The 70,066 at Camp Nou tonight were treated to an authentic exhibition as Barça beat Real Sociedad 4-1 to equal the club’s best ever start to the league season with six wins out of six. Doubts raised about the style under Tata Martino were dismissed as Barça gave a brilliant first half display including three goals in the first 23 minutes from Neymar Jr, Leo Messi and Sergio Busquets. Alberto De La Bella pulled a goal back for the Basque team halfway through the second half but Marc Bartrá added a fourth for Barça to complete the victory near the end.
Before the game Martino had defended himself against the critics by producing statistics to show possession last season compared to this. The Argentinian coach brought back Alves, Busquets, Iniesta and Alexis in place of Montoya, Song, Fabregas and Pedro and the team produced a marvellous show comparable to any under Pep Guardiola or Tito Vilanova to suggest there is no loss of style and the players are 100% behind Martino.
The first shot of the game, however, arrived after just 24 seconds and came from the visitors. Adriano lost the ball and Real attacked down their right, the ball came inside to Markel Bergara but his effort went wide. Then shortly afterwards, with Mascherano down injured after receiving Busquets’ studs in his thigh when both players went for the same ball, the Swiss striker Haris Seferovic slammed the ball against Victor Valdés’s crossbar with a 20-yard drive.
With hindsight it is amusing to report that whistles were heard from the crowd in the third minute. Granted, it was probably only about five people who protested when a long hoof forward found nobody. But what followed from Barça was a joy to behold as Xavi, Iniesta, Alexis, Messi and Neymar began to find each other with remarkable ease. In the fifth minute Xavi pushed the ball forward to Alexis on the right, and despite a somewhat clumsy run into the area from the Chilean the Real defence allowed him to cross, centre back Liassine Cadamuro confused keeper Claudio Bravo by inexplicably letting the ball run past him and Neymar arrived to shuffle the ball over the line for his first league goal.
Neymar was boosted by the goal. Less than three minutes later he burst into the left of the area, leaving right-back Daniel Estrada for dead with a brilliant change of pace, before flighting in a cross to the far post where Messi was storming in to put Barça two up with a low diving header. Neymar might have made it 3-0 in the tenth minute after Iniesta’s chipped pass forward sent him through, but Bravo was out quickly to save with an upstretched arm as the Brazilian tried to go past him with a clever flick.
The bad start was forgotton as the crowd sensed a thrashing. Another Neymar assist and Xavi had the ball in the Real net again in the 13th minute but his effort was ruled out for an inexistant offside (left-back De La Bella just played him on) given against Neymar when Iniesta sent him away down the left.
With Xavi and Iniesta enjoying themselves Barça continued to press forward and there wasn’t long to wait for the third goal. Adriano got forward on the left and crossed, Alexis managed to control the ball but couldn’t find space to shoot so he laid the ball out to Alves on the right, the Brazilian crossed to the near post and Messi’s flick at the near post was blocked by Bravo, Messi reacted to fire back the rebound but the ball slammed against the bottom of the crossbar before bouncing on the line and then off the far post, Cadamuro half cleared the ball to Griezmann who, with the referee perhaps getting slightly in his way, then sent a poor ball out of the area that was intercepted by the high-pressing Sergio Busquets who controlled with his right foot before smashing a low left-footer that flew past Bravo from 25 yards.
There could hardly have been a better response from Martino’s team. The play was fast and electric and Real could do little to stop it. The ball was in Bravo’s net for the fifth time in the 34th minute but for the second time the goal was disallowed. Messi made a little run before chipping a pass into Alexis but instead of shooting Alexis crossed for Alves who chested the ball in from an offside position.
It mattered little. With a three-goal advantage, entertainment was now the aim. In the 35th minute Mascherano had to be replaced by Bartrá and soon after there was a move of such beauty that it would have been a contender for goal of the decade if only it could have ended in the net. Messi began the move 30 yards out, he chipped a pass forward to Xavi who flicked the ball on with the outside of his boot to Iniesta who flicked it on again in almost identical fashion, Messi had advanced to receive the ball again and he quickly played a reverse pass back to Iniesta now inside the area and he made a clever quick dribble before opening the play to Neymar on the left, the Brazilian dummied to come inside Estrada’s lunge and pull the ball back for Messi, but with the stadium ready to explode with delight, the Argentina could only make minor contact as he swung his famous left leg, the ball hit Xavi, who couldn’t react in time, and bounced away.
