SAITAMA, Japan — FC Barcelona opened the 2019-20 preseason on Tuesday evening outside Tokyo, where they fell to Chelsea, 2-1, before a crowd of 51,126 at Saitama Stadium.
Despite being defeated in an exhibition match, there was some good news for Barça fans, who got to see the two new stars Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong take the field for the very first time wearing their new colors.
Griezmann started as part of an XI consisting of a trio of Frenchmen and seven La Masia products. The German Marc-André ter Stegen started in goal.
Griezmann was the main protagonist in the first half, getting frequently involved in Barça’s attack and completing several nice passes to create space for his teammates. He also took a hard knock from Jorginho in the middle of the field in the 20th minute, but was quickly back in the game.
Chelsea took a 1-0 lead in the 34th, when Tammy Abraham picked up a loose ball in the Barça end and sidestepped Ter Stegen to slot in from 12 meters.
After the break Barça manager Ernesto Valverde shuffled the entire lineup, with the biggest attention-grabber coming in the form of De Jong, the young Dutch midfielder, who took the field donning the blaugrana colors for the very first time. Neto also made his unofficial debut, coming on for Ter Stegen.
Rafinha had a low blast saved by Kepa just shy of the hour mark while left winger Carles Pérez was a menacing presence on the blaugrana attack throughout the second half.
Chelsea doubled their lead in the 81st, when Ross Barkley converted from the edge of the area.
But the goal of the night was all Barça’s, as Ivan Rakitic deposited a gorgeous long-range volley into the upper left corner in second half injury time. Thus, in spite of falling to a pre-season opening defeat, by the end of the match, there was plenty of reason to feel good.
Festivities outside, gasps inside
The match, which formed part of a new tournament named the Rakuten Cup was FC Barcelona’s first appearance in Japan since winning the 2015 FIFA Club World Cup in Yokohama. From the moment of Barça’s arrival in Tokyo on Sunday until the match with Chelsea, the Catalans proved that their presence in “Nippon” was something special. And it was no more evident than outside Saitama Stadium in the Barça Fan Zone, where throngs of Barça supporters gathered before the match. Food trucks provided local fare long after the Barça Store had sold out of most of the items being sold there, further proof of Barça’s popularity here.
Inside the stadium was another story, however. The sight of European heavyweights of the stature of Barça and Chelsea kept the fans mouths agape for long stretches, only interrupted by deep gasps each time a player dribbled skillfully around another and when blistering shots hurtled towards the net. In between, you could almost hear a pin drop. But when the silence reached its most deafening, the true spectacle of the game delivered thrills that will last forever in the memories of the relatively few — in a nation of some 125 million people — who had the chance to glimpse it.