“We cannot live in the past; we have to live today and tomorrow, ”said Ronald Koeman and they did. It may have been just one night, there could be only 20,384 fans here, and most important of all, there was no sign of Lionel Messi, at least not on the pitch, but it was the first time any of them had been to the Camp Nou. for 526 days and, despite all the depression, they came determined to enjoy the return, leaving happy as a new stage opened with a 4-2 victory over Real Sociedad.
On a hot, sticky and noisy afternoon, the melancholy momentarily disappeared and cautious optimism took its place. It has been seventeen years, and it is not easy to let go, but for most of the ninety minutes that the Barcelona fans were here, driven by a kind of collective desire for closure and the performance of their “other” players, two goals from Martín Braithwaite and one from Sergi Roberto and Gerard Piqué leading them to victory. In the end, they had enjoyed it.
It hadn’t always seemed likely. There were only 15,280 requests out of the 29,803 tickets that Barcelona made available to its partners, most of the shirts in the stands still had Messi 10 on their back and banners hanging on the ground blaming President Joan Laporta for his departure. And yet, if Messi was still present, his name would be chanted in ten minutes, there were also others and the fans would enjoy his company.
Pedri was still around, hailed as a new icon for a new era. Piqué is still here, the hero here. Braithwaite too, with two goals and a great assist. Frenkie de Jong impressed. And then there were the new men.
After a long wait and uncertainty that not only lasted until the eve of the game but beyond, there was a place in the starting eleven for Memphis Depay and Eric Garcia. The new Barcelona signings were finally registered on the morning of the game thanks to the fact that Piqué put his money where his mouth is, the defender took what the club’s statement announcing the formal incorporation of his new teammates described as a “significant” salary cut to allow the club to stay within its salary limit. Without that, there would have been no Depay or Garcia here.
Which, as Piqué does so much in life, worked very well. When Barcelona went ahead at eighteen minutes, he had to be the one who got up to head the ball into the net. Just as it had to be Depay, the man he had let play, who hit the perfect curling free kick from where he scored. Barcelona had the lead. More than a clue, there was life. The importance of the strike, the liberation and something of what had happened, could be seen in the reaction of Piqué.
This was his fiftieth goal for the club, more than any other defender apart from his current coach, but it was not that. Running towards the north end of the Camp Nou, he kissed the shield on his shirt, spread his arms as if embracing everyone present and then lowered his head. For a while, she supported him on the billboard, as if lost in thought and in the moment. Gratitude came from all over the ground. Before the game, they applauded him louder. In the third minute, they had chanted his name. Now they did it again, praising the man who could one day really be president.
This had been a start. Braithwaite had fired the first shot in just 23 seconds, Antoine Griezmann had doubled the second past the far post in 79, and Depay had taken a collective inspiration with a superb hit in 175. There was intensity, the ball was moving to the right. speed, a highlight. When the fans chanted Messi’s name after ten minutes, he had just let out a “huy” when Griezmann’s aerial kick shot out. Just when they finished he headed against the bar.
Seemingly liberated, tactically and emotionally, the Frenchman was hyperactive. There were as many sliding tackles from him as there were skill pieces. Around him, there was noise, appreciation and Barcelona kept coming, although with the heat the pace slowed down.
Frenkie De Jong, Braithwaite and Depay combined to forge an opportunity that Alex Remiro had to block just before half an hour, but the second didn’t come until the end of the half. This time De Jong infuriated him with a deep cross to the far post, where Braithwaite landed a magnificent header on the roof of the net.
That lead could have been extended early in the second half, Griezmann missed offside when he had the ball in the net and Jordi Alba sent clean, only to squander the opportunity by doubling his shot off the post. When the fans chanted Messi’s name again in the tenth minute of the second half, there were some whistles, not so much in repudiation of his late deity as in response to melancholy, born of the desire to look ahead. Instead, they reacted with chants of “Barça! Barça! “And that was followed momentarily” to hell with PSG! “Then came the goal.
Memphis did it, and superbly. Alba continued, zooming to the left. And when the center was rejected by Remiro, Braithwaite finished it off, putting the ball into the net. At the other end, Neto dived to ward off Real Sociedad’s first shot on goal and pessimism suddenly returned when Real Sociedad scored twice in three minutes, from Lobete and Oyarzabal. But time is running out. Braithwaite found Sergi Roberto to finish it. After all, it had been fun.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism