Messi does it all in Barca romp on Neymar’s debut
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Lionel Messi scored two goals and set up another Sunday to help mark the debut of Neymar and Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino in a 7-0 thrashing of Levante, ensuring the Spanish champions start their title defense in style.
While Barcelona rolled to victory, Real Madrid needed a late header by new midfielder Francisco “Isco” Alarcon to edge out Real Betis 2-1 at home in the first game with Carlo Ancelotti in charge after three season under Jose Mourinho.
Madrid’s lackluster showing will add more pressure on president Florentino Perez to pay the hefty price Tottenham desires for forward Gareth Bale to reinforce its attack.
Also, Atletico Madrid forward Diego Costa did his best to erase memories of Radamel Falcao by scoring twice, including a well-taken go-ahead goal off the break in the 79th minute, to lead a 3-1 win at Sevilla. Granada, meanwhile, won 2-1 at Osasuna.
With signature signing Neymar watching from the bench, Messi almost single-handedly dismantled the overmatched Levante.
After Alexis Sanchez opened the scoring, Messi claimed Barcelona’s second goal, stole possession to create the third, and passed for Pedro Rodriguez to score the fourth.
Messi scored his second goal from the penalty spot before Xavi Hernandez made it 6-0 against the demoralized visitors to equal a club record of goals in a first half.
Neymar, who has been recovering from anemia since his €57 million move from Santos in the offseason, went on in the second half in time to see Pedro strike again and polish off the lopsided victory.
“We saw great football and great goals in the first half,” said Neymar. “I’m getting better physically, little by little. I hope to be 100 percent soon. We have started well, with a win. That’s the important thing.”
The applause Neymar received while warming up grew to a standing ovation when he went on for Alexis in the 64th for his first official minutes in Barcelona’s burgundy and blue.
Those eager to see Neymar and Messi together were disappointed, however. The two were only on together for seven minutes before Martino sent Andres Iniesta on for Messi.
The 21-year-old Neymar was active on the left flank but couldn’t find his new teammates with crosses. Goalkeeper Keylor Navas saved his best chance before he was booked for tripping.
Martino said that he had agreed with Messi to take him out once the game was resolved, keeping in mind the long season ahead and that the player is coming off a hamstring injury.
“Everyone wants to see Neymar and Messi together,” said Martino. “I want his adaptation to be as quick as possible, but without forcing anything. Shortly we’ll see him at his best.”
Martino was hired in a rush last month to replace Tito Vilanova after he announced he was stepping down to focus on his fight against a recurrent throat tumor. But despite a hectic preseason and little preparation time, Barcelona’s talented squad made the Argentine manager’s first game in Europe an easy stroll.
“The concepts we had talked with the players about, which aren’t new but rather well studied by this team, we saw them on display again tonight,” said Martino. “Our midfielders incorporating in attack, alternating how we create in attack — these are good signs. Pressing up the pitch is one of the things we have most insisted upon. I’m satisfied.”
Barcelona made a bright start by scoring in the third minute through one of its trademark passing combinations that turned the flatfooted Levante defense into onlookers as Cesc Fabregas laid off for Alexis to tap into the open goalmouth.
Messi netted the hosts’ second goal in the 12th after Fabregas started the move with a nifty chested pass to free up Messi to work a one-two with Pedro before slotting the ball home.
Messi’s defense produced the third in the 24th. The four-time world player of the year chased down David Navarro and stole the ball near the corner flag to begin another weave of passes that ended with Dani Alves knocking in a rebound.
Far from done, Messi showed off his passing skills two minutes later by serving a perfectly weighted long ball for Pedro to fire beyond Navas.
Levante couldn’t help but add to its own demise when Pedro Lopez fouled Adriano just inside the area, letting Messi drill in the spot kick in the 41st. Xavi poked in the sixth goal in the 45th and Fabregas passed for Pedro’s second goal in the 73rd.
Betis showed more verve early at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium and led 1-0 after a goal set up by a solo run from Cedrick Mabwati, for whom Betis paid €1.20 — the price of a coffee— to pick up in the offseason.
Cedrick’s blistering burst of speed in the 14th took him past Sergio Ramos to square for Jorge Molina to beat goalkeeper Diego Lopez, whom Ancelotti chose in goal over Iker Casillas, as did Mourinho.
After Cedrick set up Joan Verdu only to shoot wide, Karim Benzema leveled for Madrid off an assist by Isco in the 26th.
Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo curled a shot off the woodwork seconds after halftime, but Betis held firm until Marcelo picked out Isco to head in from the far post and grab the 86th-minute winner.
“I believe we can improve,” said Ancelotti. “The problem was our balance. The second half was difficult and the problem was clear, it was in defense. We left too much space between our lines and Betis played a great game.
“Isco did everything in this match. Clearly the key to this season is the balance that we must establish with our quality players.”