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Fearless Fati offers Barcelona hope for their Messi-less future

22:16 BST 27/09/2020
Ansu Fati Lionel Messi Barcelona GFX
The 17-year-old scored two and won a penalty as Ronald Koeman's first match in charge of the Blaugrana ended with a 4-0 win over Villarreal

Barcelona are a club wracked in pain.

From that Champions League humiliation by Bayern Munich. From irreplaceable legend Lionel Messi trying to flee in the night. From institutional and sporting failures grinding them into the ground over the past few years.

And yet it took only a couple of moments of excellence from 17-year-old wonderkid Ansu Fati against Villarreal for them to dream again.

The young winger was the ray of sunshine breaking through relentless clouds as he brightened Barcelona’s outlook in their opening fixture of the season, even daring to suggest himself as an answer to the question which has lingered for years and has never been more crucial - what next?

Messi was always going to leave Barcelona one day - ideally via retirement rather than transfer - and the club need a plan for that moment, which came closer than ever this summer.

Only the coronavirus kept the six-time Ballon d'Or winner at the club, because if football had not been postponed and Bayern had thrashed Barcelona 8-2 before the summer, he could have walked away for free in June.

Instead he will remain at Barcelona for the final year of his contract before heading to pastures new, barring any U-turn, which is terrible news for Barcelona, who have proven allergic to sensible sporting planning over the past few seasons.

Messi himself cited that as one of the reasons he wanted to go in his world exclusive interview with Goal, accusing the club of lacking foresight and taping over holes.

“The truth is that there has been no project or anything for a long time, they juggle everything and plug holes as they go along,” said Messi.

But without wanting to carelessly and recklessly brandish Fati as Barcelona’s next Messi, hopes for his future are growing with each new appearance.

All eyes were on Messi, starting the season under new coach Ronald Koeman as they kicked off on Sunday, but quickly attention shifted to his teenage team-mate.

The Guinea-Bissau-born forward thrilled on his Spain debut under former Barcelona coach Luis Enrique during the recent Nations League matches, and he brought that quality to the fore against Villarreal in the 4-0 win over Unai Emery's side.

After Luis Suarez struck twice on a brilliant debut for Atletico Madrid earlier in the day, Barca needed to play well or risk stoking further ire from supporters - especially after Messi backed his former team-mate and close friend over the club.

Fati got the message and was the clear standout on a fine night for Koeman, who had his new side playing good football and actually enjoying themselves on the pitch.

Philippe Coutinho looked bolder after his loan spell at Bayern, perhaps no longer overawed by his illustrious team-mates, having played his part in destroying them.

Messi was not sulking and had a predictably strong impact, netting the third from the penalty spot and forcing Pau Torres to put through his own net for the fourth. Francisco Trincao and Pedri looked good from the bench too, but the night belonged to Fati.

The forward, growing in confidence with each match, scored with two clinical finishes which belied his young age.

The first he roared into the top corner after 15 minutes before the second was drilled in at the near post four minutes later. 

He was then felled in the box for Messi’s penalty, showing the electric speed that the forward line of Messi-Suarez-Griezmann desperately lacked last season. Ousmane Dembele, who appeared in a typically hit-and-miss cameo in the second half, might have been able to provide it if he had not spent months out of action.

Fireworks exploded over Camp Nou for an extended period in the second half as part of the city’s celebration of the La Merce festival, but on the pitch the show was over.

Fati was withdrawn in the 68th minute, with his job more than done, rested for Thursday’s visit to Balaidos to face Celta Vigo, which should be far trickier than this.

Of course, much more was expected of Emery’s Villarreal, especially given they had two league games under their belt already. The former Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal coach must dread coming back to Camp Nou, the scene of the crime in 2017 when his Paris Saint-Germain side fell apart 6-1 in the Champions League’s greatest ever comeback.

But Barcelona can only play what is in front of them, taking one step at a time, burying the past - Rome, Liverpool, Lisbon, Suarez, burofaxes, et al - and gingerly heading towards their future, with Fati leading the way.