Another year, another new line-up from Luis Enrique – and this time things didn’t end well for the Barcelona boss.
The Asturian coach has yet to pick the same side twice in 25 different matches this season and did the unthinkable on Sunday as he left Lionel Messi on the bench.
The Argentine was left out along with Neymar and Dani Alves as the trio had trained less after spending their holidays in South America, but in a fixture that is traditionally one of the toughest for the Catalan club in La Liga, it seemed a strange decision.
For Barca, it was the opportunity to overtake fierce rivals Real Madrid at the top of the Primera Division after the league leaders lost at Valencia earlier on Sunday. But the Blaugrana were behind after just two minutes to a Jordi Alba own-goal and looked lost without their shining star on the pitch.
In his absence, Luis Suarez fluffed the chance to stamp his authority on Barca’s three-man forward line, while youngster Munir El Haddadi is still struggling to live up to his early promise and looked uncomfortable as he drifted wide. Pedro, meanwhile, failed to emulate his promising performances prior to the winter break.
After a desperately disappointing first half, Luis Enrique did send on Messi. But Barca barely improved and a solid defensive display from David Moyes’ men kept the Catalans at bay through a late onslaught.
“I have watched Barcelona in the past and wondered how to get a result against them,” Moyes said afterwards. “Tonight I got that opportunity and it was great to get a result.”
Alves and Neymar were also introduced by Luis Enrique later in the second half, but those two and Messi would have helped Barca had they been in the team from the outset. As it was, the Brazilian forward was unfortunate to be penalised as he kicked the ball out of goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli’s hands and poked it into the net in the dying seconds.
“Messi, Neymar and Alves had long trips and they had trained less,” Luis Enrique said after the match. “I didn’t want to take risks by playing them for the whole 90 minutes.”
However, it is not only a matter of personnel and perhaps more worrying for Luis Enrique is the fact that, whoever is in the team, this Barca side seems to lack any clear identity. Win or lose, Barca gained renown in recent years for playing with a certain style. Now, they are neither winning nor playing pretty football – and not even Messi could save them on Sunday.
And so a chance was missed. Barca stay second, but are still a point behind Madrid and have played one game more than Carlo Ancelotti’s men. With or without Leo, things are already looking messy for Luis Enrique.