“This is a game in which the team that puts the ball in the net wins,” said Nolito, helpfully. Which is why he departed the Camp Nou “destroyed” despite his team having not been destroyed at all, and that might just have hurt even more. Some days your Luuk’s just not in, and Sunday was one of those days: the worrying thing is that it wasn’t the only one of them.
Thirty-five minutes into the weekend’s biggest match, the one that had seemed set to decide just how good Sevilla were, how good manager Julen Lopetegui and his new project is too, striker Luuk de Jong alone had enjoyed more chances than the entire Barcelona team. He was also losing 3-0. By the end, it was 4-0. “We’re pissed off but football’s like that,” Nolito said.
Sunday’s match had gone Sevilla, Sevilla, Sevilla, Sevilla, oh look Barcelona are 3-0 up, the rough notes genuinely reading: “10. De Jong, good save Ter Stegen / 17. Great chance De Jong / 25. What a miss! De Jong.” And then: “27. Great goal Suárez.” Quickly followed by a second from Arturo Vidal and a lovely finish from Ousmane Dembélé that ended it. Sevilla had taken the game to Barcelona and Barcelona had taken it from Sevilla: seven minutes, 54 seconds – celebrations, VAR checks and sundry faffing all included – and it was as over, three shots enough. A story in short scribbles continued “58. 6-13 shots Sevilla / Chances: 3-4 / 59. Messi madness / Dembélé playing well / De Jong off,” before ending on: “4-0 Messi, he’s back.”
There’s a nice photo from after the match in which Éver Banega and Lionel Messi sit together on the stairs in the tunnel at the Camp Nou near where the chapel is, just the two of them, shirts off and handed over to each other, chatting. It’s easy to imagine them dissecting the game, trying to work out what happened, although, let’s face it, they probably had better things to talk about. If they were, they weren’t the
“The result doesn’t reflect the way the game was,” said Sergio Reguilón. “The punishment was too great: we had chances then Luis Suárez scores an incredible goal and it ends,” said Tomas Vaclik. “I don’t like using the word unfair, but we didn’t deserve that,” said Lopetegui. “Although it was 4-0, I don’t think we played badly,” Nolito said. “You have so many chances and don’t score, then they get three in 10 minutes. They put their first chance away and then we were going against the tide.”
It just wasn’t their night. Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde agreed. “In the first half, the score is pretty big for the way the game was,” he said. “They had quite a lot of chances and they let us off. We were clinical, more than them.” Sevilla’s sporting director Monchi said he was heading home “angry, sad”, but insisted: “I’ve been here 20 or 25 times as a player and rarely had the feeling that we did as much as we did in the opening 25 minutes tonight.”
They were right, and maybe it was hard to explain. But it was also easy, maybe too easy, to explain. “Barcelona have gunpowder,” Sport said. And Sevilla don’t. There was an inescapable truth to this result, a logic, familiarity. It was that kind of weekend, a stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Messi scored a free-kick, his 43rd for Barcelona, his 15th in the last two years alone. He scored against Sevilla, making it 37 in 38 games against them. Suárez smashed in an overhead kick, yet another volley to add to a collection that may have no equal anywhere, ever: that’s his 21st since heading to Spain. Barcelona racked up the goals at the Camp Nou: five against Valencia, five against Betis, four against Sevilla. And, eight games in, the top three are those three, if not in the normal order.
There are doubts still, concerns about their continued inability to control games, but there is also comfort in that familiarity; in Messi completing 90 minutes and getting his first goal of the season; in Suárez scoring out of nowhere again; in the way they ended the game, if not the way they started it. Comfort too in the success of the changes, the decisions that would have bitten Valverde if they hadn’t worked: Frenkie De Jong in central midfield in place of Sergio Busquets; Vidal, always more than a mohican and tattoos that so few people can see beyond; Nelson Semedo at left back, and Dembélé, making his first start since the opening day, instead of Antoine Griezmann. All of the front three scored. More importantly, they combined. A more natural fit for the left wing, scorer of a lovely goal, the cut-back and finish, two-footed, very much his move, Dembélé is erratic but he’s electric too.
