After crumbling to a loss against Manchester City midweek in the Champions League, Barça returned to La Liga with the intention to redeem their pride. Despite being unbeaten by Sevilla a mammoth 17 times in their last 18 meetings, there was no doubt in the Catalan side that visiting the Sanchez Pizjuan was going to be anything short of hell; the Andalusians had performed exceptionally well under new boss Sampaoli and his aggressive press, losing only one match in the league.
Luis Enrique opted for a centre-back partnership of Umtiti and Mascherano, flanked by Roberto and Digne. In midfield, Sergio Busquets returned alongside Ivan Rakitic while the injured captain Iniesta was replaced with an experimental piece in Denis Suarez. While everyone else could hold their own in a match-up of this magnitude, the real question was if Denis Suarez would finally earn the trust of the fanbase as an out and out CM.
As the whistle blew for kick-off, Barça looked to play a 4-4-2 with Neymar and Denis operating as wide midfielders, while Messi and Luis Suarez stayed further ahead, spear-heading the attack. The opening minutes were kind to Barça as a Messi-ball carved the opposition like a knife, before Neymar laid it off to Suarez whose shot was blocked by Sergio Rico, despite having some sting to it.
Ten minutes into the game, Neymar was the first player to enter the referee’s book as he drew a yellow for missing the ball, and catching Escudero’s foot with his studs.
Sevilla took over the reigns, as their incredible press alongside a very sound technical game-play allowed them to trouble the Catalans time and time again; not only was Barça playing poorly, they were being beaten at their own game. Their efforts were rewarded justly, as a through-ball went past Sergi Roberto with relative ease, before finding Vitolo, who despite being denied moments earlier, finished clinically, giving the Andalusians a deserved advantage.
With every passing minute, Sevilla were looking more dangerous than before. While they continued to create a plethora of chances, Barça’s defence grew shakier, to the point where one could easily mistake the team in white for the league champions.
Half hour into the game, Sarabia latched onto a cross from Vietto but instead of going for goal, made a back-heel pass and none of teammates were in space. From being one on one to facing a brick wall, this was arguably the moment that could have laid the game to rest.
In spite of having trouble against Sevilla’s monstrous press, Barça continued to persist, attempting to string some passes together, in order to gain control, which was massively lacking in midfield; having tried multiple formations in the first 20 minutes, there seemed to be no combination that allowed Barça to maintain control.
However, Messi wasn’t one to sit idle, as he continued to force chances through sheer will, and soon enough his low hard shot drilled past Sergio Rico to find the back of the net, bringing the Blaugrana back into the game late into the first half, almost singlehandedly. Sergi Roberto drew a yellow for a foul on Vitolo, moments before the players headed into the tunnels at half-time.
Despite playing poorly for a majority of the first half, one could argue that the Blaugrana had managed to keep themselves in the game and that’s all that mattered - they wouldn’t be wrong. The players that went into the tunnel bore little resemblance to the players on the field as Barça looked to have made major tweaks to the system.
While the first half had the central midfielders playing wide apart, they were now closer to each other. Even the press, which was poor in the first half was used with renewed aggression. The fullbacks, stayed more reserved compared to the previous 45 minutes, probably because of the way they got burned for pace on the counter time and again by the opposition full-backs and wingers.
Even Denis Suarez who had looked lost in the first half, came out all guns blazing as he pressed and ran and dribbled like a man on a mission; time and again, he continued to find the forwards in dangerous positions through penetrative passes that sliced defences. On the other end, Mascherano and Digne, who had looked good so far, were now looking untouchable - nothing went past them.
However, it was Lionel Messi, who looked to be the most dangerous threat on the team, as he pressed like he was 19 years old again, chasing every loose ball, and harassing his marker, every time he lost the ball. Such was his presence, that the moment he got the ball, he was swarmed by the entire back-line.
Not one to ignore such a massive tactical anomaly, Messi drew the defenders towards himself near the penalty spot, before squaring the ball to a lurking Suarez who smashed it hard and low to give Barça the lead.
The crowd had lost it. Sevilla looked tired, and before we knew it, this was a game, that looked firmly in Barça’s grasp. As the game went on, there was a vile atmosphere settling in, that involved a lot of physical play accompanied by some unpleasant fouls. Mascherano, Digne, Luis Suarez and Messi were all shown yellows in what was a poor display of refereeing through out the game.
Sevilla would try all night, but they weren’t going to get past an in-form Mascherano. After 3 minutes of stoppage time, the referee blew his whistle to bring an exciting entertaining game to an end.
A polar game, where each team could claim their domination for a half, this fixture breathes new life into Barcelona’s season as they look to escape a lean patch tactically.
In a game, where anything could happen, La Pulga dragged the Blaugrana to victory in spectacular fashion.
Like I always say, onwards and upwards.