This would have to do for now. Twice as many people were at the Camp Nou than the last time their team played here in La Liga, 74,000 turning out where it had been 37,000 before and hoping to witness a brave new world, but Barcelona needed a Memphis Depay penalty to win the derby and begin the Xavi Hernández era with a victory. Just.
There was youth, optimism, and in the first half at least a fleeting glimpse of something good, but in the end, Barcelona were left hanging on, familiar flaws revealed again. With five minutes to go, and with the home side having lost the thing their new manager most treasures – the ball – Raul De Tomás headed against the post, the nerves back again, which wasn’t the way it was supposed to be or the way it had started.
The sound of a new era came with Xavi’s name chanted before kick-off and throughout the game by a Camp Nou that was actually close to full for almost the first time, a little optimism returning however hard reality remained. A glimpse 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 had said he wanted to play with wingers 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; there are doubts about whether Sergio Agüero ever will, having been diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia, although the club’s vice president Rafael Yuste said pre-game that, contrary to reports that the Argentinan’s retirement is imminent, he expects the full three-month observation period to be completed before any of announcement is made. This was a young side, average age under 25, but there were familiar faces there too, Xavi calling over Gerard Piqué and Sergio Busquets to offer instructions during a lull in play.
Wearing 37, Ilias started wide on the right and the first time he got the ball he was immediately 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. Most of the 11 shots had come from midfielders around the edge of the area, although Diego López had made a superb save from Memphis Depay at his near post.
Busquets had made that and his shot was also pushed away by the goalkeeper who is twenty-three 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 in this derby after a confrontation with Pedrosa. By then, Barcelona had the lead. Gavi’s neat pass released Depay into the area, where he went down.
The penalty looked generous, the willingness to go to ground complete, but a VAR protocol that seeks contact rather than a foul validated the decision. Depay smashed in the shot, sprinting towards the north-east corner, team-mates chasing him. On the touchline, Xavi raised his fists.
This was not done yet though, and the momentum was slipping from Barcelona’s play. Abde risked a second yellow with a foul on Pedrosa as he sprinted towards the area, before cutting in from the right and firing over. Between those two moments, De Tomás shot just wide having got in behind Mingueza, who had failed to clear again. Barcelona had lost control and, it seemed, a little confidence. They lost Busquets too, another injury for the list. And they could even have lost an opening night victory, Ter Stegen only able to watch as the ball bouncing out and this arena breathed a sigh of relief.
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