19 January 2017 will go down in history as Barcelona finally broke the “Anoeta curse”, which has been alive and well for almost ten years. Beating Real Sociedad in San Sebastian in La Liga will have to wait for another season, but the scrappy win in the 1st leg of the Copa del Rey Quarter-Final proved that Barcelona still can win “ugly”. The only goal of the game was scored in the first half when Neymar successfully converted a penalty kick.
Looking to continue their impressive unbeaten run against Barcelona, Real Socidad started brightly. The hosts were especially active on the right side where they looked to exploit Lucas Digne, who hasn’t seen much time on the pitch recently. But despite spending time in the Barcelona area twice in the opening two minutes, goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen wasn’t called into action.
Barcelona got their first look on Geronimo Rulli’s goal in the 8th minute, when Neymar ran the ball deep into the area. However, from a decent spot, especially after cutting to his right, Neymar didn’t take the shot, but tried to force a pass to Lionel Messi, who was too well covered for anything to materialize. Three minutes later Neymar fired Barcelona’s first shot of the game, but it was too weak to trouble Rulli.
An intense midfield battle ensued and neither side appeared able to assert their superiority. But then, in the 20th minute, seemingly out of nowhere, Neymar was sprung for a quick counter attack and in the penalty area he was clipped from behind by Aritz Elustondo for a penalty kick. Neymar was again handed responsibility for the kick and stutter-stepped himself to two-game goal-scoring streak in the Spanish Cup. Five minutes later, Sergi Roberto had a very good chance to double Barcelona’s lead from a set-play from a wide free-kick. Neymar floated the ball to the edge of the area where Roberto was left uncovered for a powerful volley, but the shot was off-target.
Real Sociedad weren’t discouraged by the one-goal deficit and even though Barcelona did well to control the ball, the hosts continued to be very dangerous when in possession. But while the hosts were dangerous, Barcelona’s defense, which had two regulars, Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba, on the bench, did very well to hold Carlos Vela and company to the perimeter. On the other side of the pitch, Barcelona also struggled to get consistent pressure on Rulli. In fact, apart from the penalty kick won and converted by Neymar, there was very little creative football played inside 30-yards of either goal – meaning the first half mostly consisted of broken passing plays in midfield and good defending. Real Sociedad would have one last half-chance in the closing stages of the half, but Raúl Navas’ header sailed wide.
The second half began with a surprising announcement, Andres Iniesta was left in the locker room and he was replaced by Andre Gomes. It was later announced that the Barcelona captain felt “discomfort in his left leg” and more tests were pending. Barcelona quickly created two scoring opportunities, with Neymar first losing the ball in the area to Rulli, before a good defensive play by the heart of the Sociedad defense negated a dangerous deep turnover.
The hosts then looked to tie the game up after winning a couple of balls inside Barcelona territory, but the Catalans’ last line of defense again barely allow an inch. In the 57th minute, Neymar was presented with another chance, but while this time he did get a shot off, he couldn’t direct it on goal. Two minutes later, Roberto had a good opportunity to double Barcelona’s lead but he too missed the target. The Catalans also claimed for a penalty kick in the 64th minute when on the same attack first Luis Suarez and then Neymar tumbled over a diving Rulli, but the sequence only resulted in a yellow card for Neymar for diving.
Real Sociedad were starting to create chances too, their best one coming in the 63rd minute when Yuri Berchiche was played through the right side of the Barcelona defense. Yuri’s shot/pass was going for the far post, but it just missed the target and was out of reach of Mikel Oyarzabal for what would’ve been an easy tap in.
Barcelona made their second substitution of the game in the 69th minute, again coming in midfield. Ivan Rakitić went off and was replaced by Denis Suarez. Moments later the hosts made a change in attack, replacing Vela with Juanmi. Shortly after, Sergio Canales took the place of Xabi Prieto.
Even though Barcelona created a few good scoring chances in the second half – which were mostly missed by Neymar – it was Real Sociedad who often looked likelier to score even if they often struggled to get into the most dangerous scoring areas. The hosts often buzzed around the Barcelona penalty area, similarly to how Barcelona often do before scoring. But Barcelona also struggle to score in some games…
The Catalans were back on the offensive in the final minutes of the match, creating a couple half-chances and taking time off the clock. Gerard Pique had a couple chances to make Barcelona’s lead more comfortable going into the second leg, but his two attempts were blocked. Three minutes were added on and neither team created much, resulting in Barcelona winning at Anoeta for the first time since May 2007. Barcelona will carry their one-goal advantage to the Camp Nou where on 26 January the return leg will be played. Eibar up next on.