The last game before the return of the Champions League: Valladolid in la Liga at home. Barcelona was rotated and a bit bruised. Valverde rotated Suarez, Rakitic, and Coutinho to the bench, while giving Dembélé, Arturo, Vermaelen and Kevin “Prince” Boateng the start alongside most of the usual suspects.

So how did Valverde’s team look out there? Based on the small screen, the Barcelona attack looks pretty narrow in attack. When they break, it seems that the front three players are largely left to drive forward without the width and numbers that tends to overwhelm opponents and lead to dynamic scoring opportunities.

This was slightly reminiscent to elements of the Luis Enrique system of heaving it forward to the front three, but it also tended to feel like there was more midfield and defensive structure for a game that needed to be won without risk ahead of Lyon on Tuesday.

Messi didn’t have a great game. Allow me to rephrase, had he been any other player on Earth, he would have had a phenomenal game, but his standards are imperious. He scored a penalty late in the first-half thanks to a Pique led attack in the box. I wonder if it gives Valverde anxiety that his most outstanding performing defender also has an unstoppable desire to score and abandon his own box. That’s probably Busquets’ problem.

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Prince was just decent. He had an opportunity and didn’t perform ‘clinically’ as they say, but Messi was also far from the definition of the word. The second-half penalty he took was saved by former Barcelona B and first-team backup keeper, Jordi Masip–first from the kick and again with a one-handed grab of the little genius’ follow-up header.

messi masip(Masip and Messi training a couple years back)

Aleña also made the most of his start, and was a very active and attacking presence in the midfield. He seemed comfortable moving forward, much like Rafinha has done before. Arturo Vidal is just as eager to break lines and go forward–though it seems that this leaves the midfield a little disconnected at times. He chases the ball anarchically and the press seems to lose focus as everyone clusters toward the ball, rather than ‘positionally.’

Dembélé was the most electric player on the ball–the most exciting individually. His trickery and doubling-back beyond his opponents was tingling, but Valladolid managed to neutralize most of the threats posed by a front line that seemed to always avoid the wings in favor of driving attacks through the middle of the goal. The French no. 11 went off in the second half to make way for Coutinho.

Coutinho tried to ignite some creative alternative to what had already been offered with the score still 1-0. It seemed to net some rewards when he won a penalty, but after Messi failed to convert it, Coutinho’s play seemed to recede again as he dribbled with his head down a bit too much and failed to connect to teammates with automatism.

The problem for Coutinho also extends to the fact that Messi’s attacking gravity renders him as not only secondary, but a wildly overpriced alternative to other players already there. Since every single player always looks to Messi and routes every attempt and threat through the no. 10, it mutes the gifts of those that had always been the focal point themselves on every team they’ve ever been on.

The game ended with that 1-0 score intact. There were actually a load of opportunities to stretch the scoreline beyond that, but no opportunities ever coalesced into the goal. The players rued their frustrated performance and complimented their former teammate Masip’s performance in Valladolid’s goal. In fact, for Culés there is some sense of pride that their former keeper performed so brilliantly at the Nou Camp, while their team still won.

Above, watching from the club’s executive box, Ronaldo the Brazilian genius who’d had one of his greatest club years right there at the Nou Camp attended in the capacity of Valladolid’s majority stakeholder. He scored 34 goals in 37 appearances for the Blaugrana twenty-two years ago, and now he was the opposition, glad-handing FCB’s frequently loathed president, Bartomeu. It’s nothing personal.

Purple stripes, red stripes. Up and down. Money exchanged and inspirations ignited. Potential that’s confused. And the big stakes remain; the biggest game to continue glory’s obsession to be played still in a few more days…

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