He is also out again, and that too is familiar for a player for whom continuity and consistency remain elusive: come back in, immediately go back out again. Usually it’s due to injury, this time he added insult, getting sent off in the last minute thanks to a second yellow for protesting against a red card handed to debutant Ronald Araujo by the referee Mateu Lahoz. Asked afterwards what Dembélé had said, Valverde replied: “It’s a mystery. You’re doing well to get any phrase out of him in Spanish. It won’t have been anything very long, that’s for sure.”
As it turned out, what he said was “muy malo’’, very bad, which the consequences might well be: it’s the clásico in two weeks.
For Sevilla, there are doubts too, fears about the familiarity of all this. If the way it happened was different, the way it ended wasn’t. As Estadio Deportivo put it, they had “played like never before, and lost like normal”. They have been beaten nine times in a row at the Camp Nou and haven’t won there for 18 years. “No goals, but honour,” the headline ran.
The problem is, that no goals may not just be down to bad luck – although there was plenty of it. This is a new Sevilla, the first of the second coming of Monchi, a team containing 13 new players after 15 departed, and it is early to judge them. There is much that is good, they were superb against Real Sociedad last week, and Monchi was entitled to insist that he could see a team that “knows what it wants” at the Camp Nou. Joan Jordan has impressed, Banega has found his place, freed up by Fernando, and although they let in four, Diego Carlos has had a good start. Lucas Ocampos tore into Barcelona, as he has done to others. And the full-backs, Jesús Navas and Reguilón, are flying. But up front it’s not happening. “De Jong had four chances and didn’t score, Suárez had none and did,” Marca said, saying it all. Swap the strikers round and you might have swapped the scoreline around.
This is a recurring issue, so much so that it hints at a systemic one, or the kind of serendipity that can sink you. Lopetegui has been to the Camp Nou twice as a manager now, a year apart – first with Madrid and then with Sevilla. The stats show that his teams have fired off 31 shots, and faced 28. They have lost 5-1 and 4-0. None of Sevilla’s centre forwards have scored in the league this season: Munir Haddadi, Javier Hernández and De Jong have no league goals; Munas Dabbur, signed for €15m, has no league minutes.
They got 60 league goals between them last season, and De Jong scored over 100 at PSV, but it’s different now. No one has taken more shots without scoring than De Jong, likened in El Mundo to the tortured protagonist of a Dostoyevsky novel. Even at 3-0, there was no consolation, no light. Clean through, having robbed the ball and made the opportunity himself, he took aim for the 18th time of the season, the fourth of the night.
The ball bounced back off the post and away.
• Villarreal led Osasuna 1-0 but didn’t win, losing 2-1 with the winner scored by the brilliant Chimy Avila, with his short shorts, big heart, black boots, endless tattoos and oversized lungs. Villarreal, who have more players in the Spanish squad than Barcelona, Madrid and Atlético combined, have now led in seven of their eight games and won only three. Meanwhile, Osasuna won again at El Sadar, the stadium where they haven’t lost in 29 matches.
• Real Madrid led 3-2, but like the day against Levante, almost got caught,
hanging on to beat Granada 4-2. “We can’t keep doing this,” Dani Carvajal said, drawing the parallel to Levante without prompting.
• Atlético didn’t concede for the fourth game running. But they didn’t score either. Eight games in, it’s their worst goalscoring start in the Diego Simeone era, hardly known for its all-out attacking anyway.
• And VAR took ages. To still get it wrong. In the worst, but not the only case, at Butarque, where Leganés have demanded their defeat by Levante get replayed after a penalty was given for a foul that, if it happened at all, happened outside the area. They claim the system failed; the Federation claims it didn’t. And so the war rumbles on, this time with referees and their videos in the middle, weaponised again.
• Iago Aspas is back. He scored his first of the season to beat Athletic and rescued Fran Escribá’s job. But it’s hard to see Espanyol manager David Gallego making it to the next match day.
• There were more protests at Mestalla, despite attempts to hide them. President Anil Murthy responded to chants for Peter Lim to leave and for him to “get out” – chants that called him “scum” – by signalling for them to fall silent and pointing at the pitch, telling them to support the team. Valencia weren’t great but did win 2-1 against Alavés.