FC Barcelona extended their La Liga lead to seven points, for a couple hours at least, with a four-goal victory over Almeria. It was not as easy as the score-line might suggest, but after Lionel Messi’s opener late in the first half life became easier for Barcelona. Luis Suarez’s brace and Marc Bartra’s goal made for a calm ending to the game.
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With the hectic schedule in April, rotations were inevitable, but some of the changes made by Luis Enrique raised a few eyebrows. None of the midfielders that played against Celta Vigo three days ago survived the cut. Sergi Roberto made his second start of the season at defensive midfielder while Ivan Rakitić and Xavi started in front of him. In attack, Neymar was replaced by Pedro in the starting XI. The defense also received an overhaul, with Marc Bartra and Javier Mascherano taking their places in the heart of the defense. They were flanked by the same full-back duo that struggled against Celta on Sunday, Dani Alves and Adriano Correia.
Almeria started the match from midfield, but that was about the last time the visitors saw the ball in the opening five minutes as Barcelona embarked on a mission to score the early goal which would ensure them a calmer match. Barcelona were pressuring the Almeria players very high up the pitch, something the visitors struggled to cope with. They lost many balls in transition, but Lucho's players were unable to make them pay. In fact, they even failed to test goalkeeper Julián Cuesta, even though the Catalans were often able to get the ball into the danger area. So, despite what could've been described as total domination in the opening ten minutes, Barcelona only managed one shot, off target, by Luis Suarez after a corner kick.
Barcelona didn't test Julián for the first time until the 12th minute when Messi fired a long header on target that didn't pose a real threat to the score-line. The very next minute Alves sent a gorgeous ball over everybody to Suarez, a ball similar to the one against Real Madrid less than a month ago, but the Uruguayan forward couldn't exhibit the same control as he did then, and the chance was eventually blocked by Ángel Trujillo.
Even through Almeria mainly defended in the opening stages of the match, they had the best chance of the match so far, in the 15th minute. The always dangerous Thievy Bifouma dazzled past a few Barcelona defenders to get into the danger area where he prepared a chance for Wellington Silva. Wellington took the shot, but his attempt was slightly deflected, just enough for the ball to trickle past Bravo's far post.
After failing to score in the opening ten minutes of the game Barcelona couldn't maintain the high pressing game they showed early. As a result scoring chances were few and far between, and Almeria often managed to carry the ball over the midfield line, something unimaginable during Barcelona's dominance on the pitch. Even if Barcelona did get a shot off it was from a bad angle and, more often than not, it missed the target. A prime example of that was Pedro's try in the 22nd minute, when the Canary Islander's shot missed the target from a poor angle.
Barcelona might have dominated just about every statistical category, but their play, especially considering their lack of chances, didn't actually warrant a lead at this point. Almeria were quite happy to sit back and wait for their chance on the counter. Probably the most stunning stat was that not a single foul was committed in the opening 22 minutes. Adriano ended that stretch with a tactical foul near midfield to stop a counter attack.
Almeria continued to frustrate Barcelona's attackers with their organized defending. And with the pressure easing up, the visitors were able to control the ball much more than earlier in the game, when they saw as little as 20% of the ball and raised that to as high as 35% late in the half.
Barcelona, meanwhile, were left to pass around the perimeter and send hopeful crosses into the area. A couple of those could've caused danger, but Almeria did well to clear the ball away. In the 31st minute, however, Pedro managed to find Xavi in space, but his volley was aimed right at Julián. A few minutes before, Suarez created a great scoring chance out of nothing, easily dribbling past La Liga debutant Antonio Marín to get in front of the goalkeeper. But because Julián closed down his shooting angle to about zero, Suarez sent a very useful ball in front of the now empty goal. But Pedro failed to offer any support to his teammate and another chance went begging.
With team play often failing Barcelona in this game, Messi decided to take things into his own
hands left foot in the 33rd minute. Receiving the ball deep on the right wing, Messi skipped past Édgar Méndez, took a few steps and took aim. His aim proved to be absolutely perfect as the little genius curled the ball past the outstretched Almeria goalkeeper and just inside the far post to put Barcelona into the lead.
