As the international break finally came to a close, Barcelona were looking to move to the top of the table after watching Real Madrid stay ahead of the pack for the last few weeks; it was not going to be easy. Malaga had been Luis Enrique’s Kryptonite for a while and it looked like this match wasn’t going to be very different. Former Barça man Sandro had put his scoring boots on since his move to Malaga, and his return to Camp Nou was a sub-plot that had plenty of eyes on it.
With Umtiti and Iniesta recovering from injuries, and a suspension to Luis Suarez, Barcelona were looking at Neymar and Messi to lead the team to a comfortable victory. However, as the heavens would have it, the little Argentine was down with a bug at the last minute and unavailable for competition.
Luis Enrique opted for a back-line of Roberto, Pique, Mascherano and Lucas Digne as he chose to ease Alba into match fitness by putting him on the bench. Sergio Busquets would return into the line-up along side the in-form duo of Rafinha and Denis Suarez. The solitary member of MSN available for this game was Neymar and he was paired with a struggling Paco Alcacer who replaced Luis Suarez, while Arda Turan replaced Lionel Messi.
Malaga went straight for a five-man back line the second the whistle blew. With a compact shape that did not stretch beyond the width of their penalty area, Barça were hard pressed to find any clear chances through the middle of the park. Paco Alcacer was close as he found the net 3 minutes into the game, but was rightly called offside to much despair.
Sitting deep into their own half, any overturn of possession in favour of Malaga resulted in a quick counter-attack led by none other than Sandro Ramirez. However, the towering figure of Gerard Pique wasn’t going to fall short against his former teammate, as time and again he got the better of him. Pique would turn an an early counter-attack into one for Barça as his lofted pass found Neymar whose half-volley hit the side-netting.
The host continued piling pressure from the right side as Arda Turan and Rafinha combined well with Sergi Roberto to open spaces behind the Malaga defence. Even Neymar preferred the right side in attack, as he sprayed cross-field passes for a pacing Sergi Roberto on the flank.
Despite creating plenty of chances, Barça failed to capitalise and do anything significant. And not only did this make Malaga’s resolve more solid, it gave them renewed confidence as they drew their lines tighter and got more adventurous on the counter.
As half-time approached, Barça looked tooth-less at home, and the image wasn’t pretty.
Despite having had a poor first half, it was still expected that the Blaugrana would steal a win at home. However, it wasn’t until the 55th minute that something productive as Arda Turan was brought down in the opposition’s penalty area; the referee wasn’t interested. As the game rolled on Neymar continued look dangerous as his driving run through the middle was scythed down by Llorente who was shown a straight red. Moments later, Luis Enrique looked to make Barça’s left side more productive as he brought on Jordi Alba for Lucas Digne.
Another wave of substitutions followed as Andre Gomes came on for Denis Suarez, who had worked enough but failed to do anything productive while Ivan Rakitic came on for Rafinha. Barça had struggled through out the season in creating through the middle, but the one game where Barça should have exploited the wings, Luis Enrique failed to react on time. It wasn’t until the 70th minute, that Barça started attempting long balls and pushed Gerard Pique into the box.
The chances had started to flow but despite multiple close opportunities, Malaga managed to get by unharmed.
After another bad call for a penalty, plenty of wasted time, and numerous shots aimed at Malaga’s goal, the game would end in a draw that was deserved as neither team managed to pry the opposition open.
With only a point to their name, the best result for the Blaugrana from the upcoming Madrid derby is a win for Atletico which will allow Barça to close the gap to 1 point. Here’s to hoping that Atletico have a better night than Barça.
It’s a long season, and the game is still on.