x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Brilliant Messi and Barca begin with a bang: ‘Messi has been touched by the magic wand’

'It was a good first night at the office' for Luis Enrique's side, writes Andy Mitten, as Lionel Messi was at his best, 18-year-old Munir El Haddadi shined and Barcelona kicked out with a 3-0 victory.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring a goal against Elche during their La Liga opening 3-0 win at the Camp Nou on Sunday night. Alejandro Garcia / EPA / August 24, 2014
Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring a goal against Elche during their La Liga opening 3-0 win at the Camp Nou on Sunday night. Alejandro Garcia / EPA / August 24, 2014

Barcelona’s season was less than two minutes old when a black cat darted across the pitch and brought their game against Elche to a halt.

It’s not easy to make the Catalans’ new coach Luis Enrique smile, but the cat prompted the man wearing a cardigan and tie to do so. Luck is football’s great intangible, but Enrique was seemingly being cursed at the start of his spell in charge of a club which needs a change in fortune after a poor 2014 thus far.

Barca were booed off the field by their own fans after the final game of last season, but optimism returned following a close season where they’ve so far spent EU€153 million (Dh742m) on six new players. Three of those who cost a fee – Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, French defender Jeremy Mathieu and Croatian midfield creator Ivan Rakitic – started in the usual 4-3-3 formation which found no room for Xavi, while striker Munir El Haddadi made his debut after a sleepless night worrying about whether he’d play. The top scorer in the Uefa Under-19 league last season, Munir doesn’t turn 19 until next month, but Enrique opined that he “had no fear” about starting him in front of a 68,105 crowd. Munir began in attack with Lionel Messi and another Barca league debutant, left-winger Rafinha, 21 and Enrique’s best player while on loan at Celta Vigo last season.

Munir struck the top of the crossbar in the 23rd minute after being set up by captain Andres Iniesta, who did likewise with a shot of his own from outside the area nine minutes later. Rakitic impressed with his range of fast and accurate passing, he covered a lot of ground and took free kicks. He appeared to be enjoying himself and later said: “If you play with the best players in the world, everything is easy.”

Messi, predictably, opened the scoring four minutes before half-time. The Argentine had three opponents around him but managed to create space to shoot past Przemyslaw Tyton.

Enrique didn’t smile, but pumped the air with his fist as he walked back to his bench. Two minutes later he returned to the bench with a changed expression. He’d watched defender Javier Mascherano trip Dutch striker Garry Rodrigues and Enrique’s reaction suggested that he knew a red card was coming.

Barca were reduced to 10, with Rafinha sacrificed for the defensive Marc Bartra at half-time. The numerical disadvantage was barely evident and Barca went 2-0 up in the 46th minute when Rakitic chipped the ball over the defence and Munir struck the ball goalwards with the outside of his left foot.

Despite being the league’s eighth best supported club with an average home attendance of 25,320 last season, Elche have La Liga’s lowest annual budget of just €15m. Barcelona’s is anticipated to be €500m, with Messi alone earning more than Elche’s entire squad.

Barca’s adoring fans say the Argentine is worth it, though he needs another great season after an indifferent 2014 so far. Messi started this term with intent and a man of the match performance, his second goal coming in the 63rd minute when he received a ball from Dani Alves and cut across three defenders before firing a low left footed shot to make it 3-0. It was the goal of the warm night and Camp Nou responded with chants of “Meeeesssssssi!” before indulging in a giant Mexican wave.

The strike saw Messi became the first player in La Liga history to score two or more goals in the opening game in four consecutive seasons. The Argentine has now scored two or more in 101 Barcelona games and is just six goals from equalling Zarra’s all-time La Liga goalscoring record.

“What do you want me to say about the best player in the world?” replied Enrique when asked about Messi’s performance. “Messi has been touched by the magic wand and he shows it every day. He surprises you in training.

“I’ve always said Messi is the best player in the world. In everything – scoring, assisting, defending, putting on pressure ...”

Enrique said he was delighted with the performance and also praised Munir, stating: “Let’s not exaggerate, he has a lot to do, but we have great expectations of him, let’s see if they are realised.”

Munir, who was born to Moroccan parents and raised in Madrid, received an ovation when he was replaced by Pedro in the 67th minute, by which time Barca’s 10 were in control and Enrique’s name was being sung by the crowd.

“Did I think the black cat could bring bad luck?” asked Enrique. “He passed by our bench, but he also passed by Elche’s bench, so ...”

And with that, Enrique smiled again, and not just because he still has Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique and Neymar to come into his side. It was a good first night at the office.

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