In a tense night of football, Barcelona beat Villarreal 2-1 at the Camp Nou.
Leo Messi made his first start of the season and played well before going off at half-time with a knock. Nevertheless Barcelona picked up the win thanks to two superb goals. Who were the winners and losers?
Winner: Two Titanic No. 8’s
This match was essentially a midfield battle between two excellent no. 8’s: Arthur for Barcelona and Santi Cazorla for Villarreal. There is an 11 year age gap between the two players but whilst Arthur plays with an intelligence beyond his years, Cazorla can move with a spring that belies his own advancing age. The result? Pure magic.
Arthur dominated the early stages of the game, moving the ball about the pitch with supreme authority. He also rather casually doubled Barcelona’s lead with an absolutely stunning strike from 25 yards. No one in Villarreal bothered to close him down, so the Brazilian let fly with an absolute missile of a strike that was hit so pure that Sergio Asenjo didn’t even dive. Arthur then played well for the rest of the game, spinning away from Villarreal players and carrying the ball forward with real intent.
Now, at 2-0, you would have expected the game to be over. But Santi Cazorla grew into proceedings and so did Villarreal. Messi’s injury helped, sure, but Cazorla soon began running rings around the Barcelona midfield (well, around Sergi Roberto). Then with the first-half winding down, Cazorla burst into the Barcelona half on his left-foot and then, seeing space ahead of him, launched an absolute rocket into the roof of the net. The two-footed titan struck it so sweetly that even though it looked like Ter Stegen should save it, he had no chance.
Santi Cazorla has scored in back-to-back games for the first time since 2016.
⚽️ vs. Real Valladolid
⚽️ vs. Barcelona
Back on the scoresheet. pic.twitter.com/utwFziq45x
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 24, 2019
Cazorla pulled Villarreal back into the game and then for the first 15 minutes of the second period he ran the show and almost scored a second but for a great save from Ter Stegen (he created five chances, more than twice as many as anyone else on the pitch). Cazorla couldn’t manage it in the end and the emergence of Frenkie de Jong gave Barcelona the advantage back. Cazorla went off after 77 minutes, but notably he left the field to a standing ovation. A true appreciation of a magnificent footballer putting in a supreme performance.
Loser: Leo Messi
This was Leo Messi’s first start of the season, and almost instantly it was obvious how good Messi is. The Argentine dominated the game, bamboozled Villarreal’s defenders and laid on the opening goal with a brilliant near-post corner for Antoine Griezmann. Messi’s display was sprinkled with moments of magic, dazzling bits of dribbling and a couple of tasty passes that seemed like a player warming to his task.
Then he was on the ball, being closed down from behind and when he didn’t get a shout from Sergi Roberto and got clattered. He was down for a while, then had to go get some treatment on the sideline. He seemed to shrug it off, coming back onto the pitch and playing out the half albeit without the same verve he had before. At half-time he was subbed off and everyone is hoping it was just a precaution because Barcelona have suffered immensely without Messi, if they have to play many more matches without him things could get very, very bad.
Winner: Junior Firpo
Junior Firpo’s second start in a Barcelona shirt was already better than his first when he managed to go one minute without humiliating himself. Whereas away to Granada he had already given the ball away then slipped and allowed the Andalucians in to score, here tonight he had already made an impressive overlapping run beyond Antoine Griezmann.
All jokes aside, Firpo followed that error-free minute by a genuinely positive display. The young Dominican defended, well, he didn’t defend too brilliantly but he wasn’t in the team to do that. In terms of providing the attacking outlet on the left, Firpo was more than game. He made countless runs forward (one involving some supreme dribbling skill that would make Jordi Alba want to hit the cones) and never hesitated to whip in a deliciously quick low cross. In fact he could have had two assists if Luis Suárez weren’t such a shambles.
Don’t let his debut fool you, Junior Firpo is going to be very, very good for Barcelona.
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Winner: Ousmane Dembélé
Most players get better during injury absences as fans long for their talents and mythologise them in the player’s absence. Ousmane Dembélé has gotten worse since he’s been out, albeit that’s largely because Ansu Fati showed up and shook the Camp Nou up despite being five years younger than the 21-year-old Dembélé.
Dembélé came on at half-time for an injured Messi and seemed to be aware of his dwindling reputation because he hit the game like Mike Tyson in his prime. Dembélé flew off the bench. Within minutes he was flinging in stunning cross off both feet. He gave Antoine Griezmann a great chance that his compatriot missed, he gave Luis Suárez an even better one the Uruguayan dribbled towards goal.
Loser: Ousmane Dembélé
Dembélé was a constant threat when on the ball, it’s true. But as a winger who does play very wide he should also have been a threat off the ball and yet he categorically was not. In fact after those two early should-have-been-assists didn’t work out, all the bad traits Dembélé has came out. The Frenchman began dawdling on the ball, giving it away needlessly.
Most frustrating of all was his point-blank refusal to make off-the-ball runs. The amount of times Arthur or Frenkie de Jong had the ball in a great position, shaped to play a pass inside the Villarreal left-back for Dembélé but had to check because Dembélé just stood there waiting for a pass into feet. It was utterly ridiculous because with his pace, the Frenchman would have gotten miles behind the defence by the time the ball got to him and could have created all manner of chances from that great position. Dembélé is obviously great but he has got to start making off the ball runs or he will never make it at Barcelona, they’re that important at the Camp Nou.
Loser: Luis Suárez
Goodness, where to begin? After 180 minutes of diabolically bad football against Borussia Dortmund and Granada, Luis Suárez somehow managed to start against Villarreal. Still, Suárez did score two goals last time he was in the Camp Nou, so Ernesto Valverde was probably betting on that kind of sauce taking hold. Thing is, he did that when coming off the bench against a tired team. Here he was in from the start and absolutely no one was surprised when he was utterly useless.
Suárez broke down at least 10 promising Barcelona attacks because of his poor touch, poor speed of thought and poor speed of body. He was a massive detriment to Barcelona’s attack, making them looked stilted and awkward. And without the ball he was as useful as a screen door on a submarine, offering nothing like the relentless pressing energy he used to. It was sad to see him huff and puff his way around the pitch, really, we’re used to seeing him dominate opponents and now he couldn’t dominate a poodle.
Ernesto Valverde kept him on for 75 minutes before eventually taking him off, and the difference in the quality of football between the 75 minutes he was on and the 15 minutes he was off was like night and day. Suddenly Barcelona attacked with verve and thrust as Ansu Fati lifted the side with his daring and Antoine Griezmann as well as Frenkie de Jong and Arthur finally had some freedom to run. It was sensational to watch and Barcelona were unlucky not to score in this period.
If Messi is out injured, then a front three of Griezmann, Dembélé and Ansu seems like a must. Suárez can return to his role of coming of the bench to punish tired opponents with devastating finishes that don’t require him to, y’know, move. There’s no denying the man is a Barcelona legend who has done many, many remarkable things at the Camp Nou and beyond – but he is yesterday’s man, and Barcelona need to be a club looking ahead to the future.