Barcelona no longer perfect, but draw continues unbeaten start to La Liga season
BARCELONA, Spain -- Three thoughts from Barcelona's 2-2 La Liga draw with Girona at the Camp Nou on Sunday.
1. Ten-man Barca fight back to remain unbeaten
A Gerard Pique header salvaged a draw for Barcelona against Girona as Ernesto Valverde's team came unstuck in La Liga for the first time this season.
Lionel Messi's first-half strike had given Barca the advantage, but the game changed when Clement Lenglet was controversially sent off for an elbow. Two Cristhian Stuani goals manoeuvred Girona into the lead, and they stood on the verge of a historic victory over their Catalan rivals until Pique headed home after the hour mark.
Barca pressed late on, with substitute Philippe Coutinho coming close twice, but they were unable to stop two points slipping away, their 100 percent start to the season disappearing.
The reverse fixture is slated to take place in Miami in January. Little was said about that before or during this encounter -- by the managers, the players or the supporters, surprisingly -- but the game itself showed that Barca will not have things all their own way if they do meet Girona in the United States.
Another routine win looked on the cards when Messi, having already been denied by a brilliant Yassine Bounou save, converted Arturo Vidal's pass with a crisp first-time finish.
However, the game swing in the 35th minute when Lenglet was sent off on his full La Liga debut. The French defender, at first glance, appeared to expertly cut out a through ball to Pere Pons, but as the Girona midfielder wriggled around on the floor holding his face, referee Gil Manzano asked for backup from VAR. After looking over the replays, it was deemed that Lenglet had caught Pons with an elbow. Out came the red card.
The decision incensed the home supporters, but it spurred on the visitors. By half-time, they were level. Pique's slip allowed Stuani in and the former Espanyol striker slotted under Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Shortly after the restart, Girona led. Pique was again at fault, losing his battle with Portu, whose shot was saved by Ter Stegen from close range. But Stuani pounced for the second time, rifling into the top corner with unerring accuracy.
Even facing 10 men, though, holding on for the win was always going to be tough for Girona. No one has beaten Barca at Camp Nou in La Liga since Alaves stunned them in 2016.
Valverde turned to the cavalry, throwing on Ivan Rakitic and Coutinho -- Samuel Umtiti had already replaced Ousmane Dembele to cover the loss of Lenglet -- and Barca began to pour forward.
Messi hit the bar with one free kick and saw another tipped wide by Bounou. The attacks kept coming and the pressure eventually paid off when Pique made up for his earlier errors by flicking a header past Bounou to earn Barca a point and keep them unbeaten at the top of the table, level with Real Madrid on 13 points from five games.
2. Coutinho nearly inspires another comeback
Coutinho has, strangely, been left on the bench in three of Barca's five league matches so far. On each occasion, he's been sent on with the task of changing the game. He came on while it was goalless against Alaves in August, last week against Real Sociedad with the Blaugrana trailing and against Girona after Stuani's second.
He had the desired affect against Alaves and La Real, but he couldn't quite convert zero points into three against Girona -- one will have to do.
Valverde opted to make changes in midfield, with Vidal and Arthur handed league debuts. Neither did poorly, the former even set up the opening goal, but both are still adapting to their new surrounding. That's why, with a comeback needed, the coach turned to Coutinho and Rakitic.
The Brazilian twice came close to turning a draw into a win in the dying stages. He forced a save from Bounou before curling wide from the edge of the box, Barca's hopes of three points bending off target with the effort.
With tough games to come away at Leganes and at home to Athletic Bilbao in the week, not to mention the Champions League game in London against Tottenham, Valverde may want to consider sticking Coutinho in from the start a little more often.
3. Stuani's goals give Girona continuity
Girona were tipped to be one of the teams struggling at the bottom of the table this season. They lost their coach Pablo Machin to Seville in the summer. He wasn't just any coach, either. He was the coach who had steered them into the top flight for the first time in their history. Girona without Machin? No one was sure what would happen.
However, under the guise of Eusebio Sacristan, a former Barca player, things are going well. Not least because they have one of the most consistent goal scorers in the league in Stuani.
Last season, he scored 21 goals, only bettered by Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and Iago Aspas. This season, he has five to his name already (in just four starts). Only Messi has as many as him.
Usually so deadly in the air, both his strikes against Barca came with his feet. The first was a calm finish inside the area and the second was clinical from the edge of the box -- and more difficult than it looked.
In scoring two against the La Liga champions, Stuani became the first player to score a brace against both Barca and Real Madrid in the same calendar year this century. His goals, for Girona, don't have a price.