Barcelona labored to an extremely important win over Valencia. Like in the first game between the two, Barcelona again scored in the last minute of the match, this time Lionel Messi, but this time they also managed to score in the very first minute, courtesy of Luis Saurez. In between those two goals there was plenty of action to be seen, but most of the dangerous plays came from Valencia who will be kicking themselves for converting at least a couple of them. The visitors even managed to squander a penalty kick.
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Luis Enrique threw a curveball today with his starting lineup. Firstly, he was forced to make a couple of changes because Andres Iniesta was left out of the game with an injury while Jordi Alba took his place on the bench with a slight knock. Adriano Correia replaced Alba in the backline, where Dani Alves also made a return after his suspension midweek. The biggest surprise came in midfield where both Barcelona defensive midfielders, Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets, started, though Busquets was playing in the central midfield alongside Xavi.
The game started off with a bang, with Barcelona scoring before the first minute even fully in the books. The first dangerous play actually came on the other side, but Barcelona were able to quickly counter. Busquets broke the play wide open with a gorgeous pass to Messi who took a few steps before playing the ball forward to Suarez. The Uruguayan didn't need a second invitation to score, calmly putting the ball out of reach of Diego Alves.
It was important that Barcelona took that chance not only because you need to score goals to win games, but because that was the last chance Barcelona had for some time as it was all Valencia in the following minutes. The visitors were coming in waves, and Barcelona struggled to clear everything they threw at them. First, already in the 3rd minute, Rodrigo Moreno had a chance to tie the game up, after he skipped past Gerard Pique, but his shot went just wide of Claudio Bravo's far post. Two minutes later, Sofiane Feghouli came one-on-one with Bravo because of a poor clearance from Jeremy Mathieu, but the referee whistled for offside. Just in case Bravo made the save anyway.
In the 9th minute Pique made an unnecessary foul on Rodrigo in the penalty box to give up the spot-kick. It was only the slightest of touches on Rodrigo, but the forward went down quickly and the referee pointed to the spot. Dani Parejo took responsibility, but Bravo quickly started to play mind games with the Valencia player, positioning himself off-center, giving a lot more net to his right side. Parejo took the bait and sent a relatively poor shot to that side that Bravo not only saved but held onto it.
Not discouraged by the penalty miss, Valencia continued to overrun the Barcelona midfield and create chance after chance against a defensive line that never seemed to settle into the game. All four members of the defensive corps were guilty of making stupid mistakes. Adriano was making too many fouls, Mathieu and Pique were giftwrapping chances while Alves couldn't handle Rodrigo. Valencia, with their towering half-back duo, were also very dangerous from set pieces, but somehow Barcelona managed to clear most of them, though Nicolás Otamendi did get on the receiving end of one of the crosses but missed the target.
Barcelona didn't create their next half-chance, if you can call it that considering it ended without a shot, until the 19th minute when Suarez just barely missed Messi with a cross that would've left the Argentine alone in front of Valencia's Alves.
Two minutes later, Valencia were on the receiving end of a Pique gift that should've resulted in a goal, as the Barcelona defense was completely outplayed, but with a diving block Mascherano stopped Paco Alcácer goal-bound shot and then Mathieu managed to block Feghouli's attempt, to once again survive another frantic play deep inside Bravo's area.
With the midfield being unable to take control of the ball, even if the possession stats painted a different picture, Barcelona were forced to make many fouls. In fact, there have been games in which Barcelona made less fouls than they made in the opening 20 minutes, as the hosts "dominated" that area with nine fouls to two, led by Adriano's three, who would commit another in the 26th minute to pick up a yellow card for persistent fouling.
Barcelona continued to live dangerously, but somehow managed to hold on to the lead until the halftime whistle, but they did try their best to give it up on numerous (more) occasions. In the 33rd minute Alcácer hit the post after Mathieu reacted terribly to the ball being sent to his feet, sending the ball right back to the Valencia forward who gave Bravo no chance of stopping his attempt, but the post came to Bravo's assistance. But a Valencia attack would not be complete without a follow up chance, but in this case it was blocked by Adriano.
