As Barcelona faced 12th placed Sporting Gijón, there seemed to be little doubt that the Blaugrana were the clear favorites. With Barça last losing to Gijon back in 1994 under the legendary Johan Cruyff, the tone for how this match was going to progress, was easy to imagine.
With Lionel Messi and Samuel Umtiti being injured, Luis Enrique's squad selection against his good friend Abelardo was a curve ball, picking a XI that on paper could play a 4-3-3, but ended up operating as a 4-4-2. While the backline was easier to predict in terms of who played where, the midfield lined up in an interesting four-man set up with Rafinha operating on the right flank ahead of Sergi Roberto and Arda Turan ahead of Lucas Digne.
As Gijón kicked off, it didn't take long for one to figure out as to how this game was going to play out; the Asturians pressed aggressively in a bid to force Barça's unfamiliar formation to commit mistakes. In the absence of Lionel Messi, Neymar continued to drop deep to support Sergio Busquets, who donned multiple hats on the night- not only was Busquets central to providing control in possession, he operated as a shield ahead of the defence, often slotting in between the centre-backs, and being the linchpin that Barça built their dominance on.
Gijon’s pressing led to Rafinha being brought down by the opposing captain Lora early on, a little outside the box. Both Neymar and Mathieu stood over the freekick, only for the Brazilian to hit his shot straight at the wall. Moments later, the Frenchman cleared a cross in his own half.
A few minutes later, Digne, Arda and Neymar combine in a move that results in the Brazilian going for a spectacular bicycle finish, only for the Brazilian to be called for a foul.
As Barça were on the receiving end of a counter, ter Stegen accidentally handled the ball inches outside his box, leading to a freekick. The Blaugrana however, deal with the mishap well.
A beautiful through-ball from Neymar slices the opposing defence with surgical precision, only for Suarez to have a bad touch, and have his marker on him for good. Although the Uruguayan dribbles his way out of trouble and finds André Gomes, the Portuguese’s shot is deflected off-target.
A poor clearance from Amorebieta lands straight to Arda Turan, who plays a beautiful through-ball towards Suarez, who somehow nutmegs the onrushing goal-keeper mid air (I know) and makes the score line 0-1 with a calm finish.
Not one to lose momentum, Sergi Roberto trotted down the right-flank with the spring of a 10 year-old girl, before uniting Rafinha’s skull to the ball with a pin-point cross. Rafinha pile-drived the ball into the goal using a diving header towards the near post.
In a span of 3 minutes, the score-line went from a dull 0-0 to an interesting 0-2.
As Barça switched from ferocious offense to an almost tranquil control of the game, the clock eventually ran out to signal half time.
An unchanged XI stepped out after the break, but things weren’t as easy as they had been at the end of the first half. As Abelardo’s men committed forward, in order to gain a semblance of control and reduce the deficit, Barça had to endure a wave of attacks.
Barça however, looked happy to let Gijón control possession for those stretches, content in pressing their attacks to futility and striking back on the counter.
In the 63rd minute, Jeremy Mathieu had a goal disallowed as Gerard Pique was called offside for the assist. With plenty of half chances for both teams without any real sting to them, it almost seemed like the game would eventually die out with Barça suffocating the opposition using control, till the referee blew his whistle.
I couldn’t be more wrong.
As a host of substitutes entered the game with a little over twenty minutes left to the game (Denis for Busquets, Paco for Suarez), there was a renewed urgency to Barça’s game, as they looked determined to carve Gijón’s defence further.
As Lora received his second yellow of the game in the 74th minute for a crunching tackle on Sergi Roberto, there seemed like nothing was playing out the way Gijón had wanted at half-time.
The events that played out in the last ten minutes of the game, were absolutely erratic, as Barça wrecked a 10 man Gijón to shreds; the substitution of Douglas into the game showed little promise to the home side.
81’ A Sergi Roberto cross finds Paco Alcácer in the penalty box, whose shot rattles the cross-bar. Neymar is quick to latch onto the rebound and chests the ball behind the goal-keeper, before calmly scoring his first goal of the game.
85’ Another trot from Sergi Roberto leads to another pin-point cross, this time finding the head of Arda Turan, who leaps into the air and smashes his header into the netting.
88’ Denis Suarez threads a pass that dissects Gijón to find Neymar, whose clinical shot goes through the keeper’s legs and finds its home in the bottom corner of the far-post, in a devastatingly elegant finish.
Neymar almost got his third in the final moments of the game, but was denied by Cuellar, before the final whistle.
A manita in second-gear is the only way I can sum up this performance, that almost seemed like a dull affair, barring some spectacular moments that altered the course of the entire game.
A strong win, at a tough ground, is plenty of fodder for Culé satisfaction.
P.S: Sergi Roberto. Remember the name.