Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 4 June 2020

Quique Setien off the mark for Barcelona and early signs are encouraging - although tide will turn if performances drop

New manager gets his first win in his first game thanks to Messi's goal at Camp Nou

It was a long time coming, but new Barcelona manager Quique Setien got a win in his first game. Lionel Messi scored the only goal on a chilly, windy night against a Granada side who defeated the Catalans earlier in the season. Setien changed Barca’s system but he needed to rely on the one man every manager in the world would like in his team.

Messi’s goal – which meant he moved one ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo as the highest goalscorer in the history of Europe’s top five leagues – followed a beautifully worked move and came 15 minutes from time after Granada had gone down to 10 men.

It would have been interesting to see the reaction of Barca fans had they not won. Many claimed that their former manager Ernesto Valverde had abandoned their style and that style was more important than results.

Setien got his points and he put his point across with a 3-4-3 and sometimes 3-5-2 formation. Barca enjoyed 82 per cent of the possession in the first half and 84 per cent in the second when the wind was so strong it blew advertising banners onto the pitch.

Barca made over 1,000 passes and moved the ball around with accuracy but couldn’t break down a team who had conceded more goals away than all but two teams in the league. Granada have now played 24 times at Camp Nou and lost each time, yet they came closest to scoring when Yan Eteki hit the post.

Barca finished the game with seven youth team players on the pitch and they weren’t just home-grown youngsters. Sergio Busquets looked happier than he had done under Valverde – and he knew that Setien had long admired him, while the decision not to let Arturo Vidal leave seemed vindicated as he started in the middle and became the lungs of the team. A delightful Vidal back heel contributed to the goal, as did Antoine Griezmann.

When Riqui Puig replaced Ivan Rakitic, it brought great applause from the 65,444 crowd. Fans have fallen out of love with the Croatian, but they are smitten with the callow Catalan midfielder, 20, who was decisive in the goal by beginning the move after robbing the ball from the depleted Granada ranks.

Puig was often overlooked by Valverde, who hadn’t played him once this season and fans were worried he was going to push for a move to play regular top-flight football as Carles Alena did when he joined Real Betis.

Incredibly, Ansu Fati continues to look comfortable as a Barca first-teamer at the age of 17 and he should get more chances with the absence of Luis Suarez and Ousame Dembele – while Sergi Roberto, whose mother’s passing warranted a minute of reflection before kick-off, started in defence.

At some point in the not too distant future, Barca will have to move on from their dependence on Messi and turn to the younger players coming through, but those players need to play. That looks more probable under Setien, who went with the popular sentiment.

Setien demands risks and appointing him was a risk, especially as he replaced a man who had won the league in each of his two full seasons as Barca manager.

Valverde’s side were league leaders this term, too. He is a good man and he did a fine job. Dismissing him midway through a season when he was doing well may come to be seen as an error, but the demands at football’s biggest clubs are for unrealistic, constant brilliance.

Setien may be in favour now, but he will be judged every bit as harshly as his predecessor. He can try to avoid certain errors made by Valverde, namely capitulating away from home in vital Champions League games. If he can do that Setien will be seen as an improvement.

The Cantabrian was warmer with the media after the game than Valverde who stated the obvious too often. The expectant media are making sure Setien enjoys a warm honeymoon period after getting their way with the sacking of Valverde.

With a new manager Barca’s season feels as fresh as the storm sweeping across Catalonia, but one slip and it will turn. Barca and Real Madrid are level on points with 43 after 20 games.

Updated: January 20, 2020 07:04 PM

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