The Argentine made the difference by scoring two and helping to create another in a dynamic display that shows the Blaugrana can be contenders again
It was a symbolic scoreline. Barcelona beat Juventus 3-0 on Tuesday night in their first Champions League match since losing to the Italian champions 3-0 on aggregate in the last eight of Europe’s premier club competition last season. The Blaugrana are back and with Lionel Messi, they will always have a chance.
After losing to Juve, much was made of the fact that Messi had never scored against Gianluigi Buffon, while the Argentine also failed to hit the target over two legs as Barca were beaten 5-1 by fierce rivals Real Madrid in August.
That damaging defeat, allied with a tumultuous summer in which Neymar moved to Paris Saint-Germain, top targets like Marco Verratti and Philippe Coutinho were not signed and it also emerged that Messi had not put the final signature onto the contract agreement announced by Barca in July, brought much doom and gloom.
The team’s decline was a worry for fans of the Catalan club and president Josep Maria Bartomeu is facing a censure motion or vote of no confidence as former candidate Agusti Benedito seeks to gather sufficient signatures to force fresh elections next year.
On the pitch, however, things have gone surprisingly well since the Supercopa. Under new coach Ernesto Valverde, Barca have won their opening three league matches (against Betis, Alaves and Espanyol), scoring nine goals in that time and conceding none.
And Ousmane Dembele, who made his debut with an assist in the 5-0 win over Espanyol on Saturday, was handed his first start on Tuesday against a Juventus team missing Giorgio Chiellini, Stephan Lichtsteiner (not chosen in Juve’s European squad), Juan Cuadrado, Sami Khedira, Claudio Marchisio and Mario Mandzukic.
The France forward was bright in the first half with some neat runs, many of which were halted by fouls from the Juventus defence. However, the 20-year-old also looked lost on occasions and will take time to adjust to his new team.
But Dembele did play a part in Messi’s opening goal before the break, the former Borussia Dortmund forward linking up with the Argentine, who in turn played a one-two with Luis Suarez and placed a perfectly executed low drive into the corner from the edge of the box.
It was unstoppable and it had come virtually out of nothing. Later, the Argentine attacked down the right on a mesmerising run, his cross only partially cleared by makeshift right-back Stefano Sturaro (on for the injured Mattia De Sciglio) and Ivan Rakitic rifling home the loose ball.
And with just over 20 minutes left, Messi attacked through the middle this time, beating defenders before curling home with another fantastic finish. Again, he had made the difference – and he had done so mostly on his own.
Granted, Juventus were without several key players and time will tell how much of a threat the Bianconeri will be in this season’s Champions League after losing Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci to AC Milan in the summer.
But Barca still have their Leo and as the team adjust to Valverde’s methods, he looks ready to lead this side against the very best later on in the season. Despite a shocking summer, the Blaugrana can never be written off with Messi in their ranks.