Barcelona may have a new coach, but Lionel Messi remains their unquestionable talisman after guiding the Spanish champions to a nervy 1-0 win at home against Granada in La Liga play on Sunday in Quique Setien’s first game in charge of the club.
The Argentine struck the only goal in the 76th minute, firing into the bottom corner to complete a well crafted team move shortly after the visitors had defender German Sanchez sent off.
“Messi did what he has done his entire life,” Setien said of Barca’s all-time top scorer, who proved the difference on a blustery evening at Camp Nou.
“He has done this so many times in games like this, games when you cannot find a way through, things aren’t going for you and you are lacking inspiration, but he always conjures up something special.
“We made a few moves like this in the first half but it didn’t come off but when the ball falls to Messi you know there’s a very high chance it will go in.”
The victory took Barca back to the top of La Liga on 43 points after 20 games, ahead of second-place Real Madrid on goal difference.
Barca, which sacked Ernesto Valverde last week despite being La Liga leaders and winning the past two titles by considerable margins, enjoyed 82 per cent of possession and made a staggering 1,005 passes in their first game under Setien.
The former Real Betis coach is known for his devotion to the possession-based style of play Barca became renowned for under Johan Cruyff and perfected under Pep Guardiola, but Granada, which beat Barca 2-0 in September, proved stubborn opponents.
The visitors even came close to taking the lead when Cameroonian Yan Brice Eteki struck the post in a rare foray forward, but they eventually caved in after Sanchez picked up a second yellow card and was dismissed for hauling down Messi.
Messi had come closest to scoring for Barca with two powerful yet inaccurate shots either side of halftime, but he made no mistake when Arturo Vidal dragged the ball into his path in a slick passing move engineered by substitute Riqui Puig.
Twenty-year-old Puig was rarely given a look in by Valverde, but he was given his first league appearance of the season by 61-year-old Setien, who has pledged to honour the club’s tradition of giving young, home-grown players a chance.
“He did very well, he came on when we were in a good situation with an extra man and he read the game perfectly,” the coach added.
“I’m very happy because we only conceded two shots in the game, we did many things well and I hope that little by little we’ll get more fluid and get sharper in front of goal.”