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La Liga: Valencia CF 2-3 FC Barcelona: Match Review

A recap of Barcelona's 3-2 La Liga win over Valencia at the Mestalla, as Lionel Messi's hat-trick was enough to secure a third successive victory for the Blaugrana, despite a spirited Helder Postiga-led fightback from the hosts

Manuel Queimadelos Alonso

FC Barcelona saw off a spirited Helder Postiga-led fight-back to secure a valuable 3-2 win over Valencia CF at the Mestalla on Sunday evening to retain control of La Liga. Following wins for Atletico Madrid, Villarreal and Real Madrid, Barcelona entered tonight’s game three points adrift of the top of the table, but moved into first place on goal difference, courtesy of Lionel Messi’s first-half hat-trick.






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Arguably overshadowed by news of Gareth Bale’s world record signing for Real Madrid, Lionel Messi and Neymar started alongside each other in attack for the first time in La Liga history – and Culés were hoping that the pairing would be able to live up to expectations and fire Barcelona to a comfortable victory against Valencia at the Mestalla. With Xavi and Alexis Sánchez resting at home in Barcelona, Gerardo Martino opted to restore Andrés Iniesta and Pedro to the starting line-up, as the Argentine coach made just two changes to the side that secured the Supercopa de España on Wednesday. Would Barça retain control over La Liga with a third successive win, or would Miroslav Djukic’s side pull off an upset?

Barcelona started the match somewhat slowly, as a capacity crowd at the Mestalla inspired their heroes to an energetic start; disrupting Barça’s early spells in possession, and disputing every call (or non-call) which happened to go in the visitor’s favour. In particular, Barcelona may have been lucky to survive a potential handball call, as an early through ball from former Real Madrid youngster Sergio Canales appeared to be deflected by the slightly out-stretched arm of Javier Mascherano. The referee however saw nothing unusual in the positioning of Mascherano’s arm, opting to wave to play on – allowing Barcelona to regain possession and build their first attack of the evening.

Unsurprisingly, Lionel Messi was involved and tried to catch Valencia keeper Diego Alves off-guard with a right-footed shot from the right-hand side of the penalty area, but the four-time Ballon d’Or winner, and the recent runner-up to the UEFA Best Player in Europe Award couldn’t direct his effort on target, wasting a good early chance for the Blaugrana. Fortunately, Barça would create many more early chances against a rather suspect Los Che defense.

"All" it took was a simple through ball, often supplied by Cesc Fàbregas and Lionel Messi and the winger (mostly Neymar) would be through on goal if they timed their diagonal run between the full-back and centre-half. The first-time, Neymar timed his run to perfection but was out-muscled by a recovering Ricardo Costa before he could pull the trigger, while the second-time Neymar was clean through and applied the finish – only to be denied his first La Liga goal by the assistant referee’s flag.

It was a tight decision, with freeze-frame replays proving inconclusive one way or the other.

Barcelona were not discouraged by this early set-back; quite the opposite in fact – as less than a minute later, they officially took the lead courtesy of Lionel Messi’s third goal of the season.

Intercepting a rogue pass from Michel, Sergio Busquets fed Cesc Fàbregas, who in turn played a defense-splitting pass to find the run of Lionel Messi. Showing no signs of his recent thigh injury, Messi sped away from the chasing Valencia defense, exhibited super-human composure to lift the ball over the on-rushing Diego Alves and casually tucked the ball into the back of the net – virtually walking it into the goal in front of the delighted travelling support. With just 12 minutes gone at the Mestalla, Barcelona were already a goal ahead.

Neymar threatened to extend that advantage on the 18 minute mark, testing his luck from long-range after a mazy dribble saw his jink past a couple of defenders and cut inside from his "usual" position on the left-wing. The finish left a lot to be desired, but still, it was an encouraging sign from the talented Brazilian who turned creator just moments later, teeing up Andrés Iniesta for a shot from outside the Valencia area. The end result was ultimately the same as the ball ended up in the crowd – although Iniesta’s effort wasn’t far off testing Alves in the Valencia goal.

This one-way traffic looked as though it would continue for the remainder of the first-half – Cesc Fàbregas saw a goal-bound effort well saved by Diego Alves and Barça won up a number of fouls in the attacking half – before Valencia suddenly "woke up" and started to threaten the Barcelona defense. Maybe their onslaught was a little "too late" – the damage had arguably already been done, if not to their confidence, then certainly to the scoreline – but with roughly ten minutes left in the opening period, Los Che peppered Victor Valdés’ goal with a few shots.

Dorlan Pabon got the ball rolling with a rather tame effort from the edge of the area, and was followed by Ever Banega, who also saw a shot comfortably saved by Valdés. Maybe this was just a "warm-up"? After a couple of mediocre efforts, Valencia carved out a real chance as Banega threaded a delightful through ball into the path of new signing Pabon, but the Colombian was denied by Valdés’ instinctive diving save.

