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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Barcelona: Suarez and Messi share limelight, but Sergi Roberto subtly emerges as a key

Andy Mitten reports from the Camp Nou as Barcelona began their Primera Liga title defence with a resounding victory against Real Betis.
Sergi Robert, left, produced two assists in the first half, while Lionel Messi scored twice and Luis Suarez scored a hat-trick. Alex Caparros / Getty Images
Sergi Robert, left, produced two assists in the first half, while Lionel Messi scored twice and Luis Suarez scored a hat-trick. Alex Caparros / Getty Images

Spain’s Primera Liga kicked off this weekend and for the first time in 12 years, Daniel Alves was not part of the action. The Brazilian, 33, has joined fellow veterans Patrice Evra, Gianluigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini at Juventus.

Alves had been vital to Barcelona since he joined the club from Sevilla in 2008 in what was then a world record fee for a full-back. A one-man right wing, Alves won the lot in Catalonia, but Barca chose not to replace him with a big name signing in the close season.

They did go back to Sevilla a year ago for another full-back, the Catalan Aleix Vidal. The fleet-heeled Vidal started in their 3-0 Spanish Super Cup victory over his former team on Wednesday, but Sergi Roberto is expected to be the man to replace Alves.

Andy Mitten’s Primera Liga preview series:

• Barcelona: Andre Gomes adds depth to title-or-bust season

• Real Madrid: Inactivity mar Real Madrid off-season

• Atletico Madrid: Stable, confident Atletico will be near top again

• The rest: Outside of Big Three, how will the best of the rest fare?

Roberto, 24, started the first league game of the season, a 6-2 home victory over Real Betis. Luis Suarez scored a hat-trick and Lionel Messi scored twice. They will get the headlines, as will Arda Turan, who scored his third goal in a week.

Turan managed only two in his previous 25 since joining from Atletico Madrid. He got his chance because Neymar is with Brazil at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Neymar, Messi and Suarez are expected to dominate the goals and the headlines all season, but Barca’s brilliant attacking individuals have always had back up from technically superb footballers behind them, many of them products of their youth system.

Two of Barca’s first half goals were set up by Roberto, a player who continues to impress for the team he has served all his life.

The fresh-faced Roberto may look younger than his 24 years, but he is no callow youth. He was one of Barca’s best players in a 4-1 victory at Real Madrid last season in his first start against their main rivals.

He started as a forward that day alongside Neymar and Luis Suarez. Roberto is highly versatile. He has played for Barca’s first team in seven different outfield positions in defence, midfield and attack, but his manager has switched him from an assiduous central or defensive midfielder to a tireless right-back who can play anywhere on the flank.

Luis Enrique tried it in the 2015 pre-season against Manchester United and Chelsea in the United States because of an injury to Alves, the departure of Marc Montoya and the sanctions preventing Vidal from playing.

He liked what he saw, and when Roberto was outstanding against Atletico Madrid in the Vicente Calderon in September, he made his mind up that he was a player for the biggest games.

Roberto’s confidence soared, abd while Alves remained the No 1 right back, Roberto did feature in 31 of Barca’s 38 league games last season. His 2,814 minutes of action still left him well short of the more established players around him on the pitch; Javier Mascherano, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets all played more than 4,000 minutes.

Former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola liked Roberto and brought him on against Real Madrid for David Villa when he was only 19, but if last season was his breakthrough, this could be the year he becomes a key starter.

Roberto hails from Reus, a small city in southern Catalonia famous for modernist Gaudi houses. This season Reus were promoted to Spain’s second division for the first time in their 107-year history.

Many of the players who come through Barca’s youth system make a living in Spain’s second tier. Roberto has shown that he won’t be needing that option and is destined for a regular berth at the top.

“Sergi Roberto will eventually become one of the best full-backs in the world,” Enrique said after the match. “He defends well, in attack he’s another midfielder. He’s complete, he doesn’t lose the ball.”

Roberto tweeted after the match: “A great game to start.” He, too, had a great game at the start of what could be his best season yet.

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