There was still time in the first half for Neymar to shoot over after Iniesta’s assist and for Messi to force another save from Bravo after good work again from Iniesta and Neymar. There had been very little going forward from Real after their two early shots, however, in the 43rd minute they gave the first hint that the game wasn’t over but Valdés was alert to stop Grizmann’s 25-yard drive.
Real showed little fight to try and get back in the game but Barça continued to impress in the second half. Messi had two attempts on goal in the 52nd minute, the first after a 360º turn and low shot that Bravo dived to save, and almost immediately after the Argentinian made a brilliant run into the area but then disappointed by blazing his shot over. Two minutes later Alexis stormed forward on the right, his pass was played on by Messi for Neymar but the angle was a little tight and the Brazilian’s shot was blocked by Bravo at the near post.
Neymar showed his skill in other areas of the pitch, producing a stylish ‘sombrero’ as the Spanish call it (flicking the ball over an opponent’s head and running past him to collect it on the other side). Perhaps Neymar’s class frustrated Real as Agirretxe recieved the only yellow card of the game after bringing down the Brazilian soon after. It may also have had the effect of firing up the Basques a little as in the 61st minute they managed another attempt on goal but Valdés was well placed to gather from Agirretxe’s flicked header. Then two minutes later Piqué failed to clear a ball dropping inside the area, Seferovic made a very good control to slip past the Barça defender before crossing to the far post where De La Bella had an easy finish to make it 3-1 with more than 25 minutes remaining.
There was concern for Barça when Griezmann got in another shot from outside the area, Valdés failed to hold the ball but he was quick to pounce to prevent the rebound. Then in the 72nd minute Griezmann was allowed to run 30 yards inside Barça’s half but his shot went straight at Valdés. It was a brief interlude to the main show. Pedro came on for Neymar, then in the 77th minute Bartrá got forward, Piqué-style, before laying the ball off to Xavi who played it on to Messi who made another electric run into the area before crossing from the left and Bartrá had continued his run into the area to meet the ball with a flick past Bravo from close in.
Sergi Roberto was given a run out for the final ten minutes, replacing Messi whose unhappy reaction to being substituted only demonstrates his desire for the game. Pedro missed a good chance after a build-up involving Alexis, Xavi and Sergi Roberto, then right at the end Alexis was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet when he headed Alves’s cross against the post.
Tonight’s performance demonstrated clearly that we can still expect plenty of beautiful football under Tata Martino. I admit I would much rather win 4-1 playing like we did tonight than 4-0 playing like we did against Ajax and Rayo. What is interesting, and almost certainly a positive thing, is that Martino has demonstrated his tactical know-how. Against Rayo’s high press he told Valdés to play it long to try to exploit the space behind their defence. Tonight against a more defensive team we saw a more patient approach with more involvement from Xavi and Iniesta. For a while now I have wondered what we would see when Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Neymar all find their form together. Tonight, with good support from Alexis, Busquets and Alves, we saw the sensational effect.
In case you missed it here’s that fantastic move in the first half.
Barça: Valdés 7; Alves 7.5, Piqué 6.5, Mascherano 6.5 (Bartrá m35, 7), Adriano 6.5; Xavi 8, Busquets 8.5, Iniesta 8.5; Alexis 8, Messi 9 (Sergi Roberto m81, 6.5), Neymar 9 (Pedro m74, 6).
Real Sociedad: Bravo; Estrada (Ansotegi h/t), Cadamuro, Iñigo Martinez, De La Bella; Markel Bergara, Javier Ros (Pardo m77); Sangalli, Xavi Prieto (Agirretxe m21), Griezmann; Seferović.
Goals: m5 Neymar 1-0, m8 Messi 2-0, m23 Busquets 3-0, m63 De La Bella 3-1, m77 Bartrá 4-1.
Yellow card: m55 Agirretxe