BARCELONA, Spain — Barcelona was teetering on the brink of complete disaster after Bayern Munich crushed its reputation in a historic 8-2 defeat that even made Lionel Messi believe it was time to abandon his club.
But less than two months after that Champions League loss, a new coach emphasizing a strong work ethic and a forward not even 18 years old have pumped fresh optimism into Camp Nou.
Ansu Fati’s three goals in two wins have Barcelona off to an ideal start to the Spanish league. Added to three preseason wins, Barcelona appears to be on its way back.
Fati, who turns 18 on Oct. 31, scored two early goals and earned a penalty to lead a 4-0 rout of Villarreal in Barcelona’s opener last weekend. He followed that up by using a deft control before firing home a strike with the tip of his right boot to get 10-man Barcelona off to a 3-0 victory at a rainy Celta Vigo on Thursday.
The strong showings seem to have helped calm Messi after an incredibly tense period of bickering with club officials. Messi was blocked in his bid to leave the club in August. After complaining about his treatment by the club, Messi changed tact Wednesday by calling for “unity” and apologizing to fans for the ordeal of hearing that their idol wanted to leave.
Barcelona will have another good test on Sunday when Sevilla visits. Julen Lopetegui’s team is flying high after winning the Europa League in August. It has also won its first two Liga matches after losing the European Super Cup to Bayern.
Thrilled with his Barcelona's start, coach Ronald Koeman said after Thursday’s hard-fought win that he hadn’t expected this quick a turnaround, not for a team that had been partly dismantled after its Champions League exit.
But the Dutch coach could not hide his satisfaction after the victory in Vigo, where Barcelona had been winless in its past five visits. Barcelona dug deep after losing Clement Lenglet to a second booking before halftime and added two more goals during a gusting storm lashing Celta’s Balaídos Stadium.
“I’m proud of how the team played in this match,” Koeman said. “The team is in much better shape than what anyone could have expected. We have won the two games we have played, scored 7 goals, not conceded one. Obviously, we still need to improve some things, but I am very pleased so far.”
Koeman has emphasized the message “you play like you practice” to hammer home the importance of his players being as fit as possible. Barcelona had appeared to be worn down physically by the end of campaigns in recent seasons, all of which ended with tough losses in the Champions League knockout phase.
Even Philippe Coutinho looks like a different player than the one that moped around the field for a season and a half before being loaned out to Bayern. Instead of playing on the left side like in his first stint with Barcelona, Coutinho is now thriving as the central playmaker playing behind Messi acting as the team’s “false nine.”
The club’s troubles are not over, though. Messi has yet to say if he will extend his contract before it expires in June. Even more pressing for club president Josep Bartomeu and his board is the censure motion that a group of angry club members has mounted to possibly oust them in a referendum likely to take place in the coming weeks.
Technical director Ramón Planes focused on the present Friday, when he presented American right back Sergiño Dest, who hopes he can debut against Sevilla.
Planes is responsible for helping bring in Dest, midfielder Miralem Pjanic, and young forwards Pedro “Pedri” González and Francisco Trincão, while getting rid of Luis Suárez, Arturo Vidal, Nelson Semedo, Ivan Rakitic, and Arthur as part of the squad's overhaul.
“There is no better example (of the team’s turnaround) than yesterday’s game,” Planes said. “You saw a team with a great team spirit and that worked hard in very adverse conditions. Football is day to day. Today, we have to think that we have turned this situation around and that we are looking at a future that is hopeful for the Barca we have built in these past weeks.”
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press