Given the way both of Barcelona’s matchups with Juventus went last season, when their attack was stale, their superstars were absent and their defense was breached by two moments of brilliance from Paulo Dybala, just about anything positive from this Champions League rematch would have been categorized as a drastic improvement.
And yet even with moderate expectations against a side known for keeping its defensive integrity, the quality of Barcelona’s performance signified just how much things have changed since Ernesto Valverde took charge. Once Madrid battered the kinks out of Barcelona’s new system in the Super Copa, the Blaugrana have been back to their roots and playing brilliant football, and it culminated with a dominant display in their 3-0 win against last year’s Champions League runners-up.
Barcelona didn’t start with any particular fervor, and it was actually Juventus who had the more dangerous chances in the game’s opening half hour. But after a static 44 minutes in which the bianconeri managed to contain him well, Lionel Messi’s magic brought the game to life as he ran through Juve’s defense, bounced the ball of Suarez and beat Buffon with a pinpoint finish. The momentum from Messi’s goal lasted through the break, and Barcelona dominated the second half with incisive passing and determined defending.
The necessary caveat is that Juventus was without a few key players, the most crucial being defender Giorgio Chiellini. With Leonardo Bonucci off to Milan, the Old Lady were much more vulnerable at the back than last season. But even when Barcelona managed to create chances last season, they either couldn’t put the ball on target or Buffon was there to keep the ball out of the net.
On Tuesday night, Lionel Messi ended his Buffon curse, putting two magnificent arrowed finishes past him while the post denied him a second straight hat trick. His second goal might have somehow topped his first, with a powerful run from Andres Iniesta opening up Messi on the break in the 69th minute. A final dummy run from Ousmane Dembélé near the edge of the box gave Messi just an inch of space near the top of the area to load up his shot, which rolled past Buffon and straight into the corner of the net for the second time.
In between his goals Messi made the other. Though he won’t get credit for the assist, his ball across to Luis Suarez at the back post in the 56th minute forced a last-ditch clearance from Barzagli, which fell kindly to the feet of Ivan Rakitic. Rakitic finished the golden chance well, adding an early-season bookmark to what has been a strong season for him so far.
Two goals and what amounts to an assist for Messi in a 3-0 win? He must have carried Barcelona to victory, right? It is obvious that Barcelona would have turned in a very different performance were it not for Messi’s genius contributions, but this was also not the kind of game in which the frontline powered the Blaugrana to victory. In fact, Messi was the only standout forward for Barcelona, with Suarez struggling as he adapts to his new responsibilities as an occasional left winger and Dembélé having a few expected hiccups as he continues to gel with the team.
Everywhere else on the pitch, though, Barcelona was exceptional. The defense kept its shape well enough for 90 minutes, even if it might have given Marc Andre ter Stegen a bit too much to deal with in the opening half hour. Nelson Semedo and Jordi Alba were spectacular once again, giving Barcelona all kinds of trickery, width and acceleration on the flanks. Alba is having a field day taking up the space Neymar’s departure has left vacant, and Semedo is so good on the ball that it’s almost like Barcelona has two right wingers in possession (and he makes up for his adventurous positioning with blistering recovery speed).
At the heart of it all was the midfield, where it is staggering how different the same three-man unit looks this season. This isn’t a case of young players like Denis Suarez and Andre Gomes looking more comfortable after a season at the club (though that might also be the case once they consistent chances). This is a trio of veterans who are responding to a season so rotten that many wondered whether the legendary likes of Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets were done by showing that they are still world class players.
Rakitic has been reborn with Dembélé and Semedo offering balance and cover on the right flank, giving him freedom to act as Barca’s deep-lying creative outlet. This fixture painted a clearer picture than any other in regards to Rakitic’s new role and the new focus of the team’s play in general. Last season in the two legs against Juventus, Rakitic had 95 touches of the ball. On Tuesday night, he had 86 touches.
Busquets and Iniesta are loving life under Valverde as well. They both returned from international duty having just played two excellent matches, particularly in Spain’s 3-0 victory against Italy. Their quality in those matches was evident, but at the club level that wasn’t always the case last season. If the recent games against Espanyol and Juventus are any indication, then they are both ready to be back to their best year round now.
Iniesta in particular, after playing 162 minutes for Spain and another 77 minutes against Espanyol, somehow had enough juice left to put in a masterful performance against Juve. With Suarez playing as an inside forward on the left and Alba closer to the touchline, the space for Iniesta to be the creative hub for the left-hand side of the attack is there, and he was dictating play in those areas all game.
To think that Valverde has only had about a month to tinker with the first team, and even less time to shape Paulinho and Dembélé into his plans, it is exciting how well Barcelona was able to perform against top-level European competition. The performance and the tactics might not have been complex or overly scientific, but it doesn’t need to be. At a club like Barcelona where the talent oozes from every position on the pitch, sometimes a simple factory reset can make a world of difference.