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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Camp Nou comes alive to support Barcelona in Copa del Rey triumph

The Primera Liga club's fans have not always been vocal this season but they were on Thursday as Espanyol were beaten.

Barcelona's players thank their fans for their support on Thursday night. Alejandro Garcia / EPA
Barcelona's players thank their fans for their support on Thursday night. Alejandro Garcia / EPA

For the first time this season, Camp Nou came alive as Barcelona came from a goal down in the first leg to beat neighbours Espanyol 2-1 on aggregate. The great old stadium was louder than in any of the previous games, the 79,774 crowd the biggest seen this term.

Camp Nou is often derided for its lack of atmosphere, for the seldom-satisfied home fans who set the bar so impossibly high that they are never happy, for the high number of tourist fans who gawp at the brilliance of Lionel Messi rather than contribute to the atmosphere.

It was different against Espanyol on a damp, cold, January evening on Thursday. Very different. From the emotional goodbye to Javier Mascherano, a cerebral player on the pitch and thinker off it for the last nine years at Camp Nou, to the debut of another former Liverpool player, record signing Philippe Coutinho, Camp Nou was finally charged. It has taken some time.

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Barcelona have been clinically effective this season. No Barca fans pretend that the football they’re watching is comparable with Guardiola’s side at their best, but what is?

Coach Ernesto Valverde inherited a club where fires needed putting out everywhere as the spectre of terrorism and Catalan independence had debilitating effects outside it.

Valverde has done a remarkable job and unbeaten Barca are 11 points clear at the top of the Primera Liga. Virtues have been many, from the effectiveness of Paulinho to the repositioning of Lionel Messi and his link up with Jordi Alba. Goalkeeper Andre ter Stegen is outstanding, Sergio Busquets has yet to give the ball away and Real Madrid are losing, but, until Thursday, the atmosphere has been letting the side down.

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Average home attendances of 55,121 are 22.4 per cent down on last season’s 77,443. Political unrest, the threat of terrorism, Neymar’s departure and high prices could all partly explain the fall.

The crowd against Espanyol was the first to surpass last season’s average figure. And how they were up for it.

Hundreds of hardcore Barca fans marched around the perimeter of the stadium before the game, waving flags and letting off flares.

Inside, they were noisy throughout. Their team had to score two if they were to reach the Copa del Rey semi-final for an incredible eighth successive year. They’ve also reached the last four finals of the only competition Real Madrid failed to win in 2017.

It was not only the fans. Valverde was animated, cursing as heavy challenges went in on Messi. Yet it was Luis Suarez, Messi and Paulinho who were booked for rightly protesting, which infuriated fans.

There was a mighty roar to welcome Coutinho, who performed well in his 22-minute cameo after replacing the man he’s likely to replace permanently, Andres Iniesta. Both received huge ovations.

Barca had their way, a superb Luis Suarez header giving them the lead after eight minutes. Messi made it two after 25 minutes, recovering from losing the ball to regain possession and shoot. Messi’s desire to get the ball in seemingly dead situations has become marked this season. He was the best player on the pitch and worth every one of the huge ‘Messi! Messi!’ chants swirling around the vast arena.

Though limited in their attacks, Espanyol, who’d ended Barca’s 29-game unbeaten run last week, were tough to break down and the result hung in the balance. A goal and they would be through.

Goalkeeper Pau Lopez kept them in it with a double save from Suarez and Ivan Rakitic. Their coach Quique Sanchez Flores described the derby as ‘intense’. It was, but better than that, the Camp Nou crowd found their voice.

Barca still have to entertain Madrid, Valencia and Atletico Madrid. Then there’s the cup semi-final, and the Uefa Champions League against Chelsea. Their players will gain additional confidence from knowing that their support has woken from its prolonged slumber.