Then Alves decided to join the giveaway parade, turning the ball over on the right sideline, which the hosts quickly attempted to finish. Again it was Alcácer who took the shot, but yet again his aim was off.
However, despite all those misses, Barcelona had an excellent opportunity to end the half with a two goal lead, but the usually sure-footed Messi, even if he is taking the shot with his right, missed a terrific chance. Messi started the play himself by finding Suarez open on the left side of the area, who sent the ball to Xavi who was more centrally. Xavi then extended the play to Messi who ran onto the ball, but put the shot wide of the net.
Both managers reacted during halftime, each making one sub. Lucho took off the overly aggressive Adriano and replaced him with Ivan Rakitić. As a result Mathieu moved to the left side of the defensive line while Mascherano occupied the Frenchman's former position. Nuno Espírito Santo also took his overly aggressive left-back off the pitch, Lucas Orban, and replaced him with another left-back, José Gayà
This was now a much more usual lineup for Barcelona, even if Mathieu was playing at left-back, as Barcelona now had two natural central midfielders in the middle of the pitch backed up by a defensive midfielder. And it started showing on the pitch early, as the hosts now looked much more comfortable. Valencia's pressure still caused problems, but Barcelona often retained possession with ease. Valencia also pulled back a little bit as a result of Barcelona's high possession numbers, which just improved their already solid defense some more.
Barcelona might have enjoyed possession in this half, but breaking down the defense remained a very tall order. Barcelona's best chances in the early minutes of the second half came on the counter attack, after plays on which Valencia lost the ball on their attacks. But Barça hardly actually threatened on those "best" chances.
Still, compared to the first half, it was very encouraging that Barcelona actually started to pass the ball not only in Valencia's half, but even in their defensive third. This forced Valencia to play more defensively and that hurt their usually very quick transition to attack. Barcelona's first good chance of the half, the first good chance for either team actually, came in the 64th minute after Messi was brought down from behind roughly 25 yards from the Valencia goal. With the free kick being located to the right it was just about perfect for a left-footed free-kick specialist. Messi curled the ball over the wall before the dipping ball thundered off the crossbar.
Quickly after that chance both managers again made substitutions. First, Enrique took of the only goal-scorer so far, Suarez, and replaced him with Pedro. Then, Feghouli made way for João Cancelo. A couple minutes later Espírito Santo made his last substitution, making a change up front, with Álvaro Negredo replacing Alcácer. Negredo almost made immediate impact, turning provider, with some help from poor reactions from the center-back duo, for Rodrigo, who fired a strong shot on target, but Bravo dove to his left to keep the ball from crossing the line.
With Valencia now, understandably, focusing more on attack, Barcelona looked to create scoring opportunities on the counter attack. And they had a couple of good ones in quick succession quickly after the aforementioned Rodrigo chance, but the hosts did very well to stop both chances, even if it meant picking up a yellow card in the process.
In the 80th minute Lucho also made his last substitution, taking off Xavi, who apparently ran out of steam after starting this physically draining match, and replaced him with Sergi Roberto. Surprisingly, Valencia didn't start to press high up the pitch late in the match, when they were in desperate need of a goal. Barcelona did an excellent job at wasting time in these final minutes of the game, milking out every throw-in and corner kick. But the Catalans remained dangerous in the process, with the front three constantly looking to put the game out of reach. The best chance for doing so came in the 88th minute when Neymar passed the ball to Messi who extended the play to his right to a wide open Pedro. Pedro looked destined to score, but Alves was able to make the save.
The final minutes of the game were dominated by Messi. The Argentine put on a clinic on the right wing, stealing at least three minutes of the five minutes left of play after Pedro's missed chance. With Valencia then going all out to find the last minute equalizer Messi was sent alone on goal from midfield by Neymar. Messi had time to find the right option, but like every fan around the world Alves also knew that Messi would try to chip the ball over him. Alves made the save, but dropped the ball back to Messi who sent it into the back of the net, scoring his 400th goal for Barcelona.
While the celebrations were still ongoing, the referee whistled for full time. With the win Barcelona extended their La Liga lead to five points, for a few hours at least. But there will be no time to rest for the Catalans who will be again in action on Tuesday when they welcome Paris Saint-Germain at the Camp Nou.
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