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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

With Camp Nou half-empty and the mood sombre, Lionel Messi leads Barcelona to 2-0 win over Real Betis

Gerard Deulofeu instrumental in victory with two assists in front of crowd of 56,480 following last week's terror attacks in Catalonia.

Barcelona forward Lionel Messi, right, dribbles the ball against Real Betis forward Alex Alegria during the Primera Liga match at Camp Nou in Barcelona on August 20, 2017. / Lluis Gene / AFP
Barcelona forward Lionel Messi, right, dribbles the ball against Real Betis forward Alex Alegria during the Primera Liga match at Camp Nou in Barcelona on August 20, 2017. / Lluis Gene / AFP

Before a moving, minute’s respect for the terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, Lionel Messi warmed up with Javier Mascherano before Barca’s opening league game against Real Betis.

It was a stark reminder of how the Catalans have been weakened. For years, probably the greatest player ever warmed up with fellow South Americans Daniel Alves, Neymar and Luis Suarez. Two have departed and the latter will be out for four to five weeks with a knee injury. Messi, who has yet to sign his new contract, stays for now, a one-club man and hero to millions, but he and everyone associated with Barca knows the club are experiencing tough times.

It didn’t help that Andres Iniesta was also absent, especially when the brilliant, but recently injury-prone midfielder said of his contract negotiations that he had not renewed yet and was thinking about his future for the first time, hinting darkly that: “At this club you can never lose respect for people who have given their lives for the shirt.”

As Barca struggle to get up off the ropes from the knockout of Neymar’s record sale to Paris Saint-Germain, the former – and popular – club president Joan Laporta said: “If we want Messi to continue to be happy at Barca we have to get rid of Bartomeu immediately.” That’s Josep Bartomeu, the president charged with overseeing a declining force and being more interested in tourist dollars than restoring Barca’s pre-eminence.

Barca did win their opening game under new manager Ernesto Valverde 2-0, against a Real Betis side also under new management in Quique Setien and with seven new players in the starting XI. That is nothing new at Betis, a club which changes their manager frequently. Four managers and one year ago, they started last season at Camp Nou with Gus Poyet at the helm, lost 6-2 and went on to finish 15th.

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Setien’s side blunted Barca for over a third of the game. Messi struck the post with a curling free kick on 34 minutes and he played a part in Barca’s opener a minute later. He played a ball to Gerard Deulofeu, who crossed the ball back towards the Barca captain, only for Betis defender Alin Tosca to touch the ball into his net.

As the game came alive, Betis attacked immediately, only to be thwarted by an excellent Mascherano tackle on Sergio Leon. But Barca attacked again and made it 2-0 when Deulofeu won possession and crossed to the unmarked Sergi Roberto, who side-footed past Antonio Adan. Messi, once again, was the best player, though he was frustrated to hit the woodwork three times as his side dominated yet failed to fully convince.

The goals eased the tension in a crowd notable for the high number of empty seats. Barcelona empties of local residents in August and attendances are traditionally lower, but despite security being stepped up, the club did report that tickets had been returned after Thursday’s terror attack and the crowd of 56,480 in the 99,354 capacity stadium was lower than any last season and is likely to be the lowest league crowd this term.

Fans will return, especially if Barca are winning and the attempted signing of Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool will help, but the English side keep refusing Barca’s advances and offers. One Barca fan did wear his club shirt with "Coutinho" on the reverse and Barca fans are optimistic that the Brazilian will arrive before the transfer window closes.

While Valverde offered the expected platitudes after the game and said: “We’re happy with the result. It was important to get back playing well and restore confidence” he and every fan knows they need quality, for there will be far tougher tests than Betis at home this season.