FC Barcelona were forced to dig deep for a victory over struggling Granada CF on Saturday evening at the Camp Nou, as La Liga’s bottom side frustrated the reigning champions on what proved to be a tough night’s work for the Blaugrana. After a goalless first half, Rafinha’s spectacular chilena looked set to send Barça on their way to another comprehensive victory, but Granada continued to defend well and despite dominating possession, Luis Enrique’s side couldn’t create any more goals before the final whistle.
The victory moves Barcelona ahead of Sevilla, who dropped points earlier in the afternoon against Sporting Gijon, and ensures that they remain just two points behind league leaders, Real Madrid, who came from behind to defeat Alaves 2-1 in the Basque Country.
The good news prior to kick-off was that Luis Enrique could call upon the services of in-form Rafinha-Alcantara, as it was feared that the Brazilian may miss out through injury. While his best work thus far this season has come on the right-hand side of a four-man midfield, it appeared as though Rafinha would start today in the usual 4-3-3 – alongside Ivan Rakitic, who started at pivote, and Denis Suarez. Sergio Busquets dropped to the bench, presumably as Lucho kept one eye on the week ahead, while the fabled trident of Messi, Suarez and Neymar all started.
Would they be able to heap more misery on Granada, or would Lucas Alcarez be able to mastermind a shock result for the side rooted to the bottom of the table?
From the outset, it was clear that Alcarez was looking to frustrate the hosts – a five-man backline was shielded by a four-man midfield who dropped deep and stayed compact in a bid to congest the centre and stop Messi, Neymar and Suarez from wreaking their usual havoc. Isaac Cuenca was deployed as a makeshift right-back, which in turn created a unique sub-plot as the former Barça winger would be tasked with stopping Neymar.
In fairness to the visitors, their approach worked perfectly through the first quarter of the match. Barcelona were dominating possession, winning the territorial battle and coming close to creating chances – but that was all. For all the brief glimpses of the usual Barça magic, the hosts had to wait until the 27th minute to force their first save from Granada’s Mexican shot-stopper, Guilllermo Ochoa, courtesy of a straight-forward header from Samuel Umtiti.
Perhaps it was because Granada were defending in numbers and with discipline; or perhaps Barcelona were not playing to their usual tempo. Maybe Lionel Messi was dropping too deep and maybe his positioning was to the detriment of the team. Whatever it was, the Camp Nou was getting somewhat anxious. After all, this wasn’t supposed to be a tough match, was it?
On the plus side, it took Atletico Madrid 34 minutes to score their first against Granada earlier this season – and they ended up notching seven before the night was over. This was always going to be about demonstrating patience – the only missing piece was whether Barcelona could find the right balance between patience, and urgency.
Luis Suarez was struggling to do so; played through on goal by an excellent pass, the Uruguayan only had Ochoa to beat, but he uncharacteristically hesitated. This did not look like the same man who presented the Golden Boot to the crowd before kick-off; as he paused, Granada recovered and Suarez never even got a chance to pull the trigger and force a save from Ochoa. A chance went begging, and as time passed, Alcarez’ tactics were looking more and more astute.
Aside from one sprawling save made to deny a speculative effort from Luis Suarez, Ochoa and Granada went through the first half broadly unchallenged. Barcelona were out of sorts – and Luis Enrique entered the half-time break with work to do.
Whatever was said at half-time, it didn’t take long for Barcelona to improve; within mere minutes of the restart the deadlock was finally broken – and in quite spectacular fashion. A trademark driving run from Lionel Messi had the Granada defense on the back-foot, and as he played a one-two with Luis Suarez, Messi stabbed a ball to the far side where Rafinha passed up the original opportunity to play an extra pass to Neymar – who, with an open goal at his mercy, looked set to score the game’s opening goal.
His rather nonchalant finish struck the post and as Granada scrambled to clear the ball, it broke free for Rafinha to attempt and convert a sensational chilena. The overhead kick flew into the top corner of the net and Rafinha wheeled away to celebrate his fifth goal of the season.
Having finally broken the deadlock, it was supposed to be a case of the floodgates opening and Granada’s defense capitulating, but if anything the opposite was true. Granada continued to defend resolutely and Barcelona continued to be frustrated. It took another quarter of an hour before Enrique’s side could create their next goalscoring opportunity as a fine pass from Sergi Roberto found Neymar alone in the Granada area – but his fierce shot was parried over the bar by Ochoa to keep the game close.
With over an hour played, Enrique was yet to make his first change of the evening and it wasn’t until the 70th minute that he looked to his bench and brought on Andre Gomes in place of Denis Suarez. Evidently, the current injury crisis had taken its toll on the Barcelona squad and Enrique wasn’t comfortable with the majority of the options he had at his disposal in what was proving to be a very tight game.
Paco Alcacer was the next to enter, replacing Luis Suarez after the Uruguayan spurned yet another fantastic opportunity by heading straight at Ochoa after yet another sublime cross from Sergi Roberto. Less than ten minutes were on the clock now, and it was somewhat fortuitous that Barcelona already had the lead – because they did not look like they were going to score another, and it appeared as though Barcelona were headed for their first 1-0 home win since August 2015, and our first home game of last season against Malaga.
Some late drama threatened that, as Lionel Messi was skied a one-on-one chance with time winding down – perhaps providing the most succinct summary of the game. Barcelona were clearly the better side, but they struggled to show it with any consistency. In the end, all that mattered was that they could string together one moment of magic – a moment of clarity in a foggy performance – and in the end, anything else wouldn’t have made much of an impact anyway.
Three points is three points – and Barcelona title challenge remains on track. Next up, Barcelona travel to the north of England, where they will square off against Pep Guardiola and Manchester City for the second time in a fortnight.
Until then, Visca el Barça!