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Griezmann and De Jong given rude awakening

Griezmann and De Jong given rude awakening

16/08/2019 at 23:03Updated 21/08/2019 at 10:50

Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie De Jong made their long-awaited competitive debuts for Barcelona in their opening La Liga fixture against Athletic Bilbao on Friday night - and it didn't go according to plan.

Barcelona began their quest for a third crown in a row with a shock 1-0 defeat against Bilbao at San Mames as substitute Aritz Aduriz struck a superb 89th-minute winner.

The hosts were without the defensive stalwart Iñigo Martínez but with Barcelona missing Lionel Messi, both sides had an unfamiliar look about them during a rather rusty opening league fixture that was decided in the most dramatic fashion.

Barcelona only lost three league games in the whole of last season and entered the game unbeaten in 25 of their last 26 La Liga fixtures, but this was always going to be a tough challenge in the absence of their talisman.

Antoine Griezmann was making his first competitive Barcelona start

Antoine Griezmann was making his first competitive Barcelona startGetty Images

The giants of the Basque Country had taken two draws off the champions last season, and the Athletic fans filled the streets in the hours leading up to kick-off.

The hosts had not lost any of their last 14 home matches in the league, but Barcelona arrived on Friday night knowing that they hadn't tasted defeat away to their opponents since December 2013.

Against a side who have been an ever-present in the last 25 years of La Liga, this was far from the easiest venues to make your Barcelona debut for Griezmann and De Jong - and Valverde fielded a surprise starting XI.

De Jong makes strong case for life after Busquets

Without the calming presence of Sergio Busquets or the work rate of Ivan Rakitic, the spotlight was firmly on whether De Jong could control the midfield.

Instead, the Dutchman had Carles Aleñá and Sergi Roberto alongside him - so it wasn't surprising who Athletic boss Gaizka Garitano targeted.

Within 90 seconds, De Jong was clipped by Raul Garcia in an early reducer from the experienced midfielder. The young Dutchman continued his bright start as he cut out Athletic's first corner inside five minutes at the near post.

Frenkie De Jong made his Barcelona debut on Friday night

Frenkie De Jong made his Barcelona debut on Friday nightGetty Images

With Messi still sidelined, the onus fell on Luis Suarez to coax Griezmann into his new surroundings, but it was Athletic who had the first shot in anger as a mistake from Ousmane Dembele allowed Inaki Williams a sight of goal, forcing Marc-Andre ter Stegen into a save to his right.

De Jong always showed for the ball despite the frequent presence of the man-marking Williams tracking back, and he didn't always come out from the press with possession - which led to Valverde's tactical change at the break.

Griezmann, a former Real Sociedad player of course, was roundly whistled when he caught Unai Lopez late, avoiding a card from referee Carlos del Cerro, and he was reminded thereafter with his every touch down the left of Barcelona's front three.

Bilbao make bright start

It was the home side on the front foot in the opening 15 minutes as Ter Stegen made a second smart save low down to deny Williams after a long ball from the back - but Barcelona then finally began to settle.

De Jong was at the heart of the move as Griezmann made a diagonal run from left to right to meet Dembele's threaded pass, but his cute back-heel inside just couldn't find Suarez.

The France international was playing in a far more wide and deep position to the one we have become accustomed to seeing during his days at Atletico, and his unfamiliarity with the role often showed.

Griezmann began the game on the left - and he was ineffectual

Griezmann began the game on the left - and he was ineffectualGetty Images

Where Messi and Jordi Alba have built a telepathic understanding over many years, Griezmann simply wasn't on the same wavelength as the marauding left-back.

With the Frenchman playing so wide, he was clogging up the space of the Barcelona full-back as a miscommunication led to an Athletic throw-in after 25 minutes.

Garcia continued to press De Jong after he received a ball from Ter Stegen inside his own penalty area, but he serenely navigated the tight spot to start off another Barcelona attack.

At the other end, Lopez showed how difficult it is to escape the high press as it was his mistake that led to Suarez clattering the post from a poor back-pass.

Inaki Williams came close to scoring twice in the first half

Inaki Williams came close to scoring twice in the first halfGetty Images

Suarez's injury leaves Griezmann isolated

That proved to be Suarez's last involvement as he was hauled off moments later with a calf injury to add to Valverde's early-season concerns.

Despite this being a very disjointed first 45 minutes from the champions, the Uruguayan's replacement Rafinha hit the woodwork moments after his introduction.

The Brazilian moved to the right, with Dembele switching to the left to allow Griezmann to play in his preferred central position.

Luis Suarez was substituted with a calf injury in the first half

Luis Suarez was substituted with a calf injury in the first halfGetty Images

Rafinha sparkled during pre-season, and with the France international back in the No 9 role, Barcelona sought to play with a better balance and greater purpose in the second period.

A sharp and decisive Rafinha was found by Dembele six minutes into the re-start as he cut in once more from his right channel to flash a deflected shot towards the near post, with Greizmann on hand for the cut-back.

It was only after Suarez left that it became apparent that it was not Griezmann's position that was the problem, as he then became even more isolated through the middle.

It was not until 20 minutes remaining when quick footwork inside the box led to Rakitic flashing a shot over the crossbar.

Can Rakitic and De Jong play together?

Ivan Rakitic brought experience to the Barcelona midfield

Ivan Rakitic brought experience to the Barcelona midfieldGetty Images

With De Jong struggling to find the space to create from a deep-lying position, Valverde identified the need for another technician of experience in the middle and summoned Rakitic in place of the ineffectual Aleñá.

The Croatian made an instant impression as he flashed a header goalwards only to see the ball nestle on the roof of the net - but the similarity between himself and De Jong extends beyond their physical appearance.

Having not started them together on Friday, it will be interesting to see how often Ernesto Valverde opts to do so once Busquets, Arthur and the forgotten man Arturo Vidal are all available.

Gerard Pique reacts to the late sucker-punch from Aritz Aduriz

Gerard Pique reacts to the late sucker-punch from Aritz AdurizGetty Images

With the two never more than 10 yards away from one another, Barcelona's moves became increasingly intricate as they sought to break down Athletic's disciplined shape.

Griezmann had his first shot on goal in the Messi position with eight minutes remaining as he was found by Alba's cut-back, but a Bilbao body was there to block his shot.

Moments later, he rose to meet Rafinha's cross but he could only glance his header wide. For a player of his quality, it was a chance, especially in a contest as cagey as this.

Aduriz's spectacular finish rubbed salt into the wound of missing those half-chances, and now it is an early advantage to the Madrid-based clubs in the race for the title.

Conclusions

Griezmann reacts to the late blow for Barcelona

Griezmann reacts to the late blow for BarcelonaGetty Images

For both De Jong and for Griezmann, far, far more profitable evenings lie in store once Messi returns from his lay-off.

Neither were helped by the sloppiness around them, with Dembele the most culpable of bringing an end to moves on the night Philippe Coutinho edged ever closer to a loan switch to Bayern Munich.

Zinedine Zidane admits he is now in a position where he cannot afford to let Gareth Bale leave, and this blank in front of goal underlined just why Barcelona are keen to bring Neymar back to the club.

Both De Jong and Griezmann will hope Neymar's return isn't far away after a frustrating first experience of life at a club where winning is an obligation.

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