It was a satisfying start. There was an air of expectation around Camp Nou as Barcelona began a new era on Sunday night, but Luis Enrique's team took time to settle before, suddenly, everything clicked into gear.
The Asturian coach picked a side featuring four footballers making their Barca debuts: goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, defender Jeremy Mathieu, midfielder Ivan Rakitic and striker Munir El Haddadi. On the right side of the team's three-man forward line, meanwhile, Rafinha was making only his fourth appearance for the Catalan club. New era, new players, new Barca,
The opening exchanges were interrupted by the appearance of a black cat on the pitch. Was it an omen? Not at all. But the jokes quickly rained in on social media nonetheless. "The cat covers the wing better than Alves," wrote one Tweeter, while another added mischievously: "The cat has run more than Messi so far tonight."
The cat in question is looked after and fed by club employees at Camp Nou and previously made a brief cameo in a game against Real Sociedad in February, 2012. Presumably, after leaving the pitch, the cat got his milk. But Messi got the cream.
Who's Haddadi? | Munir made it 2-0 on his debut with a fine finishLeo's double came later, but twice Barca rattled the woodwork as Luis Enrique's men stepped up the pace later in the opening half. First, the 18-year-old Munir, in the side for the injured Neymar, crashed an angled drive into the top of the left-hand post. Then, Andres Iniesta sent a thunderous effort against the bar.
Top scorer for Barca in pre-season, Munir was then put through by Messi, but inexplicably squared for Rafinha when it looked easier to score. Moments later, however, the Argentine showed him how it's done as he took up a pass from Sergio Busquets, sidestepped Sergio Pelegrin and slotted into the corner with a fine finish.
Javer Mascherano was sent off for a professional foul shortly afterwards, but Barca barely noticed and the excellent Munir made it 2-0 straight after the break with a delightfully deft finish after Rakitic's lovely lofted pass. A new star was born.
"Munir is tearing through the levels at a terrifying rate," Luis Enrique enthused later. "He gives us options, he scores goals and he's competitive."
So too is Messi. The Argentine struck again for 3-0 after 63 minutes with a stunning solo strike which made even his coach smile, beating three defenders one after the other before placing a precise shot just inside the post.
"Messi is the best in the world, even when he is defending," the 44-year-old said afterwards. "We see him day in, day out doing unbelievable things. He'll be the best in the world as long as he wants to give assists, score goals, press ... He has been touched by the magic wand for many years now."
It was a glorious goal and all-round performance from the 27-year-old, who was clearly in the mood after some trying times for Barca in 2013-14 and the agony of losing the World Cup final with Argentina earlier this summer.
Luis Enrique will be content as well following an accomplished team display in his first match. Barca were expected to win this one, but the Blaugrana still had to produce the goods and they came through with positive sensations. The new project is well and truly underway.