Leo Messi was brilliant. Who would have thought it? But who else stood out as Barcelona lifted yet another trophy?
Wednesday night’s 3-0 win against Sevilla, 5-0 on aggregate, completed the collection; the two-legged trophy joining two La Ligas, two Copa Del Reys, one Champions League, a World Club Clup and a UEFA Super Cup, despite Enrique’s claims in the aftermath that it represented nothing more than an overblown fitness test.
So, what did he, and to a lesser extent we, learn from last night's Camp Nou cruise?
There’s something rather different about Leo Messi these days and we don’t just mean the peroxide platinum or lumberjack fuzz. Last night was another demonstration of Messi at the peak of his powers, though these powers have changed. The mesmeric dribbling no longer headlines his skillset (although his dancing run through three Sevilla defenders featuring at least one nutmeg would argue against that). Instead, Messi now dominates games from the centre, his team-mates and the opposition revolving around him.
Dropping as deep as the centre-circle, the Argentine controlled the tempo and dictated events like the conductor of his own personal orchestra, threading glorious balls into the wide areas or dancing past opponents with a shimmy and shuffle.
Messi is now every bit the playmaker, a most traditional number 10. He set up Arda’s opener, drifting between the lines and sliding a sublime through ball past the defence. Messi now creates chances rather than purely finishing them although his stunning second-half header suggests his goals are hardly going to dry up this season. Just for context, Messi, all five foot seven inches of him, comfortably outjumped the hulking Gabriel Mercado. Is there anything he can’t do?
It’s fair to say Arda Turan’s first year in a Barcelona shirt didn’t quite live up to expectations. An inability to replicate his superb Atletico form in the blue and red had come to define the Turkish international at the Camp Nou, with his performances in pre-season and the Super Cup first leg failing to dispel the feeling that Arda was not quite cut out for a team where perfection is the expectation.
His two goals last night, then, could not have come at a better time. While Neymar strutted his stuff in Rio, Arda was deployed in the Brazilian’s wide left position and repaid Luis Enrique’s faith with a coolly taken goal just nine minutes in. Early in the second half, Arda’s deflected chip left Sergio Rico flat-footed. It’s a sign of the 29-year-old’s growing confidence that he took both shots early where previously he may have rushed or passed on the buck altogether.
But that wasn’t even the peak of his night. Expertly bringing down a raking pass, Arda shrugged off his marker and laid the ball off. A simple skill, but one greeted by rapturous applause. After a summer being booed by his own fans at Euro 2016, Arda needed that.
Shifting through the gears
Despite scoring twice without reply at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in Sunday’s first leg, Barcelona were nowhere near their best, affected, it seemed, by the rigours of pre-season and a summer of international frenzy. However, if last night’s superb team performance is anything to go by, Real Betis may well have their work cut out this weekend in the LaLiga opener. Sevilla pinned Barca back with their aggressive press on Sunday, dominating the first-half and matching possession. Last night, however, Jorge Sampaoli’s side never got close.
Barca’s passing was crisp and their movement sharp; Messi dropping into midfield, Arda Turan and Andre Gomes alternating on the left, full-backs Aleix Vidal and Lucas Digne a constant overlapping outlet. True, Sevilla still created chances, hitting the bar twice and missing from the spot, but Barca have one hand on the gear, revving in the starting grid.
Barca need Bravo
If Claudio Bravo had a trophy ticklist when he joined Barcelona from Real Sociedad in 2012, he’d have checked every box by now. It’s understandable, then, that he may seek a new challenge as he enters the twilight of a late-blooming career. However, as last night demonstrated, Barca should do everything in their considerable power to keep hold of their evergreen 33-year-old.
Bravo was typically superb in possession, displaying a playmaker’s passing range as he threaded passes into midfield with ease. That, of course, is why Pep Guardiola and Manchester City are so enamoured. Yet, in an era where goalkeepers are admired for their footwork and distribution, Bravo offered a timely reminder of why he is truly regarded as one of the world’s elite stoppers. True, Vicente Iborra’s first-half penalty was against everything the textbook teaches, saveable in both height and direction, but it was no coincidence that Bravo guessed right. Claudio, Bravo.
A cup final debut in the shear-walled Camp Nou cathedral is not for the feint hearted. That Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Digne and Andre Gomes appeared completely unfazed is testament to their character as well as quality. It wasn’t perfect: each were at fault to some extent for Sevilla’s first half penalty. Gomes, hardly a natural defender, was caught ball watching and allowed Joaquin Correa to get goalside before the former Sampdoria attacker played into right-back Mariano who evaded Digne after the Frenchman naively committed himself to a lunging challenge. All that was left was Umtiti to throw out an arm in the box.
However, the latter appeared undeterred, displaying all the characteristics Barca have desired in a centre-back since Carles Puyol’s retirement. A calmness in possession coupled with the ability to play out in spite of opposition pressure supplemented Umtiti’s willingness to deal physically and aerially with long-balls and set-pieces. Digne, meanwhile, attacked with authority on the left, his inviting cross to set up Messi’s clincher the last in a series of testing deliveries.
The prodigious Gomes, meanwhile, already appears at home in the presence of such vast talent. Although playing a more reserved role without the trademark lung-busting drives that underlines his bubbling brilliance, Gomes’ linked play effectively and alternated positions intelligently in the midfield.
Once again, Barcelona have spent astutely. Now, if only they can sign a striker…