Lionel Messi was back in scoring business for Barcelona on Sunday as Ronald Koeman began his tenure as coach with a resounding 4-0 win at home against Villarreal in their La Liga opener.
While there were no visible signs of discontent from Messi in his first competitive game since trying to leave the club in the summer, Barca fans got a glimpse of what life could be like at the Nou Camp once the Argentinian finally moves on.
Teenage forward Ansu Fati stole the show, combining with Jordi Alba to side-foot home first time into the net in the 15th minute and then striking again four minutes later with another cool finish.
Messi, in the final year of his deal, was barely a figure in the opening 20 minutes. He touched the ball six times as Fati ran riot down the left-hand side – his electric pace, quick feet and directness causing the visiting defence no end of problems.
The 17-year-old, in his second season in Barca’s first team, then won the penalty which captain Messi dispatched in the 35th minute.
Villarreal defender Pau Torres scored an own goal at the end of the first half, with Barca continuing to dominate in the second half.
For years, Barca managers have been trying to limit the team’s reliance on Messi – Messidependencia as it is known in Spain.
There had been a lot of talk about the 4-2-3-1 shape Koeman had been working on in pre-season and the formation could hardly have had a better first outing. The Dutchman deployed Messi in the false nine role that he had perfected a decade ago, with Fati on the left wing and Antoine Griezmann on the right, with a reborn Philippe Coutinho as an attacking midfielder to knit the offence together.
Behind the front four, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong provided a solid base that saw Barca swarm all over Villarreal and move the ball with speed and purpose, a welcome contrast to the ponderous, slow football they had played for much of last season.
“It’s always important to win games,” said Koeman, who succeeded Quique Setien last month after the crushing 8-2 defeat by Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals. “You gain confidence. This result will help us to improve and to be clear about what we want.”