Barcelona lift post-Messi gloom with win over Real Sociedad – The Guardian

“We can’t live in the past; we have to live today and tomorrow,” Ronald Koeman said and so they did. It may have been a single night, there might have been just 20,384 supporters here, and most important of all there was no sign of Lionel Messi – not on the pitch, at least – but it was the first time any of them had been in the Camp Nou for 526 days and, for all the depression, they came determined to enjoy the return, departing happy as a new era opened with a 4-2 victory over Real Sociedad.

On a hot, sticky and noisy evening the melancholy was momentarily gone, a cautious optimism taking its place. It has been 17 years, and it is not easy to let go, but for most of the 90 minutes here Barcelona’s fans did, driven by a kind of collective desire for closure and the performance of their “other” players, two goals from Martin Braithwaite and one each from Sergi Roberto and Gerard Piqué taking them to victory.

It hadn’t always seemed likely. There were only 15,280 requests for the 29,803 tickets Barcelona made available to members, most of the shirts in the stands still had Messi on the back, and banners hung around the ground blaming the president Joan Laporta for his departure. And yet if Messi was still present, his name chanted on ten minutes, there were others too and ultimately the fans would enjoy their company. Pedri was lauded as a new icon for a new age. Piqué is a decisive off the pitch as on it. Frenkie de Jong impressed. Braithwaite, resisting attempts to nudge him towards the exit door, scored two goals and provided a superb assist.

And then there were the new men, Memphis Depay specially showing the talent and personality to embrace this opportunity. After a long wait and the uncertainty that didn’t just last until the eve of the game but beyond, there was a place in the starting XI for him and for Eric García. Barcelona’s new signings were finally registered on the morning of the match thanks to Piqué taking what a club statement described as a “significant” pay cut.

Like so much of Piqué does in life, it worked out nicely. When Barcelona took the lead on 18 minutes, it had to be him heading into the net. Just as it had to be Depay, the man he had allowed to play, who delivered the perfect curling free kick from which he scored. Barcelona had the lead; more than a lead, there was life. The importance of the strike, the release, could be seen in Piqué’s reaction.

Gerard Pique rises highest to nod in Barcelona’s opener.
Gerard Pique rises highest to nod in Barcelona’s opener. Photograph: Albert Gea/Reuters

He kissed the badge on his shirt, held his arms wide open, embracing everyone here, and then lowered his head. For a while, he rested it on the advertising board, as if lost in thought and in the moment. Gratitude came from around the ground. Before the game, he had been cheered loudest. In the third minute, they had chanted his name. Now they did so again, lauding the man who one day really might be president – and probably better than the last one.

The goal delivered justice. This had been some start. Braithwaite had fired off the first shot on just 23 seconds, Antoine Griezmann had bent the second past the far post on 79, and Depay had drawn a collective in-take of breath with a superb flick on 175. There was intensity, the ball moved at speed, a point to be made. When the fans chanted Messi’s name on ten minutes, they had only just finished letting out a “huy” as Griezmann’s overhead kick flew wide. As they finished, he headed against the bar.

Seemingly liberated, tactically and emotionally, the Frenchman was hyperactive, as as many slide-tackles as skill. Around him, there was noise, appreciation, and Barcelona kept coming – although in the heat, the place would slow.

De Jong, Braithwaite, and Depay combined to carve out a chance that Alex Remiro had to block but the second didn’t arrive until the end of the half. De Jong made it with a deep cross to the far post, where Braithwaite thudded a header into the roof of the net.

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That lead might have been extended early in the second half, Griezmann ruled offside when he had the ball in the net and Jordi Alba sent clean through, only to hit the post. When fans chanted Messi’s name again in the tenth minute of the second half, there were some whistles – not so much in repudiation of their departed deity as in response to the melancholy – and chants of “Barca! Barca!” instead, followed momentarily by “fuck PSG!”. Then came the goal.

Depay made it, and superbly. Alba continued it, zooming away. Braithwaite finished it, slamming the ball into the net. At the other end, Neto dived to push away Real Sociedad’s first shot on target and pessimism suddenly returned when Real Sociedad scored twice in three minutes, from Julen Lobete and Mikel Oyarzabal’s superb free-kick, but with time running out Braithwaite found Sergi Roberto to end an enjoyable, noisy first night. It had been fun, after all.

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