For the first time since 5 May 2007, Barcelona emerged victorious in league play at the Anoeta– and in what fashion. The Catalans quickly dug themselves a two goal hole, with Willian Jose and Juanmi scoring in the opening 35 minutes, before Paulinho drew one back just before the break. While Barcelona struggled immensely in the first half, they outclassed the hosts in the second with some stunning individual quality taking the spotlight, highlighted by Lionel Messi’s late free kick. But arguably Barcelona’s man of the match with two goals and an assist was Luis Suarez.
Ernesto Valverde changed things up a little bit, leaving Andres Iniesta on the bench, replacing him with Andre Gomes, with Paulinho also starting from the opening whistle. Messi and Suarez, expectedly, started up front while Sergi Roberto took his place on the right side of the defense.
Barcelona started brightly, launching several promising attacks, but Gerónimo Rulli didn’t have to make a single save, though he made a couple good plays leaving his line to stop attacks led by Suarez and Roberto. Messi also missed the target from long distance. But then, against the run of play, Real Sociedad attacked for the first time in the game and immediately took the lead. Xabi Prieto floated in a perfect cross from the right side that sailed over Roberto, right to the waiting Willian who headed the ball in off the crossbar.
Despite the strong start, the goal sent all the momentum Sociedad’s way and Barcelona were suddenly struggling to string together more than a couple passes. The hosts, on the other hand, attacked with conviction and the Catalans had trouble recovering possession. The shellshock from conceding lasted longer than it should’ve considering Barcelona’s form coming into the game, but Barcelona didn’t really attack until the 29th minute, when the visitors received a fortuitous bounce that nearly resulted in an own goal.
Just moments before Barcelona’s chance, the hosts probably should’ve been up by two, as Willian scored from distance after a catastrophic turnover by Ivan Rakitić, but the referee stopped play for an alleged foul on the Croatian. Just seconds after the aforementioned Barcelona half-chance, the hosts were again on the attack, but this time Marc-Andre ter Stegen made a terrific save on Sergio Canales.
Barcelona’s struggles continued and in the 35th minute, the hosts were now deservedly leading by two goals. Another defensive breakdown led to Canales creating a golden chance for Juanmi. Ter Stegen appeared to have a read on the shot, but the ball took a redirection off Roberto, beating ter Stegen near side.
As so many times in the past, Barcelona again dug themselves a massive hole at the Anoeta, but the Catalans managed to halve the deficit in the 39th minute. Suarez was played through down the left wing by Jordi Alba, with Paulinho in support in the middle. The Uruguayan squared the ball to the Brazilian who slid in to tip the ball on goal. Rulli was able to get a hand on the shot, but the ball trickled in for some positive news from the opening 45 minutes.
While Barcelona did score, their uncharacteristic problems in possession continued. The midfielders were struggling mightily under constant pressure and the Barcelona forwards very rarely received useful passes in the opposing half. The first half couldn’t end quickly enough for the Catalans as they were in dire need of a break to regroup and some select words from the manager.
Barcelona looked to start the second half by stepping on the ball and slowing down the hosts through possession play. But early results were mixed as Barcelona did look more comfortable on the ball, but Canales was the first to threaten with a curling effort from distance that was saved by ter Stegen. However, before the end of the 50th minute, Barcelona equalized through a stunning Suarez shot. Whether he was attempting to find the wide open Roberto on the far post or if he actually intended to try an audacious “curling lob” is unknown, but it resulted in a stunning goal for Suarez with Messi picking up the assist.
It was a very different Barcelona in the second half as the Catalans were suddenly able to control the game through possession play. Without so many deep turnovers, the hosts also had a much more difficult time in attack. Former Barcelona player, now Real Sociedad manager, Eusebio Sacristan, was forced to make his first substitution in the 55th minute as David Zurutuza picked up an injury and was replaced by youngster Igor Zubeldia. Another very promising youngster, Mikel Oyarzabal, was subbed on just minutes later in place of scorer Juanmi.
As the hosts were picking up steam after the substitutions, Valverde countered with an exciting youngster of his own, with Ousmane Dembele taking Paulinho’s place on the pitch. Sociedad were looking increasingly more dangerous, but the Barcelona defense stood tall with several good blocks and clearances. With 20 minutes left on the clock, Barcelona attacked in numbers, but Alba’s cutback pass couldn’t find a teammate while Suarez’s close range shot was expertly blocked.
But Barcelona didn’t let up, pressing high up the pitch. With every teammate covered, Rulli heaved the ball to midfield where Thomas Vermaelen rose the highest and headed the ball back into the Sociedad third to Suarez. The Uruguayan escaped his marker and, using Messi as a decoy, finished the play off with a clinical shot. With Suarez scoring, Vermaelen picked up the first assist of his Barcelona career.
In the 80th minute, Valverde made his second substitution of the game, with Lucas Digne replacing the largely anonymous Gomes. As a result, Alba moved higher up the pitch to a more winger role while Digne slotted into his usual position. Just moments later, Messi had an excellent chance to put the game out of reach, but Rulli made an even better save on the Argentine’s right-footed volley.
But that task was nonetheless achieved in the 85th minute when Messi set himself up for a free kick. The distance was around 30-yards and Messi fired on goal. Rulli was left planted on the goal-line, later showing he didn’t see the ball until it was too late, but the rotation Messi put on the ball was absolutely sensational, resulting in an absolute stunner that cemented Messi as the all-time highest goalscorer in a single top-5 European League.
In the final minute of regulation, two Suarez’s changed places on the pitch, with Denis replacing Luis, to burn a few seconds off the clock. The hosts brought everybody forward for the dying moments of the game, but the defense and ter Stegen held on to complete the comeback victory - at the Anoeta of all places.
Barcelona will have no time to celebrate the historic win as in just three days’ time Barcelona travel to their city rivals Espanyol in a Copa del Rey quarter-final matchup.