Barcelona Top Real Sociedad 1-0 in Andres Iniesta's Final Match with Club

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistMay 20, 2018

(L-R) Barcelona's Colombian defender Yerry Mina, Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Andres Iniesta, Barcelona's Spanish defender Gerard Pique and Barcelona's Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez celebrate a goal during the Spanish league football match between FC Barcelona and Real Sociedad at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on May 20, 2018. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
JOSEP LAGO/Getty Images

Barcelona brought the curtain down on their season with a 1-0 win over Real Sociedad on Sunday to end the campaign 14 points clear of their nearest La Liga opponent as the champions capped off an almost pristine term.

Andres Iniesta made his final appearance in Barca colours and played 82 minutes of the farewell fixture, in which Philippe Coutinho curled in a sensational breakthrough from outside the box to separate the two teams.

Ernesto Valverde will count his first season in charge of the Blaugrana a success after capturing a league and Copa del Rey double, and Sunday's win provided an emotional footnote to a memorable campaign in Catalonia.

          

Coutinho the Heir Apparent?

How fitting it was on Sunday to see Coutinho rise to the fore just as they waved their last goodbyes to a servant of more than two decades in Iniesta.

Lionel Messi started on the bench, meaning it was up to the newer blood in the squad to get Barca's noses in front, and Coutinho duly obliged in the 57th minute, per La Liga writer Simon Harrison:

The Brazilian wormed his way in and out of several Sociedad defenders before opening up the necessary foot of space to switch onto his favoured right and slam home into the top right from 20 yards or so.

Coutinho was withdrawn for Messi 10 minutes later but evidently left his impact in encouraging speculation he'll be the man to replace Iniesta, as hinted by totalBarca:

In truth, though, as much as the Camp Nou might want their January signing to fill an Iniesta-shaped void, the simple truth is there likely isn't anywhere out there capable of such a feat.

Manager Ernesto Valverde even hinted as much prior to the match and suggested no one man in the squad is ready to replace Iniesta, per Barca's official Twitter account:

Albeit showing more attacking intent than Iniesta has been used to—certainly in more recent years anyway—Coutinho looks ready to contribute at the top level for Barca following his eighth goal in 18 league appearances.

        

Dembele's Call to Arms

It's been a long time coming for Barcelona fans to consistently see Ousmane Dembele giving full-backs grief like he did at former clubs Rennes and Borussia Dortmund.

Patience is a virtue, however, and in Sunday's 2017-18 climax, the Frenchman was in superlative form and left a major impression on Twitter user Ebi Cule thanks to some supreme dribbling displays:

He and right-back Nelson Semedo enjoyed good fortune attacking Sociedad left-back Alberto de la Bella's flank for stretches, only for a poorly timed Raul Navas slide tackle to cause an early end to Dembele's day.

Navas caught Dembele's ankle with a poor challenge, one which could have earned a red on another day, and ESPN's Samuel Marsden commented on what it could mean for the winger's 2018 FIFA World Cup hopes:

Dembele brought huge expectations to the Camp Nou from Dortmund last summer, prior to suffering a serious knee injury that sidelined him for much of the year, but on Sunday we saw glimpses of the phenom he can become.

Granted, the 21-year-old isn't a match-winner in his own right yet, but, blessed with some of the best feet in the business, the potential is clear for next season to be one where he gleams in Barca's forward line. 

          

Infinite Iniesta's Camp Nou Curtain Call

Although the 22-year Barcelona tenure of Iniesta came to a close on Sunday, it was evident from the emotional turnout in Catalonia that he won't be soon forgotten:

The midfield magician that embodied a team for an entire generation, Iniesta's class was clear to the last touch, and it hurts all the more knowing that even at 34, he can still shine at this level.

Effortless quality is what Iniesta exudes himself and helps breed in others, and even in his farewell performance, the oldest figure in Valverde's Barca squad was the man running the show, per OptaJose:

The Blaugrana legend wasn't the only well-known Spanish face saying goodbye to La Liga, however, as Sociedad stalwart Xabi Prieto, 34, came on in the dying minutes ahead of his retirement:

Just as was the case when Carles Puyol or Xavi Hernandez departed in recent years, Iniesta's exit will leave a mark on Catalonia and feels as though the last centurion of an age gone by has now taken his leave.

Players, coaches, friends and opponents alike shared their experiences of Iniesta ahead of his last Barca bow:

Barcelona have new heroes and new faces on whom they've come to rely, but no emerging prospect or shiny new arrival will be able to replicate the impact Iniesta had on the Camp Nou in all aspects of the club.

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