Barcelona started the year 2018 with a draw against an always difficult Celta Vigo side in the 1st leg of the Copa del Rey Round of 16. The Catalans rotated heavily in the first action of the New Year, but were still able to secure a favorable scoring draw at the Balaídos. With the away goal scored by Jose Arnaiz, Barcelona hold the smallest of advantages before the 2nd Leg. The lone goalscorer for the hosts was Pione Sisto.
Ernesto Valverde used a highly changed starting eleven, as a handful of stars, including Lionel Messi, didn’t even make the trip to Galicia. Nelson Semedo, Gerard Pique, Thomas Vermaelen and Lucas Digne started in front of usual Copa starter Jasper Cillessen, while Sergio Busquets took place in his usual spot. Andre Gomes, Paulinho, Denis Suarez, Aleix Vidal and B-teamer Arnaiz also took the pitch, with the latter usually playing closest to the opposing goal.
Games against Celta Vigo are always difficult and this one proved no different as a strong Celta lineup caused numerous problems to a second/third string Barcelona team. Celta looked determined to pick up another high profile Copa del Rey scalp after Real Madrid last season. The hosts looked much more dangerous in the early going, with first Sisto and later Iago Aspas threatening. Neither opportunity resulted in a shot though as first Cillessen was quick off the line to collect the ball while a crucial interception/block by Semedo prevented Aspas from taking a one-on-one shot.
Barcelona were also far from confident in possession as Celta were looking to press high up the pitch. But regardless of the struggles, the Catalans were able to score the all-important away goal just 15 minutes in. Denis started the counter deep in Barcelona area before laying it to Gomes to his left. The Portuguese midfielder plowed forward and from inside the penalty area squared the ball into the middle through the legs of the defender. In the danger area, Arnaiz eluded his marker and fired first time back across goal to give Sergio Álvarez absolutely no chance.
Both teams were pressing very high up the pitch when not in possession, with Celta at times almost man-marking Barcelona players inside Cillessen’s area. Even though Barcelona were in the lead, Celta were the more dangerous side, with Aspas spinning Pique in circles, but seemingly every time Aspas made it around Pique, Vermaelen was there to clean up the mess.
Make no mistake, Barcelona did attack, with Gomes often combining beautifully with his teammates, but with no true striker in the middle, there were often very few options to pass to. But Celta didn’t have those problems, with Sisto, Maxi Gomez and Aspas combining excellently in attack. And the hosts were rewarded for their efforts in the 31st minute as quite a few defensive breakdowns resulted in the tying goal. First Busquets couldn’t win back possession despite a seemingly excellent diving tackle on the edge of the area. Then two Celta players were left unmarked, Maxi Gomez and Aspas – a chance from which Gomez found Aspas who rattled the crossbar. And to cap it off, Pique didn’t close down Sisto who beat Cillessen with a howitzer from a tough angle.
Buoyed by the goal, Celta looked to quickly complete the turnaround, but some good defense by Semedo prevented Cillessen from having to make any saves. The final minutes of the half belonged to Barcelona, but long shots from Paulinho and Gomes didn’t threaten Alvarez. With almost no stoppages in play, referee sent teams to halftime as soon as the 45 minutes were over.
Barcelona started brightly after the break, pinning the hosts back from the whistle, but getting a shot through proved difficult. The visitors showed of some flowing attacking moves, but the Catalans couldn’t create any clear-cut chances. Celta were also quick to counter, but Sisto couldn’t connect with a low cross from the right wing six minutes after the restart.
Despite struggling with chance creation early in the half, Barcelona were the first to really threaten in the 56th minute. Digne sent a dangerous cross from the left wing to the far post to the diving Arnaiz, but the youngster couldn’t direct the header on goal. Barcelona continued to look much better compared to the first half and the Catalans should’ve taken the lead in the 60th minute. Semedo excellently controlled the ball on the right wing before brilliantly spotting the onrushing Denis with an inch-perfect cross. Forgotten by the defense and alone in front of goal, a goal seemed like the only option, but somehow Denis missed the target altogether. Two minutes later, Busquets fired from 30-yards out but was denied by the crossbar.
With Celta looking less lively than in the first half, Juan Carlos Unzué was the first manager to pull the trigger on a substitution, making a pair of them in the 67th minute. Sisto and the not-fully-fit Daniel Wass left the pitch and were replaced by Emre Mor and Brais Méndez. Mor needed just two minutes to cause problems, but in the end his shot lacked power to beat Cillessen.
In the 71st minute, Valverde made a double substitution of his own. Ivan Rakitić replaced Paulinho while Arnaiz made way for Ousmane Dembele to complete the Frenchman’s road to recovery. But Unzue was leading in the early return on substitutions as Mor was once again in the thick of it, missing the far post by mere inches in the 73rd.
On the other end, Dembele was looking to make his mark as well, but after 108 days away from competitive football he was understatedly looking a bit rusty and overanxious. Valverde made his last personnel change in the 76th minute with Sergi Roberto taking Vidal’s place. Dembele was looking to quickly rid himself of the rust though, looking lively and firing a shot on goal in the 78th minute after a nice pass from Rakitić, but Alvarez made the save.
In an effort to earn an advantage before the second leg, both sides were looking to score that winning goal in the dying moments of the game. Aspas fired a bomb from distance in the 87th minute, but Cillessen was, despite some problems, able to make the save. Barcelona also had an excellent chance to win it in the 91st minute when Semedo sent a perfect low ball into the middle where Roberto tipped the ball on target, but was denied by the post.
In the end, after three minutes of added time, the two teams remained deadlocked at one and who the winner of this tie will be remains to be seen. The 2nd Leg will be played on January 11 at the Camp Nou, but up next of Barcelona is a home clash with Levante on Sunday.