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Messi, Coutinho get Barcelona off to winning start

Lionel Messi scored twice, including Barcelona’s 6,000th goal in La Liga, as they beat Alaves 3-0 © AFP / LLUIS GENE

MADRID, Spain, Aug 19Two goals from Lionel Messi either side of a Philippe Coutinho strike allowed Barcelona to start their defence of the Spanish title with a 3-0 win over Alaves at the Camp Nou on Saturday night.

Wearing the captain’s armband following the departure of Andres Iniesta to Japan, Messi stepped up to send a cheeky second-half free-kick under the jumping wall and into the net for the opener, and Barca’s 6,000th La Liga goal.

Coutinho, who had come off the bench, lashed in the second goal before Messi added gloss to the scoreline in stoppage time, with the clock having ticked past midnight in Catalonia.

While they took their time to get going, it was an ideal opening result for Ernesto Valverde’s side, who are hoping to once again see off the challenges of Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in the battle for the title.

While Cristiano Ronaldo has left Real for Juventus, Messi remains as the figurehead at Barcelona and he won his 33rd trophy with the club in the Spanish Super Cup victory over Sevilla last weekend.

The 31-year-old will be aiming to put behind him the desperate disappointment that was Argentina’s World Cup campaign, and he was unlucky not to get a hat-trick here.

Messi saw a free-kick crash back off the bar late in the first half after going over the wall, so when he was handed another chance from a similar position in the 64th minute, he changed tack.

This time, 22 yards out, he surprised the jumping Alaves defenders by going underneath and giving Fernando Pacheco in goal no chance. He then sent another curling effort off the post soon after.

Coutinho started the match on the bench alongside summer signings Arthur, Malcom, Clement Lenglet and Arturo Vidal. However, he was sent on at the start of the second half and his goal seven minutes from the end effectively killed the game.

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The Brazilian had just squandered one chance after being played in by Messi when he picked up a pass from compatriot Arthur before lashing in, ensuring victory on the opening weekend for Barca for the 10th consecutive season.

Messi, the top scorer in La Liga last season, then controlled a ball into the box on his chest before slotting in his second and his team’s third in stoppage time.

After the departures of Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane, Real play their first league game under new coach Julen Lopetegui on Sunday night when they entertain near neighbours Getafe.

Last season’s runners-up Atletico, fresh from beating Real 4-2 after extra time in the UEFA Super Cup in Tallinn in midweek, start at Valencia on Monday.

– Cazorla back –

Elsewhere on Saturday, former Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla played his first competitive game in almost two years following a nightmare time with injuries.

The 77-times capped Spanish international, who is now 33, suffered a serious Achilles injury playing for Arsenal in the Champions League in October 2016.

After eight operations, the little attacking midfielder suffered a serious infection in the tendon that almost led to an amputation.

But he fought back and recently returned to Villarreal, seven years after his departure for Malaga.

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Cazorla started in Villarreal’s season-opener at home to Real Sociedad, as his side took a first-half lead through Gerard Moreno.

However, the visitors fought back to win 2-1 with goals from Willian Jose and Juanmi, giving the Basque club’s new coach Asier Garitano the perfect start.

The other winners so far on the opening weekend are Levante, who triumphed 3-0 at Betis on Friday.

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