After what must have seemed like a particularly long summer break for the club and fans after last season’s trophyless campaign, it was finally time for Barca to get back to La Liga action on Sunday night. Although their opponents Elche will hardly provide them with their stiffest test of the season, the signs of change were encouraging. Almost with immediate effect you could see the players were looking fresh and more coherent as a team and with each player knowing their specific role. An accusation was that under Martino this wasn’t always the case and they looked unorganised and disjointed. There is very little chance a team under Luis Enrique's leadership will suffer the same accusations.
The new Barca boss gave 5 players their first league starts for Barca, with new signings Bravo, Mathieu, Rakitic and also the two La Masia graduates Rafinha and the 18 year old Munir El Haddadi. Whilst it is hard to judge Bravo and Mathieu who will obviously have harder games to deal with in the future, they looked comfortable in their new surroundings. As did Rafinha up until the half time break, when he had to make way for Bartra, who was coming on as defensive cover due to Mascherano's departure. If Rakitic can continue as he started he is sure to become a pivotal and popular member of the team, showing determination in defence and composure mixed in with adventure going forward. The name that most of the fans and the media have been left talking about is Munir El Haddadi. The youngster had a memorable pre-season and brought that form into his first La Liga start looking lively and dangerous throughout his debut.
There were a lot of things definitely looking different to last year, for a start it looks as though Leo Messi has decided to take up running during matches again this season. While 2013/14 can hardly be considered a failure (41 goals and 15 assists in all competitions) it definitely wasn’t one of his best. Against Elche though he looked back to peak form, with the pressures of the World Cup behind him he looks like a man set to prove a point back at club level. After Munir had seen his sharp chance hit the woodwork and Iniesta suffering the same fate, it was Messi who opened the scoring towards the end of the first half. With some trademark close control and quick feet he got into the position to calmly place the ball into the corner. Unfortunately for Barca this good work was almost completely undone when Rodrigues found himself clean through and Mascherano was left with little option but to cynically bring Rodrigues down, in doing so earning himself a red card.
This man advantage for Elche had absolutely no effect on the pattern of the game, Barcelona continued to dominate possession and almost immediately after the break they were 2-0 up. Rakitic playing a perfectly weighted ball over the Elche defence with Munir latching on to it perfectly and lobbing the keeper with one touch. Barca then looked completely comfortable and went 3-0 up in the 64th minute through another fine Messi move and finish in to the bottom corner. The game finished at 3-0 and with Barcelona looking relatively untroubled throughout. Only the red card for Mascherano as the blemish on the performance, it was the ideal start for the new manager. With the likes of Pique, Suarez and Neymar still to fit into the team, Barca fans should feel entitled to have a certain amount of optimism and hope for the season ahead.
Barcelona’s next fixture is away to the ever improving Villareal who under Marcelino finished an impressive 6th in La Liga last year losing only 4 games at home. They too had a winning start to the season and are coming off the back of a 2-0 win away at Levante. This fixture should prove to be a much bigger test for the ‘new’ Barca and also a much better game upon which to judge just how far they have come since last season.
(Next fixture away to Villareal is on Sunday 31st August: Kick off time 19:00)