Barcelona fall to Manchester United in Leo Messi's absence
Barcelona were deservedly defeated by Manchester United 3-1 in their second match of the International Champions Cup. Rafinha scored a late goal for the Blaugrana, who enjoyed 61 percent of possession, created 18 goal-scoring chances and attempted 13 shots, six of them on target and three to the post.
There was little more than the players' pride at stake when the two major European clubs met on Saturday. However, Luis Enrique took the game seriously and decided to field a strong starting XI consisting on Marc Andre Ter Stegen between the posts; a back-line with Adriano, Gerard Pique, Thomas Vermaelen, Jordi Alba; Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto and Andres Iniesta in midfield; then the Rafinha, Pedro and Luis Suarez trident upfront.
A victory against Manchester United would have undoubtedly improved the player's morale and given them a valuable boost. However, nobody in the Catalan capital is likely to lose much sleep over the result in a preseason friendly in California -- even if it was a thoroughly deserved defeat at the hands of one of Europe's top clubs.
Here's what we learned from the loss:
Barca missed Messi up front
Every football fan on the planet knows that Lionel Messi is the spark that ignites Barcelona's engine, the main reason why the Blaugranas have brought silverware back to the Camp Nou museum with enviable consistency for over a decade.
Although the Argentinean wizard did not play a single minute of football at the Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, his name inevitably popped into everyone's mind due to the frustratingly obvious impact his absence has on his teammates.
Without Messi, Barcelona once again became a predictable team which, despite having the overall control of the ball, could not generate clear-enough opportunities to secure victory. Sure, the Catalan's efforts struck David De Gea's woodwork three times but blaming bad luck for their defeat would be a far too simplistic, irresponsible analysis.
Ultimately, United came away with a well-deserved victory because Barca lacked the required degree of creativity to surprise Louis van Gaal's back-line regularly enough.
At the same time, it is only natural to feel that the overall direction of the game, and its final result, would have been different had Messi been available for selection.
Whether Cules choose to admit it or not, Barcelona have become over-dependent on Messi's brilliance over the years and, unsurprisingly, the overall effectiveness of the team decreases considerably whenever the quadruple-Ballon d'Or winner is not there to terrorise rival defences with his unstoppable magic. The downside of building the team about the world's best-ever player, I suppose.
Let's hope Messi manages to fully recharge his batteries while enjoying his well-deserved holiday alongside his loved ones before he rejoins Luis Enrique's squad in Aug. 3 as, from that point on, he will be expected to step up as the attacking leader his Barcelona teammates so desperately need once again.
Sergi Roberto proves his worth
Despite making his first team debut under Pep Guardiola back in November 2010, the 23-year-old La Masia graduate has not managed to secure a regular spot in Barcelona's starting XI just yet -- which is perhaps understandable considering the amount of world-class talent that the Blaugrana midfield has been boasting in recent years.
Sergio Roberto is fully aware that the next few weeks can make or break his future. With the departure of the legendary Xavi Hernandez, the inevitable passing of time is likely to affect Iniesta's performance and Arda Turan's unavailability until January 2016 are all factors that the No. 20 knows he what needs to take advantage of.
Luis Enrique, who has been a key figure in Roberto's nurturing process since their very successful days at Barca B, granted him the full 90 minutes against Manchester United: The first half in his usual position as a creative interior midfielder followed by a Cruyff-esque move to, wait for it, pure right-back after the break.
To his credit, Sergi Roberto performed at an outstanding level in both positions, showing impeccable professionalism and a total understanding of what the full-back duties entailed despite being new to the role. The spectacular Rafinha volley that resulted in Barca's only goal would have not been possible without Roberto's inch-perfect cross from the right wing.
The No. 20's optimal fitness, exquisite passing technique and obvious desire to succeed at the Camp Nou play on his favour. Could the Catalan youngster retain the right-back spot once Dani Alves returns from holiday and Aleix Vidal is available for selection in January 2016? According to Luis Enrique's own words after the match, it's "an interesting option to consider."
Intensity is a necessary ingredient for success
Luis Enrique, similarly to the vast majority of managers on the planet, is not a fan of taking his players on endless tours during the summer. In his eyes, the ideal preseason should consist of methodically organised double-training sessions and minimal travelling, with matches getting progressively more difficult as the players get closer to their optimal fitness.
Obviously, the Asturian would certainly not be taking part in the current U.S. tour if he had the choice, even if it includes potentially lucrative visits to sponsors and valuable networking opportunities.
Manchester United overcame Barcelona thanks to their clinical finishing and far better physical condition in equal measures. The Reds were also far more focused on the job in hand from the initial whistle, as shown by Wayne Rooney's very astute header which caught the Catalans' back-line napping, leading to United's opener early on.
Kudos to Van Gaal for ensuring his players have already reached such an enviable level at this very early stage of the season.