Thursday, October 29, 2020

Messi stifled against his favourite opposition as Sevilla show their mettle

SoccerNews in La Liga 4 Oct 2020

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Life under Ronald Koeman got off to a solid start with successive wins over Villarreal and at Celta Vigo, where they historically struggle, but Sunday’s visit of Sevilla posed their first real test of the season.

Ultimately Barca had to make do with a 1-1 draw, though it is fair to say it could have been worse on a different day as Sevilla looked every inch a side potentially capable of giving the Blaugrana and LaLiga champions Real Madrid a run for their money this term.

Julen Lopetegui’s Sevilla were physical, tidy in possession and mostly water-tight defensively – arguably the only part of their game that could have improved was their accuracy in front of goal, as just one of their 13 shots hit the target.

But while the point is a good one for Sevilla, it accentuates how underwhelming Barca were. After all, before Sunday, Los Nervionenses had conceded at least twice on each of their past eight LaLiga trips to Camp Nou and the last time they avoided defeat there was October 2011.

Regardless of who they play against Lionel Messi is usually the man to unlock the door, but against Sevilla he boasts a particularly impressive record, having put 29 past them in LaLiga to make them his favoured opposition.

He could not find a way this time, however.

Messi kept quiet

Let’s not get carried away – Messi was by no means bad here, but this was Barca’s first major test in their brave new world, a chance to really put a marker down against a team that impressed en route to Europa League success, produced a spirited performance against Bayern Munich in last month’s UEFA Super Cup and have been tipped to potentially mount a title challenge.

But while Messi regularly has a telling impact against Sevilla, it’s fair to suggest the visitors did well against him on Sunday.

His haul of three shots included only one on target, which was a fairly routine save for Yassine Bounou, while Messi’s final effort was a rather hopeless long-range effort late on that sailed well over.

Similarly, of his two key passes only one of them was notable, as he slipped in Francisco Trincao for a chance in stoppage time – Bounou again making the save.

Messi’s sympathisers would correctly point out that he did play the ball that led to Philippe Coutinho’s equaliser, though his pass was actually meant for Ansu Fati and was cut out by Jesus Navas. It only brought the leveller because of an unfortunate touch by Sevilla’s captain.

Barca’s talisman saw plenty of the ball, as he had 85 touches, but the killer ball was generally lacking – can the blame be laid at Messi’s feet, though?

Supporting cast fail to convince

There is certainly a lot of attacking ability at Koeman’s disposal, but whether they can all work in tandem is another matter.

The front four who started here (that’s Messi, Fati, Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann) only played three key passes between them (Messi with two, Fati with one), while the six-time Ballon d’Or winner was the only one to attempt more than two shots.

Griezmann and Fati had two apiece and Coutinho had one.

The Griezmann conundrum in particular continues to puzzle. He had only 21 touches of the ball in his 61 minutes on the pitch – Trincao had five more after he was brought on at that point. While they may have been occupying slightly different positions, it doesn’t speak much to the Frenchman’s desire to get involved.

Similarly with Coutinho, it’s difficult to see what he added beyond the goal, which was gifted to him.

The Brazilian delivered one good cross, but that was about the only other thing he mustered before his 75th-minute withdrawal, while Fati was hooked at the same time as Griezmann.

Much was made of the teenager’s duel with Navas, a childhood idol of his from when he was in the Sevilla academy, but the experienced converted right-back undoubtedly came out on top.

Sevilla prove their credentials

There was plenty to like about Sevilla’s display here. Prior to Sunday, Lopetegui had lost by four goals in each of his two previous visits to Camp Nou as a coach, but this time around he might consider himself unlucky not to win.

Luuk de Jong’s early opener was a just reward for a bright start, but it was wiped out by a rare miscalculation by the usually dependable Navas.

Nevertheless, it was Sevilla who went closest to the winner when Ronald Araujo deflected a cross on to his own crossbar in the second half.

Navas, perhaps spurred on by the desire to atone for his earlier error, was a nuisance on the right and created a match-high four chances, while his partner on that flank – Suso – was a threat too, making three key passes.

But the strongest area of their team is undoubtedly at the back, where they are blessed with some real competitors.

Diego Carlos was especially impressive, popping up with three clearances and as many tackles – one of each came in a crucial late incident as he made a brilliant last-ditch tackle on Messi, before hacking clear while off balance.

The experienced Fernando proved an effective defensive screen as well – three interceptions, three clearances and a couple of tackles highlighted his value as an extra body when under the cosh. He was also assuring in possession, finding a team-mate with 94 per cent of his 50 passes.

With Sevilla seemingly managing to keep hold of Diego Carlos and Jules Kounde, and Atletico Madrid reverting to their dull natural state since beating Granada 6-1, Lopetegui’s side appear best-placed to cause an upset in LaLiga this term – Sunday’s solid display will only increase that belief.

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