Football Features

“Barcelona’s young wizard is the solution” – Winners and Losers as Barca beat Athletic to go top of La Liga

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 23:23, 23 June 2020 | Updated: 9:58, 30 March 2021

In a tight and tense night of football, Barcelona beat Athletic Club 1-0 at the Camp Nou.

The game was an intense showdown of attack vs. defence, with attack just about coming on top thanks to a gamechanging substitute. Who were the winners and losers?

Winner: Riqui Puig

With all the noise being made about Barcelona’s transfer activity in midfield and what the Blaugrana do or do not need, one thing has been overlooked and that is that there is already a midfielder ready to come in and perform in that famous shirt, and that is Riqui Puig.

In a moment you probably couldn’t have scripted better, Riqui Puig came off the bench to replace a lacklustre Arthur. The Brazilian had done little to prove he shouldn’t be sold to Juventus, and the young Catalan showed why he may not be missed if he is.

Riqui Puig was everywhere on the field in a very good way. He immediately supercharged the tempo of the play, racing into 50-50’s with intensity, always showing for and demanding the ball, and then moving it on with intent and ambition. He even looked for people that aren’t Messi, making the kind of passes some other Barcelona players don’t have the confidence to, and earning the Argentine’s trust as a result.

In the end he didn’t get a goal or assist, but Barcelona are the club of appreciating midfielders who control the tempo of matches with such potency it’s like they were wearing the Eye of Agamatto. And having orchestrated Barcelona’s win over Athletic Club by upping the game’s tempo: Riqui Puig, Barcelona’s young wizard, is the heir to Andrés Iniesta’s mantle of Sorcerer Supreme. He is the solution to their problems.

Loser:  Luis Suárez

It’s never pleasant to beat a dead horse but some things are too blatant to be ignored. The extension of the club season afforded Luis Suárez a chance to return from what appeared to have been season-ending surgery. However what is painfully clear is that even the June re-start date has come too soon for the Uruguayan striker.

Sure, Suárez is physically able to play but he is a million miles short of the required fitness and sharpness he would need to compete in La Liga. In each of his performances thus far there have been bright moments but by and large he has looked incapable of even the basics of professional football. His every touch was simultaneously rushed and far too slow, his once formidable athleticism withered and aimless, and his every involvement in attack a detriment to the prosperity of FC Barcelona.

Winner: Oihan Sancet

Playing against Barcelona, especially at the Camp Nou, is a rite of passage for any young midfielder. It’s often one of the biggest tests a midfielder can face, and it’s often a chastening experience. Not so for young Oihan Sancet, who made his 11th appearance of the liga season at looked so comfortable you could have thought he was playing his 111th game.

Sancet faced down a phenomenal Sergio Busquets performance as well as Barcelona’s litany of other attacking talents and battled them as an equal. The young Basque was fearless in his approach and application, registering a joint game-high 4 tackles and even creating a chance. It was a promising showing from a young midfielder who has a lot of potential to grow.

Loser: Antoine Griezmann

You have to feel for Barcelona’s French forward because no matter how hard he has worked it just never seems to come together for him as a Barcelona player. He came into the game tonight having been dropped from the first XI for the game against Sevilla, and was clearly motivated by that because he started this game with a furious intensity.

Griezmann was more dynamic than he has been in what seems like forever. He made darting runs in behind, he offered quick and decisive link-play and as always he defended hard. Yet all of that was for nothing, he couldn’t impact the game where it counted: in the final third.

As the game wore on, eventually you could see his motivation and drive ebbing away. When Leo Messi put him 1v1 after a superb pass, no one believed he would score. Now, sure, it was an incredible save from Unai Simon but there is an aura is failure gathering around Antoine Griezmann and as absurd as it sounds that he could leave the club in the summer after just one season, more and more it feels not only possible but sadly inevitable. When it’s not working, it’s just not working.

Winner: Ivan Rakitic

Ivan Rakitic has really struggled so far this season. The Croatian began the campaign out of favour and on the rare occasions he did get a game, he didn’t really play well. His performance against Sevilla a few days ago was as well as he had played in at least a season, but he managed to top that display with his brief cameo against Athletic.

Rakitic began the game on the bench but came on for Sergio Busquets in the second-half to help protect the Catalan from picking up a second yellow. Rakitic’s performance was unremarkale until the 70th minute when he pushed forward in true Busquets-style to press high and beat Oihan Sancet in a 50-50 and then, when the ball fell to Messi, Rakitic simply continued his run forwards.

Messi’s touch and turn was superb and the ball bounced back into the path of Rakitic and the Croatian showed no hesitation in slamming the ball into the back of the net beyond the reach of the excellent Unai Simon. A sublime, game-winning goal for Rakitic and perhaps the start of a positive and decisive end to the season for the much-maligned midfielder?

Loser: Gaizka Garitano

Athletic Club came into the match today knowing they were facing a demoralised and exhausted Barcelona today, a side at perhaps their lowest ebb. And given that this was a side they had already beaten twice this season, both tight 1-0 wins, they would have felt confident in finally winning at the Camp Nou and doing the double over them in La Liga for the first time since 1987/88.

Gaizka Garitano set his side up superbly to do just that. They sat deep but sprang forward with great intensity and pace, and they completely neutered Jordi Alba as an offensive force by man-marking him with Inigo Lekue. All they had to do was take their chances, but they couldn’t. And when Barcelona changed the tempo of the game with some subs, Garitano couldn’t answer in kind even though he had more starters to call on whereas the Blaugrana were looking to La Masia to save them.

In the end, Barcelona beating Athletic at the Camp Nou is no surprise. But this Barcelona beating this Athletic in this way? Garitano can’t help but be frustrated and feel like he’s missed a huge chance to make history.