This would have to do for now but cannot do for much longer. Twice as many people were at the Camp Nou than the last time Barcelona played here in La Liga, 74,000 fans hoping to witness a brave new world. Instead, they watched as their side needed a Memphis Depay penalty to win the derby and begin the Xavi Hernández era with a victory the new coach described as “vital”. Just.
If the opening night started well enough, it ended in nerves and a feeling of déjà vu. Relief too. There was youth, optimism and in the first half signs of something good, but reality intervened and Barcelona had to hang on against Espanyol, familiar flaws revealed. To repeat Gerard Piqué’s now famous phrase, “it is what it is”, and it is too early for Barcelona to be anything other than a team with issues to address.
“In general, I’m very happy but there are things to improve,” Xavi conceded after a game in which Espanyol deserved more, wasting three clear chances to have equalised. With five minutes left and the home side having lost the thing their new manager most treasures – the ball – Raúl de Tomás headed the last of those against the post.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. The sound of a new era came with Xavi’s name chanted throughout, optimism returning, while a vision of it came with his first XI. There was a debut for 17-year-old winger Ilias Akhomach, one of eight La Masia graduates and three teenagers, which was part conviction, part circumstance: the new manager said he wanted to play with wingers opening up the pitch but the absence of Ousmane Dembélé, Ansu Fati and Sergiño Dest meant he didn’t really have any.
Pedri and Martin Braithwaite were also missing. Dani Alves has returned, aged 38, but will not play until January when, given how much Óscar Mingueza struggled here, he may even be first choice. There are doubts whether Sergio Agüero ever will, the forward having been diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia, although the club’s vice president Rafael Yuste said that, contrary to reports that the Argentinan’s retirement is imminent, he expects the full three-month observation period to be completed before any announcement is made. Xavi insisted: “I don’t know where those stories come from.”
Wearing 37, Ilias started wide on the right and the first time the got the ball was dumped on the turf by Adrià Pedrosa. The second time, he had a shot blocked. The third, he smashed a glorious chance over from seven yards. Thirteen minutes had been played and a pattern was emerging that saw Barcelona reach half-time with 70% of the possession and all the territory but no goals, although Diego López had made a superb save from Memphis Depay at his near post.
Sergio Busquets had made that and his shot was also pushed away by the goalkeeper, who is 23 years older than Ilias and Gavi. For Espanyol, Raúl de Tomás was the outlet, his control often impressing and one shot spinning on to the roof of the net.
Ilias was replaced by another young winger at half-time, 19-year-old Abde Ezzalzouli making his second appearance and soon becoming the first player booked after a confrontation with Pedrosa. By then, Barcelona had the lead. Gavi’s neat pass released Depay who went down. The penalty was described as a “joke” by De Tomás but a VAR protocol that seeks contact rather than a foul validated the decision. Depay smashed in the shot and on the touchline, Xavi raised his fists.
This was not done yet though, and the momentum slipped from Barcelona. De Tomás shot just wide having got in behind Mingueza again. He also bent a free-kick just wide. And Landry Dimata missed a simple header. “Nine times out of ten that goes in,” lamented his manager, Vicente Moreno.
Barcelona had lost control and confidence. They lost Busquets, another injury for the list. And they could even have lost an opening night victory with five minutes to go, Marc-André Ter Stegen and everyone else watching powerless as the ball came back off their post.