Football Features

Barcelona blow La Liga at Balaidos with a dispiriting draw, but La Masia’s young stars offer a way forward

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 18:44, 27 June 2020 | Updated: 9:57, 30 March 2021

In a stunning afternoon of football, Barcelona have drawn 2-2 with Celta Vigo at Balaidos.

The result sees them move one point clear atop La Liga but with Real Madrid having a game in-hand against strugglers Espanyol, this felt very much like the title finally slipping away from the Blaugrana as an imperious Madrid side should go two points clear. However for the vast majority of this game it was one of the brightest displays for Barcelona under Quique Setién (in attack at least) and that was largely thanks to the two youngest players on the pitch.

Of course the goals came from the usual veteran leaders, with Leo Messi twice setting up Luis Suárez superbly for a couple of really great strikes. And those players may draw the headlines, Suárez especially as these goals came after a string of poor performances since La Liga’s restart. The Uruguayan showed that whilst he is obviously impacted by age, no one else in the Barcelona squad can do what he does.

But the problem Suárez presents given his age and physical struggles, is that he disrupts the team. Not intentionally, but his decreased mobility means that Barcelona’s attack is naturally slower. And then given some of the team selections from first Ernesto Valverde and now Quique Setién have also been quite conservative and lacking in dynamism, Barcelona have become a slow and miserable side whose sole attacking joy came from Leo Messi, with occasional flashes from others.

Today, however, Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati took control of the game and really imposed a fast-paced and intelligent style of play from the Blaugrana. Riqui Puig was sensational in midfield, adding the kind of forward-thinking invention that takes so much of the attacking burden off Messi. The young Catalan had 78 touches whilst completing 92.4% of his 66 passes, he was sensational.

In attack Ansu Fati showed once more that despite being just 17-years-old he is a must-start in attack. Utterly fearless in his desire to run at the Celta defence, Ansu gave the Blaugrana so much vertical threat that they tried to make fantastic use of.

So why didn’t Barcelona get a goal despite this great play? Firstly: some historically bad shooting from Leo Messi. The Argentine was peppering the ball at goal as usual but his accuracy was well off for the second time this week.

Mostly though, Suárez disrupts so much. On more than one occasion Ansu was sent hurtling down the left but he had to pull up and wait for reinforcements because Luis Suárez was so far behind him. A forward who could keep up with the Catalan would have allowed Barcelona to really take it to Celta with more punch and consistency that meant that Messi could afford to have a bad shooting night (his assists were still magical) and not endanger the side’s chances of winning.

The kids aren’t flawless, obviously. Riqui Puig is far from the best defender in midfield, but the bigger culprits and those to blame for Celta’s goals were again the veterans. Ivan Rakitic played a horrible square pass in the build-up to Celta’s first goal (Samuel Umtiti had gone AWOL, too) and whilst Iago Aspas’ magnificent free-kick should have been overturned by VAR as it wasn’t a foul in the first place, Gerard Piqué still gave Rafinha the chance to dive by going to ground and Antoine Griezmann jumped out of the way of the ball when Aspas shot.

That Riqui Puig and Ansu were, Messi, Piqué and Ter Stegen aside so thoroughly unsupported in open play yet continued to play with confidence and verve speaks volumes to just how good they are and how good they could become.

La Liga is gone, but the Champions League remains an attainable goal thanks to the compressed schedule. And the match at Balaidos showed what Barcelona need to do in order to turn the corner and prepare themselves for that competition: play the youngsters.

Forget summer signings, Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati have the right kind of talent and the right kind of temperament to change the Blaugrana’s momentum this season. If given the chance, these bright young stars of La Masia are going to illuminate the twilight of this great Barcelona side. With a little help and a little luck they might just bring about a new dawn.