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Aug 24, 2014

Three Points: Barcelona vs. Elche

Barcelona head coach Luis Enrique praised his side's response to going a man down, as they defeated Elche 3-0 in their opening La Liga match.

BARCELONA -- Three observations from Barcelona's 3-0 season opening win against Elche at the Camp Nou.

1. Messi in the mood

Camp Nou fans and pundits can be a contrary lot but they all agree that keeping Lionel Messi fit, happy and hungry is the key task for any Barcelona coach.

Messi scored just two minutes into his first [and only] preseason game in last Monday's Trofeo Gamper stroll over Club Leon, and is still far from peak physical condition given his late arrival back in Catalonia after the World Cup. But there was no doubt he was going to start Barca's first La Liga game of the season however, especially given injuries or suspension had ruled out Luis Suarez, Neymar and Pedro Rodriguez.

The No. 10 looked sharp from the off. There was no sign of the disinterested player we have become used to seeing wandering around aimlessly off the ball in recent times for Barca. Or the player who struggled to influence games in the latter stages of the summer's World Cup.

Most evident early on was that Messi looked eager to win possession when it was lost. Midway through the first period he even sprinted 40 yards to stop an Elche counter with a pretty crude hack near half-way and should really have been booked. The lesson from past seasons -- especially from Josep Guardiola's time -- is that if Messi runs and works hard off the ball, then everyone else does so too. The Argentine is not the most sociable character -- but his mood rubs off on his teammates -- and even experienced internationals take their cue from him.

The opening goal just before the break showed Messi was also sharp on the ball. He seemed well covered when he picked up the ball up 25 yards from goal, but a dart took him away from three Elche defenders before firing low and hard into bottom corner. His second goal midway through the second half was also nicely taken. As Elche defenders looked petrified at the possibility of being turned, he took advantage to move into a position to carefully sidefoot the ball to the net from about 16 yards.

That meant Messi had now scored twice on the opening day in each of the last four seasons. But unlike large periods of recent campaigns, even at 3-0 he was still running and harrying opponents. Which will have made Barca watchers just as happy.

2. Munir makes mark

Barcelona's starlet Munir El-Haddadi made quite the impression on his professional debut for the club.

Suarez and Neymar being absent, and Pedro only well enough for the bench, meant a debut on the left wing for Munir El-Haddadi -- the latest exciting attacking talent to come out of La Masia. And the powerfully built and direct attacker, who turns 19 next week, took his chance to impress.

Madrid born, with a Moroccan father, Munir was snatched from under Atletico Madrid's noses in 2010. Last year he was the star as La Masia's latest generation of graduates won the UEFA Youth League. His progression to the first team has been so quick that he's only yet played 11 games for Barca B. But Suarez's suspension and Neymar's injury opened up a spot in the Barca first-team squad preseason, and two well-taken goals in last Monday's Trofeo Gamper persuaded Luis Enrique to give him a chance here.

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Such quality was evident when the Spain U-19 international almost opened the scoring early, with a one touch turn inside the box followed by a powerful shot off the post. He also linked well with his teammates throughout the first half, appearing to be clean through from a threaded Leo Messi ball, but trying to pass for Rafinha when he might have shot himself.

There were no signs of naivety or low confidence minutes into the second half however. Munir scored his side's killer second goal with a quality calm finish after being sent clear by an excellent Rakitic scooped ball over top. There seemed to be no debut nerves at all as he let waited and then stabbed a first-time volley past the keeper as the ball dropped.

That was it for the youngster -- who was soon afterwards replaced by the returning Pedro. An appreciative Camp Nou crowd gave the teenager a big ovation as he walked off. With Suarez not back until Oct. 26 we are likely to see a lot of Barca's latest home-grown starlet over the coming weeks.

3. Omens

The black cat that ran on the Camp Nou pitch could be a symbol of good luck.

That message seemed to have got through to the players [see Messi above] and the fans too -- who cheered loudly every time possession was won back and re-circulated again. Both centre-backs Javier Mascherano and Jeremy Mathieu were placed high up the pitch, and scampered across to cut out any danger on the rare occasions Elche tried to counter-attack.

But the defensive system was caught out just after Barca scored, with a long ball over the top releasing Gerry Rodrigues, and the Elche winger appearing to cleverly make sure that the covering Mascherano brought him down. It was perhaps a bit unfortunate for the Argentina international, but the referee Fernando Teixeira Vitienes really had no chance but to show the red card.

That general malfunction aside Barca's hard work and intense pressing was evident -- even after the break with ten men. Luis Enrique has talked a lot about building a "ferocious intensity" in the dressing-room and how competition for places will be tough. Those on the pitch would have known that potential replacements looking on included Suarez, Neymar, the benched Xavi Hernandez and the suspended Gerard Pique. And they were eager to make a good first impression.

So there were positive signs aplenty -- but it remains very early yet. Gerardo Martino's Barca began last season by hammering Levante 7-0 at home, but pretty quickly pundits and fans began to grumble about his failings. As a former star player of the 'Barca family' will be more patient with the new man -- and the first 'Luis Enrique, Luis Enrique' chants 13 minutes in from the 68,105 strong crowed. The same chant also got an airing near the game's end.

This was only the first match, but the black cat, Messi performance and Munir goal all look good omens, for now at least.

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