Leo Messi had a complicated time last season. The Argentinian star suffered a drop in form that left many culés wondering if we would ever see him play again at the level that earned him four consecutive Ballon d’Ors. The best news of Barça’s 3-0 victory over Elche in Luis Enrique’s opening league game as first-team coach was the return of Messi to something approaching his best. There were twists and turns, blistering acceleration, hunger to fight for the ball and two goals straight from the Messi textbook to secure the three points.
Messi wasn’t the only star. Munir El-Haddadi was rewarded for an excellent preseason with a place where Neymar would have played if he hadn’t sprained an ankle on Thursday evening, and the youngster responded with a well-taken debut goal and another effort that flew out off the post.
Barça lined up in a 4-3-3 formation with Messi playing his false nine role while Munir and Rafinha played closer to the penalty area than to the wings. There was a clear intensity to Barça’s game that saw the team control the game from start to finish despite Mascherano’s red card shortly before half time. Ivan Rakitic fitted in well to the midfield alongside Busquets and Iniesta, adding energy that was missing last season.
The more central positioning of Rafinha and Munir saw Rakitic and Iniesta looking for passes inside to the forwards. There was little penetration through Elche’s packed defence early on but in the 22nd minute a dribble and pass from Iniesta gave Munir the chance to turn his defender before cracking a shot against the top of the near post. When Iniesta’s 20 yard drive came out off the crossbar ten minutes later there was the feeling that perhaps the black cat that interrupted play for nearly two minutes at the start of the game had only brought bad luck for the blaugrana.
Barça continued to press forward with Alves coming close with a volley from Rakitic’s corner. Messi’s turns and runs were causing problems but without much luck, in thev 40th minute he slipped a pass through for Munir, but instead of shooting the youngster looked for Rafinha but sent his pass a yard in front of his teammate. Barça’s high pressing game finally reaped rewards in the 42nd minute when Elche right-back Damian gave a poor ball out of defence which was intercepted by Busquets who managed to stab the ball forward to Messi who span away from his marker before shooting low across goalkeeper Tyton into the far corner.
The goal was well deserved as Elche had done practically nothing going forward. However, a minute after the goal Busquets headed a long clearance from Tyton back towards his own goal, Rodrigues burst onto the loose ball and Mascherano couldn’t avoid clipping the Elche player’s heels. Referee Fernando Teixeira Vitienes pulled out the red card as Mascherano was the last defender. Barça held on until half time but with only a one-goal advantage the second half wasn’t looking easy.
Luis Enrique brought on Marc Bartra for the second half with Rafinha paying the price of Mascherano’s expulsion. Barça switched to 4-3-2 though Munir worked hard to get back when Elche had the ball to support the midfield. Just 52 seconds after the restart Rakitic inside the centre circle sent a beautiful left foot pass over the defence and Munir ran through to beat Tyton with a skilful flick with the outside of his left boot.
The second goal did enough to kill off any response from Elche though to be honest the visitors never looked like troubling Claudio Bravo in the Barça goal. Despite being down to ten men Barça controlled the ball and the pace of the game and basically gave Elche the runaround. Messi made it 3-0 in the 63rd minute after he tried to play a return pass to Alves and recovered the ball off an Elche defender, there were three defenders in front of the Argentinian but he darted quickly to his left to find the space and then fired clinically home into the far corner.
Munir received an ovation when he was replaced by Pedro halfway through the second half. The Canarian looked to make an immediate impact with a splendid 50-yard run but his final shot went straight at Tyton. Sergi Roberto came on for Iniesta near the end but with little time to impress. A fourth goal was close in injury time after Messi’s ball for Pedro but Tyton was quick off his line to save.
Mascherano’s sending off could easily have complicated things for Barça but the response in the second half was highly encouraging. Bravo didn’t have a shot to stop all night and on the few occasions that the defence was tested Mathieu looked solid while Alba worked tirelessly all night. The defence had little to do because the team kept possession expertly while when the ball was lost the back four were always well protected by the well-positioned Busquets and the energetic Rakitic. Overall it was a very good start from Luis Enrique’s men which offers hope for a successful season. There were positive performances all round but most praise should go to Munir, a star in the making who we can look forward to enjoying in the coming years, and to Leo Messi who showed signs of his old unstoppable self which will have the rest of Europe very worried indeed.
Barça: Bravo 6.5; Alves 6.5, Mascherano 6, Mathieu 7, Alba 7.5; Rakitic 7.5, Busquets 7, Iniesta 7.5 (Sergi Roberto m78, 6); Rafinha 6 (Barta h/t, 7), Messi 8.5, Munir 7.5 (Pedro m67, 7).
Elche: Tyton; Damian, Lomban, Pelegrin, Edu Albacar; Pasalic (Adrian m81), Jose Angel (Alvaro m54) Mosquera; Rodrigues, Johnathas, Coro (Fajr m65).
Goals: m42 Messi 1-0, m46 Munir 2-0, m63 Messi 3-0.
Yellow card: m55 Pasalic.
Red Card: m43 Mascherano.