep Sevilla at bay, but could not stop a curling Luis Muriel shot following a Sevilla counter in stoppage time. It never became nervy, but Barcelona’s apparent inability to see out the game was striking. Valverde’s most immediate concern must be making his defence more cohesive, currently, they look too permeable.
The victory sent Barcelona into first-place, taking the spot from Alaves who had moved there following a win in Vigo on Friday evening. It was a performance, and a result, to please Valverde and the Barcelona supporters, being top of the table heading into an important Champions League-La Liga week is what was needed.
But despite Sevilla’s resolve and Ter Stegen’s man of the match winning performance in goal, the name on everyone’s lips at full-time was Messi. His absence is felt psychologically just as much as physically, that was apparent in the hour here, where Barcelona managed to see out an important win.
Los Otros Puntos
“This Madrid are a wreck! [Julen] Lopetegui loses all his credit after another meltdown; he’s staying on because there isn’t a clear replacement. Sergio Ramos, who recommended him, is in question. Florentino Perez’s bad planning compromises the project.” That was Marca’s headline on Sunday morning, the Madrid-based, Real-supporting newspaper was harsh but correct in certain aspects. To blame Lopetegui entirely for Real Madrid’s recent form is ignorant. Defeat at home to Levante was yet more confirmation that Real’s aura is disappearing; the natural cycle that Zinedine Zidane anticipated is coming true and Real look a shadow of the team that won in Kyiv in late May. Levante were worth their victory, but luck was against Real who managed 34 goal attempts, struck three posts and had two goals disallowed. Sacking Lopetegui would not be the solution to the problem; it would only highlight it further.
Matters couldn’t be starker for Espanyol, up to second in the table and now fully enthused about Rubi’s reign. A brace from new-signing Borja Iglesias – or, Bobby English to you and me – saw off Huesca in what was a tight and fiery affair.
Athletic Bilbao went only a few miles southeast to Eibar in search of their first win since the opening match day. Los Leoneses went behind in the 17th minute having conceded a penalty with Charles converting. But the visitors were level only three minutes later as Inaki Williams scored, that being his 12th away goal since his last one at home in December 2016 against Eibar. Athletic were lucky to even take a point back to Bilbao as Eibar were the better side and created more chance, but a point they took.
Vallecas is always different; whilst the rest of Spain was slowly getting up on Sunday morning, at Rayo Vallecano, there were 39 fouls, eight yellow cards, one red, a penalty, three goals and a whole load of excitement – long may it continue.
Celta Vigo 0-1 Alaves
Real Madrid 1-2 Levante
Valencia 1-1 Leganes
Villarreal 1-1 Atletico Madrid
Barcelona 4-2 Sevilla
Rayo Vallecano 1-2 Getafe
Eibar 1-1 Athletic Bilbao
Huesca 0-2 Espanyol
Real Betis 0-1 Valladolid
Real Sociedad – Girona to be played on Monday