Teams exchanged a couple of half chances over the last seven minutes of the half, with Almeria creating the first. Ximo Navarro escaped his man on the right wing and sent a very good cross to near the penalty spot. Wellington and former Barcelona man Javier Espinosa were there waiting, with the latter getting off a header, but his attempt was too weak to cause any real danger for the equalizer. Barcelona countered that with what should've been a one-on-one for Pedro, after a great Rakitić pass, but the out-of-form winger was let down by his ball control.
Barcelona seemed to have taken their foot of the gas pedal for the last minute of the game as first Trujillo tested Claudio Bravo with a header that again lacked power. Then, in a play that could've ended far worse than it did, Messi lost the ball in midfield and the speedy Thievy was off to the races. Mascherano decided to body check the Espanyol loanee to the ground to defuse the situation. The play did earn the defender a yellow card, but it was certainly the lesser evil. After the ensuing harmless free kick referee Alejandro José Hernández Hernández whistled for halftime which Barcelona won by the slimmest of margins.
Almeria started the second half with a more attacking mindset which tested the hosts' defense a couple of times, but also allowed Barcelona much more room to operate in attack. It was not only from live play that Barcelona were dangerous, they also threatened from set pieces. Quickly after the restart Messi sent a great corner kick to the near post where Suarez had time and space, but he missed the ball altogether. The clearance from the next corner kick came right into the wheelhouse of Adriano who tried his luck from 35-yards out, but Julián had no problems with the shot.
From another corner, five minutes later, Rakitić took a shot on target, but Julián made a good save. Despite having to survive some good scoring chances by Barcelona, Almeria didn't give up on their dream of their first points ever at the Camp Nou. Thievy always seemed to be the catalyst for Almeria and it was no different on the very next play after Rakitić's shot. The French-born player made his way past several Barcelona defenders, including Alves, but Alves recovered to steal the ball away before Thievy could get a shot off.
That steal actually started the play that would end in Barcelona doubling their lead. Barça's first goal came from a great solo play by Messi, the second came from a great solo play by Suarez. There were many similarities between the two goals. The play again came down the right side, the first defender was left out of position after a nice move, and the play was finished off with a great finish just inside the far post. Just about the only difference was that Julián actually managed to get a hand on the ball this time, but it was not enough to keep the ball from crossing the line.
Just before the one hour mark Rakitić came very close to adding to Barcelona's lead, but Julián made a very good save to keep the Croatian's low shot from finishing in the back of the net.
With a two goal lead in hand Lucho started looking beyond today's game and started preparing for next matches. First, in the 64th minute the Barcelona manager took off Alves and put Martin Montoya in. Three minutes later Rakitić was given the rest of the night off, as he was replaced by Rafinha.
The game lost some steam at this point. Almeria knew that scoring at least two goals was a long shot while Barcelona started to conserve their strength for future encounters. But that didn't mean that Barcelona wouldn't get the occasional good look on goal. After being just six minutes on the pitch Montoya did something that Alves barely managed to do the entire game, set up one of his teammates for a scoring chance. The young right-back somehow find Pedro amongst five defenders, but Pedro's shot couldn't get past the goalkeeper.
Five minutes later the game was put completely out of reach. Xavi sent an absolutely perfect ball in from a corner kick. In front of goal, Marc Bartra escaped his marker and got just enough of the ball for it to make its way inside of the post for the center-back's second goal of the season. Barcelona scored another goal five minutes later, after Adriano found Messi with a lovely cross, but the goal was ruled out for a foul Messi committed trying to get to the ball. Messi would have three more chances to add to his season goal tally from free kicks, but twice he hit the wall. The third time he fired off a better shot, but this time he was denied by a panther-like save by Julián.
Almeria seemed to have crawled on back in added time as Thievy scored with a gorgeous volley, but his goal was also ruled out for a foul. Messi might have been kept of the score-sheet in the second half, but the Argentine still managed to help Barcelona score one more goal, in the last minute of added time. Messi sent Pedro one-on-one with the goalkeeper, but, instead of doing everything himself, the winger unselfishly sent the ball to the other side where Suarez was left with a simple tap in finish into the empty net.
Barcelona will have little time to rest before their next game, on Saturday against Sevilla, but the Catalans managed to conserve some energy, especially in the second half, which will surely come in handy over the next few weeks.
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