In the summer months without La Liga action, FC Barcelona evolved. A new coach took charge, some players left, others replaced them. All of this change, while possibly unwelcome to some culés, was in an effort to ready the team for a new battle – another nine months of grueling competition.
Last season, Barcelona let two major trophies slip through its fingers, including the all-important league title. This season, if the first game’s result is any indication, will be different.
Against Real Sociedad, a familiar but unassuming rival, Barcelona unleashed a summer’s worth of payback by scoring the team’s patented manita to a single goal from the Basques.
Vilanova, in his first league game as head coach, fielded an all-star lineup. Victor Valdés, Dani Alves, Carles Puyol, Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernández, Cesc Fàbregas, Pedro Rodríguez, Cristian Tello and Lionel Messi all started on the pitch. Sociedad gave Claudio Bravo, Daniel Estrada, Ion Ansotegi, Carlos Martínez, Alberto de la Bella, Xabi Prieto, Markel Bergara, Gonzalo Castro, Asier Illarramendi, Gorka Elustondo and Antoine Griezmann.
Barcelona’s first goal of the 2012-13 season did not take long. The Catalans earned a corner in the third minute, and captain Puyol managed to whip a header into the net from the center of the box to the bottom right corner after Xavi’s cross.
Unfortunately for the home team, Sociedad responded within five minutes. Illarramendi assisted Castro who shot the ball into the top-left corner from the same side of the box in the ninth minute.
But the score did not remain tied at 1-1 for much longer. In the 11th minute, Messi scored his first of what is sure to be many Liga goals. Pedro fed La Pulga the ball and the Argentinean’s left-footed shot from the center of the box sailed to the top-left corner.
The 15th minute provided another opportunity for Messi, but a block prevented his attempt from reaching the back of the net. A minute later, however, the striker remedied that issue. Tello provided the assist and Messi’s magical left foot was again the star, sending the ball to the bottom-left corner from the center of the box.
The diminutive striker was on fire, barely missing a header over the crossbar a minute later. Xavi took his first scoring chance with a distance shot in the 20th minute, but a block stopped it. Four minutes later, the two captains combined again after a corner, but this time Puyol’s header went wide of the post.
In the 29th minute, the Basques had one of their few-and-far-between scoring opportunities when De la Bella missed his strike wide of the post.
The first yellow card went to Prieto in the 34th minute for a handball. Two minutes later, Bravo saved Messi’s shot from crossing the goal line. A minute later, Valdés – in a rare involvement – jumped to save a shot from outside of the box by Elustondo from sneaking under the crossbar.
Mascherano earned Barcelona’s first yellow card for a bad tackle in the 39th minute. But even the foul couldn’t slow the Catalans down, as Pedro scored in the 41st minute. Tello showed he was the right pick to start when he again made the assist for Pedro to tap the ball into the bottom corner.
The last few minutes of the half passed without any more goals, a slightly shocking statistic with the way Barcelona had been playing. Leading 4-1 at halftime, the home team entered the next 45 minutes with room to experiment.
Neither side made any changes at the half, but each still managed to come out with renewed energy. The first opportunity fell to Sociedad in the 50th minute. Castro sent a shot in from outside of the box, but saw it veer just wide.
A minute later, Villanova made a substitution. Gerard Piqué replaced his best friend and teammate Puyol in the backline. Xavi took over as captain.
In the 52nd minute, Messi again took a shot but aimed too far to the right. On the other end of the pitch four minutes later, Castro had a shot blocked and then Tello missed his attempt wide a minute later.
Barcelona substituted another player in the 58th minute. Iniesta came on for Cesc.
Xavi had yet another good go from distance in the 64th minute, but Bravo saved the shot from sailing into the top corner. Soon after, a different midfielder-defender duo combined off a corner. But Piqué’s header shot wide after Iniesta’s cross.
Sociedad made its first substitution a minute later when Carlos Vela switched with Elustondo. In the same minute, Bravo stopped Iniesta’s shot from rolling into the goal.
In the 71st minute, the referee showed De la Bella a yellow card for a harsh challenge on Alves. Two minutes later, the Basques swapped Castro for José Ángel. That same minute, Pedro had his last shot saved before he was subbed off for David Villa in the 75th minute. Five minutes later, Javi Ros replaced an injured Illarramendi for Sociedad.
Even though the second half was filled with blocked and saved shots, the final goal to clench the manita still eluded Barcelona. Messi made several attempts, even drawing a yellow card for Ansotegi in the 83rd minute after a bad tackle. When the goal finally did come in the 84th minute, it wasn’t from Messi’s feet. But the moment still could not have been more perfect.
Villa chipped the ball into the top right corner of the net after an assist from Iniesta. It was his first official match back in action after breaking his leg in December 2011. Villa removed his jersey to show a T-shirt with a picture of his wife and two daughters that read “Impossible without you.” The yellow card he received for excessive celebration was well worth it.
The last five minutes winded down and Barcelona exited the pitch with a 5-1 win in its first official match of the new season. The new coach proved he could carry on a winning tradition. Villa proved he could return to his pre-injury glory. Tello proved his youth was not a burden. Messi proved his star power had not diminished in the slightest.
After a disappointing 2011-12 season, FC Barcelona had something to prove. It managed to dissolve all doubts in just the first game back.
Image Source: AP Photo