The Blaugrana were brilliant at the Camp Nou, where they did battle with a determined Juve side in the first half before blowing them away in the second with an excellent display of passing, pressing and Leo Messi-ing; the Argentine was unbelievable, but what did we learn?
1. Andrés Iniesta: the 30 minute master
Andrés Iniesta has looked done as an elite level central midfielder, or interior, for the last year. It’s not that he’s lost all his quality, but age has caught up with him. Father Time is undefeated when taking on elite athletes and Iniesta is no exception.
Against Juve however, he rolled back the years with a superb display. Well, part of a superb display. He opened the first half flying like Iniesta of old. Suddenly he had the pace to drift and glide away from opponents, almost weightless as he moved across the turf.
He was fiendish in the press as well, helping to hunt down Juve players in a manner that belied his age. This was his fourth game in 10 days and it was by far his best performance, for 30 minutes. After the half hour mark he began slowing down and the flaws that marked his performance all along (his transition defence was woeful and Juve cut Barça up on the break more than once) spread to everything else.
Suddenly he looked his age again, suddenly he was “finished” once more. The Blaugrana cruising into a 2-0 leadearly in the second prevented it from being too much of an issue in the second half. Still, the truth had been revealed: Andrés Iniesta can still rock and roll and waltz all over the pitch against any level of opponent, but probably not for more than half an hour.
2. Miralem Pjanic the midfield general
In the past few years, Juventus have sold Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba. That’s a dizzying amount of midfield talent to lose and continue on; yet that is exactly what Juve have done and a big reason why has been the excellence of Miralem Pjanic.
Signed from Roma last summer, Pjanic has been great for Juve thus far and tonight in Catalunya was no exception. He was the Italian’s best player as they attempted to negotiate the excellence of their hosts, moving the ball around the Camp Nou with a surprising authority for the visitors.
Pjanic completed 83% of his passes, misplacing just 9. He won 100% of his take-ons, 38% of his tackles (he was going all-out to trying to handle Leo Messi at false nine) and made 2 blocks as well. Juventus lost comfortably but Pjanic was class throughout.
3. Dembélé is a delight, but patience is needed
Ousmane Dembélé cost Barcelona €105m and while he isn’t worth that fee (inflated by the Neymar sale) he is one of the most electrifying talents in world football. His debut, a 20 minute cameo at the weekend against Espanyol, saw him set-up a goal with a lovely run and cross.
Tonight in his first start he was bright. So lively and full of intent, not overawed by the occasion or opponent. He filled out the shirt, attacking with confidence and defending with diligence. But in the second half especially, he definitely looked like a player who had only trained for one week.
Passes went astray, touches were heavy, sometimes he would dribble by two defenders only to run into a third. If he were Neymar, fans would be understandably frustrated with such a profligate showing. But he’s not Neymar. He’s a 20 year-old starting just his second full season as a first-team regular.
Ousmane Dembélé is sensational but there is much for him to learn. Patience will be required as he adapts his game to his new team-mates and gains the fitness and sharpness needed to show his skills.
4. The False Nine Returns
In January 2015, Luis Enrique moved Luis Suárez to the middle of Barcelona’s attacking trio and M-S-N was born. This was also the end of the the phenomenal period where Leo Messi played false nine, taking a role that Francesco Totti brought back into the imagination to whole new levels.
But now, after a two and a half year hiatus, the false nine is back. Ernesto Valverde put Messi at the heart of his side and thus far Messi has responded with one supreme performance after another. Tonight Juventus, the team that thwarted Barça’s ambitions last season, were swatted aside with ease.
And it really was easy, at least that’s how it seemed. Messi was utterly imperious against Juve. He ran the show from midfield and up-front, roaming all over the pitch and constantly causing danger. He began attacks, he ended attacks, he took his three-game scoreless streak against Gianluigi Buffon and broke it in half across his knee.
The first goal saw him control time so well you’d think he was Doctor Strange wielding the Eye of Agamotto; he slowed everyone down, teased a pass to Alba that the entire Juve defence fell for, and then moved into light-speed in the blink of an eye, surging into the heart of the defence and plunging a dagger there with a goal that left Buffon, one of history’s finest ever goalkeepers, motionless.
His second goal (the club’s third) saw him pick up a through-ball from Iniesta and drift infield, leaving Alex Sandro and Medhi Benatia stumbling in their boots trying to avoid “doing a Boateng” and then scorching a fireball of a shot into the side of Buffon’s net, killing the game.
Europe beware, Leo Messi is back in the false nine saddle and he looks more lethal than ever.
5. Nelson Semedo is the perfect signing
When Pep Guardiola began his footballing revolution, one of the key signings was Dani Alves. Although because he was a right-back, the Brazilian’s importance was overlooked by many (but not all). Now, as Barcelona look to start a new era of dominance, they once again have a brilliant right-back that is absolutely essential to their success.
Against Juventus, Nelson Semedo was absolutely sensational. Probably the best player on the pitch besides Leo Messi, especially in the first half when Juve were Barça’s equal and really giving as good as they got. The Portuguese pushed Barça forward when he had the ball, but what was more impressive was just how tune in he was to the defensive side of things.
Semedo’s electric pace and keen defensive sensibilities make him an incredible recovery defender, allowing him to bail the Blaugrana out of several bad situations. Not just stopping counters, but even rushing across to defend the far post from a cross; something a Barça full-back hasn’t done well since Eric Abidal’s heydey. He’s transformative.
Nelson Semedo won’t get the glory, but today showed why he was the perfect signing for Barcelona.