49 years after the two sides met for the last time in the Copa del Rey, Barcelona were once again victorious. The Catalans dominated the bottom placed La Liga team to the tune of a manita, with goals coming from Neymar (2x), Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Jordi Alba.
|FC Barcelona||Elche CF|
|Shots on Target||10||0|
After the week Barcelona went through it was anybody's guess how the players would respond to the controversy. Luis Enrique responded to it by sending out a very strong starting XI. The defense featured the two usual starting full-backs, with Gerard Pique and Marc Bartra in between them, while in the attack the three of the greatest forwards in the world started. The only area in which Lucho rotated was the midfield, where Javier Mascherano started at defensive midfielder, with Sergi Roberto and Ivan Rakitić playing in front of him.
Barcelona put pressure on Elche from the opening minute, but because of the defensive formation from the visitors, they started the match with six natural defenders, the Catalans struggled to break through. The most success attacking they had in the early going was on the left side where Neymar and Alba excellently combined, but the final pass was lacking.
A controversial moment occurred in the 8th minute, when Neymar was brought down while he was trying to get on the receiving end of the return pass, but David Fernández Borbalán would have none of it. Barcelona's first shot on goal came in the 11th minute when Messi went on a brilliant run through the middle, but his shot lacked power needed to beat Przemysław Tytoń.
Barça continued to press forward, but their next shot didn't come until the 19th minute when Messi stepped up to take a free kick from the right wing. Tytoń punched the curling cross out, but right to Alves who tried an audacious volley from 40-yards out, but only just missed the wide open net. Quickly thereafter Neymar found Messi in a good spot for a shot on goal, but Messi's shot was too central, and the Elche goalkeeper made easy work of it.
While the action might have mostly been limited to Elche's half, the visitors were far from just sitting back, playing for a draw. They were quick to move forward when Barcelona lost the ball and were quite confident pressuring the ball carrier high up the pitch. But they were unable to sustain that for a long period of time.
But Barcelona were the better team on the pitch, and had a great chance to make that count on the scoreboard in the 28th minute. The hosts caught the Elche back-line a bit overextended, something that Messi quickly tried to exploit with a brilliant over the top pass to Neymar. The Brazilian did well to control the ball, but the ensuing chip over the keeper went wide of the far post.
Neymar would make up for his missed chance in the 35th minute when he was able to finish off what was arguably the most beautiful "team goal" Barcelona scored this season. Messi brought the ball to the middle where he found Roberto. The young midfielder did very well to find Suarez on the right side, who somehow saw a wide open Neymar on the opposite side and delivered a perfect pass to the Brazilian. Neymar had no problems breaking the deadlock from there.
The goal was all Barcelona needed to gain confidence in attack, spending just about the entire remaining 10 minutes of the half inside Elche's area.
First Suarez had a great look on goal after a deflected ball came to him, but Tytoń read the Uruguayan's intentions perfectly, staying tall to palm away what was just about a perfect chipped shot. But in the 40th minute Suarez would get the best of Tytoń, beating him cleanly with a calm finish after some great control of the ball to create the chance in the first place.
In the very next minute Neymar was gifted a golden opportunity to add to the lead after an Elche defender slipped, leaving Neymar with a one-on-one with the goalkeeper, but once again Neymar put the ball to the wrong side of the far post.
With Neymar and Suarez now both on the scoreboard it was only natural that Messi would follow suit. It appeared that would indeed be the case in the 43rd minute after a set play from a free kick with Alves beautifully finding Messi, who powered the ball from the crossbar into the back of the net. However, the referee sounded for offside and the goal was disallowed. But Messi would only have to wait another two minutes to send another ball into the back of the net, this one from the penalty spot. Neymar won the penalty after he was brought down by Enzo Roco inside the box. Messi took responsibility, sent the keeper the wrong way and extended Barcelona's lead just before the halftime whistle.
After the restart Barcelona quickly picked up where they left off, constantly putting the Elche defensive line under pressure, and it didn't take long for the first scoring opportunity of the second half. Neymar was played through by Messi in the 50th minute, but Tytoń read the play well, closing down space and easily stopping Neymar's attempt.
In the 56th minute Alba struck again, but unlike against Real Sociedad, he put this one into the opposing net. Three quarters of the goal should really be credited to Messi who found the onrushing Alba with a stunning ball, just out of the reach of the Elche right-back, Damián Suárez. After receiving the ball Alba took a step to the middle, waited for the goalkeeper to commit, and sent the ball between the legs of the keeper.
Four minutes later Neymar rejoined the goal scoring party with a spectacular 20-yard strike. He received the ball on the left side, cut inside where he was given too much space by the Elche defenders. He then fired a shot on goal that took a slight deflection off of Roco's gluteus maximus and sailed into the top right corner of Tytoń's goal.
With the game (and the tie) all but decided Luis Enrique was able to start planning for the upcoming clash with Atletico Madrid early, replacing Alba with Adriano Correia in the 61st minute. In the 66th minute Neymar was taken off the pitch, about a minute after a heavy clash with Damian, and was replaced by Pedro.
With the very comfortable lead now in hand Barcelona were able to step off the gas for the final 25 minutes or so of the game and conserve some energy for Sunday's match. Barcelona still attacked, but it was evident that everybody was just waiting for the clock to run out.
Highly rated Sergi Samper got to play the last 15 minutes of the game as he was brought on the pitch to replace Pique. That meant that Mascherano would spend the last stage of the game in the heart of the defense.
But while most were slowly getting ready to call it a day, Messi was still trying his best to add to his goal tally, forcing Tytoń to make an excellent save in the 78th from a bad-angle free kick. Coming on as a substitute, Pedro also had something to play for and he was offered a great chance to score after a perfectly timed pass from Suarez, but his chip missed the target.
Barcelona would have another goal disallowed for offside in the 85th minute when Adriano beat Tytoń with a lovely chip. The remained of the game was spent in Elche's half, but the score would not change again.
The return leg will be played one week from today.
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