Amidst all the Champions League knockout games, Spanish giants Barcelona faced minnows Sporting Gijón in a postponed La Liga match this morning (1:30am SGT). The away side overcame a resilient Sporting 3-1 in Round 25 with goals from Luis Suarez (1) and Lionel Messi (2).
With Barcelona loanee Alen Halilovic playing against his idol and future teammate Lionel Messi, you’d be forgiven for having a case of double vision. While the latter grabbed headlines by netting his 300th and 301st La Liga goals for the Blaugrana, running in El Molinón stadium was a narrative all Culés had at the back of their minds.
Barcelona loanee Alen Halilovic was playing against his parent club for the first time since leaving on loan this season.
For the uninitiated, similarities drawn between Halilovic and Messi from the former’s highlight reels on YouTube had critics deeming him the Balkan Messi. The Croat’s playing style does resemble much of Messi’s earlier playing days, running relentlessly at defenders at will with the ball seemingly magnetised to his cleats, weaving in between full backs in what close space Halilovic manages to carve out for himself.
And when it comes to the peripheral details, the 19-year-old former Dinamo Zagreb player does share a similar build with that of Messi. Long tussled hair, boyish looks exuding the sort of humble demeanour has quickly earned him cult status amongst Sporting Gijón supporters. It’s not hard to see why - for a club languishing in the bottom half of La Liga, it is certainly players like Halilovic who become bright spots in an otherwise dreary season fighting relegation.
And he has done so with former La Masia striker Antonio “Tonny” Sanabria. While Sanabria was sidelined against the Catalans, all eyes were on Halilovic to impress against his parent club.
He did that exactly in the 8th minute, leading a swift counterattack after holding off strong challenges by Barcelona’s Aleix Vidal and Sergio Busquets. It was a sight to behold, Halilovic doing a Messi despite the move failing to result in a goal.
It may have looked like a subdued performance from Halilovic, who registered two key passes and one shot off target. Sporting Gijón, or most teams in La Liga bar Celta and Rayo Vallecano tend to sit back and absorb Barcelona’s persistent attacks, leaving little to no opportunities for the opposition to launch attacks. With what little opportunities he had last night, Halilovic performed reasonably well, and will be hoping Luis Enrique was watching closely.
While he hasn’t been entirely successful, he’s been trying. He attempted three Messi-esque diagonal passes, however he misplaced them.
After moving on loan to Sporting Gijón, Halilovic looked to have developed the sort of maturation that was absent during his time at Barcelona B. His progress at Sporting has been nothing but respectable so far, the Croat registering three goals and four assists in 18 appearances. When he’s not scoring and assisting, Halilovic is the conduit for most of Sporting’s attacking sequences.
With the likes of Arda Turan, Ivan Rakitic, Rafinha and Iniesta fighting for two midfield positions and Barcelona’s front three… well, being the unstoppable strikeforce they are, Halilovic will only see time on the bench had he stayed with the Catalans. Spending the season on loan at Gijón and playing a vital role for the Asturians will bode well for him. Don’t expect him to be waiting too long, though.