After a fine midweek display in the Champions League, Barcelona welcomed Girona to the Nou Camp in what is normally a tricky Catalan Derby. Barcelona were still unbeaten in the league and had won all of their games in the new season, but even Valverde knew that the current La Liga Champions had looked a little nervy against Real Sociedad. Girona were 11th in the table, having won 2 of their 4 games, while Barcelona were temporarily in 2nd position having played a game less than Real Madrid.
Barcelona had an upper hand though - Lionel Messi was coming into the game in sizzling form having already scored 7 goals in the season so far, including a midweek hat-trick against PSV in the Champions League. He had also registered 2 assists and the new Barcelona Captain was certainly looking forward to a good game.
Valverde made a few changes to his team that played PSV in the Champions League. He started with Ter Stegen in goal, Semedo, Pique, Lenglet and Alba in defense; Vidal and Arthur joined Sergio Busquets in the midfield while Messi, Suarez and Dembele continued as the attacking trio. Messi was already a part of history before the kickoff - he had started his 423rd game for Barcelona in La Liga, surpassing his former teammate Dani Alves to register the most appearances, by a non-Spanish player, in La Liga.
Messi started the game on the left side, hogging the touchline and stayed deeper, exchanging passes with his midfield and defense. He tried to set up Suarez with a calculated long ball from the middle of the park, but the Girona defense was alert to the move. In the 11th minute, Messi received the ball at the edge of the penalty area and sent 3 defenders on the floor, before unfurling a low shot to the far post, saved only by the fingertips of Bono, the Girona keeper.
It was a sign of things to come - Lionel Messi was in the mood. The Argentinian played some beautiful one-twos with Suarez and Vidal, but the end result eluded Barcelona. That was until the 19th minute, when Vidal noticed Messi's late run into the box and found his Skipper just inside the area. Messi placed the ball beautifully into the net, just beyond the reach of Bono. Barcelona were 1-0 up and even without Rakitic and Coutinho, were in full control. However, disaster was about to strike at the Nou Camp.
In the 35th minute, Lenglet received a straight red, after intervention from VAR and Barcelona were in trouble. Just at the stroke of half-time, it got worse. Stuani took advantage of some defensive lapse from Pique and stand-in center back Busquets and scored the equalizer.
Valverde brought in Umtiti in place of Dembele at halftime, but 10 men Barcelona found it hard to stay in the game. 6 minutes into the second half, Stuani gave Girona the lead and Barcelona looked stunned. Valverde reacted by throwing on Coutinho and Rakitic to rally for the equalizer and Barcelona threw the kitchen sink at Girona. Messi looked in fighting spirits, running around trying to thread passes and attempting those long balls for Suarez. Yet, Girona stayed compact in defense, denying Messi and Barcelona any room.
In the 59th minute, Barcelona won a free kick and Messi set himself up. A peach of a shot struck the upright and bounced away - it could not have been hit better. Any other day, the ball would have been in the back of the net, but the Barcelona skipper seemed out of luck. The next free-kick was saved by Bono and it would seem that it was not the Argentine's day.
However, it is hard to stop the Best Player in the World from influencing the game, even when his team is a man down. In the 63rd minute, Coutinho spotted Messi's run into the box and lobbed a ball into his path. The Argentine, with no other option, side-footed it to Suarez near the goal and with some bit of luck, Suarez's shot found Pique who headed in the equalizer. Barcelona fought on till the end, trying in vain to reclaim their winning start to the season, but they should be pleased by the hard-fought point won on a night when luck eluded them.
But the draw showed a relentless side of Messi that would have excited Barcelona fans. The Barca Skipper kept on trying to make things happen, set teammates up and even took on the Girona defense on his own quite a few times. He was fouled, brought down and bullied, but Lionel Messi kept on coming back.
Even though he did not succeed in getting Barcelona the three points, Messi got a goal, set a new La Liga record and had a lively match. What a season the little maestro is having so far - he has already scored 8 goals in 7 games, with 3 more assists to his name. The World can get ready to raise their expectations - the G.O.A.T. is ready to conquer ever more hearts this season.Published 24 Sep 2018, 20:18 IST