Trailing by just a solitary goal, Valencia were still in this contest and appeared to be edging closer to an equaliser – only for a lapse in concentration to cost them dearly. Ever Banega was caught in possession by Sergio Busquets and again, Busquets helped the ball on to Cesc Fàbregas who, yes, you guessed it, found Messi. The Argentine proceeded to calmly slot the ball past Diego Alves and just like that, Valencia went from chasing an equaliser to conceding a potentially disastrous second goal.

Well, what do you expect when you’re facing a side of Barcelona’s calibre?

Less than two minutes later, Messi completed his hat-trick, finishing from close-range after a superb, selfless low cross from Neymar – and with a few minutes left until half-time, the match seemed to be over. 3-0 down to the league champions who were yet to concede in La Liga action, Valencia surely couldn’t pull off an unlikely comeback?

It was going to take something special, something memorable – which is exactly what they got.

Summer signing Helder Postiga has forged a successful career with his knack of being in the right place at the right time, and the Portuguese centre-forward demonstrated just that on the stroke of half-time, escaping his marker to acrobatically volley Joao Pereira’s cross into the top-corner of the net. Cutting Barcelona’s lead to two goals before half-time was crucial; although Valencia were prepared to go one better – as Postiga climbed above the Barça defense to head home his second of the evening with the final touch of the first-half.

A breathless end to a superb first-half of football; just what would the second 45 have in store for us?

Undoubtedly, the neutrals were hoping for more of the same – another goal-laden half would certainly make for great entertainment, although one suspects that both Martino and Djukic were praying for a drab second-half – just as long as it ended in a favourable result for their respective team. Who really cares about scoring four or five goals? Barcelona needed to secure the three points, no matter what it took.

After all, falling behind Real Madrid is bad news at the best of times, but just hours after Los Blancos secured the most-expensive footballer of all-time? It would have been catastrophic – and maybe even costly, depending on the knee-jerk reaction of the Barcelona board (if Valencia fought back to earn a point that is).

But that was the worst-case scenario – Barça were still ahead after all, and with the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar in attack, the Blaugrana were perhaps more likely to extend their lead than they were to give up that slender advantage. Messi already had three goals to his name tonight, and he was still on the lookout for more – testing Diego Alves with a venomous long-range effort some 12 minutes into the second-half.

Just after the hour-mark, the Argentine was gifted another good opportunity by Fàbregas in a central position on the edge of the Valencia area, only to disappoint with the finish, squandering the chance by firing a weak effort straight at Alves.

Minutes later, Barcelona created another golden chance, this time courtesy of an in-swinging cross from Andrés Iniesta – as Pedro found space in the area for a free header, which agonisingly fizzed past the near post. Honestly, Pedro should have hit the target – even Alexis Sánchez would have surely tested the keeper, but of course the Chilean wasn’t even on the bench. Maybe it was time for Martino to introduce Cristian Tello into the Barça attack?

Certainly Miroslav Djukic was making full use of his bench, replacing both Ever Banega and Sergio Canales with Sofiane Feghouli and Jonas respectively. Would this bold double substitution pay dividends for the Serbian coach? Neither Jonas nor Feghouli were directly involved, but Valencia came close to engineering an equaliser immediately after the switch as Javi Fuego’s volley was blocked by Cesc Fàbregas – with the vociferous crowd rather optimistically appealing for a penalty. The referee was well-positioned and waved play on.

Tello indeed entered the action at the next break of play, predictably replacing Pedro on the right-hand side of the Barça attack and he was soon joined by Jonathan dos Santos, who rather surprisingly took Cesc Fàbregas’ place in midfield with the match still in the balance.

With time winding down at the Mestalla, Barcelona tried to up the tempo and secure three points – engineering a couple of brilliant chances for hat-trick hero Lionel Messi, only for the Argentine to uncharacteristically fluff his lines on two separate occasions. His first chance really looked straight-forward, it was the kind of shot we see him bury multiple times each season, but it wasn’t to be. Messi’s "sliced" finish rolled inches wide at the far post – and he over-compensated a few moments later, firing right at Alves when another chance fell his way in the Valencia area.

Jonas nearly grabbed an equaliser at the other end, rattling the outside of the post with a curling effort on 86 minutes. If not for a finger-tip save from Victor Valdés, Valencia could have completed the comeback. It was real end-to-end stuff at the Mestalla and the entertainment continued as Alba forced a great save from Alves, who followed it up with another sensational stop, denying Messi’s power drive on the rebound from point-blank range.

Sergi Roberto replaced Neymar with just minutes left, and this match was still up for the taking – but Barcelona survived a late free-kick to wrap up the three points in a thrilling encounter.

La Liga takes a brief international break, meaning that Barça will be back in two weeks time to face Sevilla at the Camp Nou. Until then, Visca el Barça!

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