To start their Copa del Rey campaign Barcelona displayed a rather poor showing in Leon but when the final whistle blew the Catalans were victorious with the only goal coming from Clement Lenglet in added time.
With the majority of the stars staying home, this was an opportunity for fringe players to get their foot in the door and numerous youngsters to showcase their potential. Ousmane Dembele and Nelson Semedo were the only two (semi-)regulars to start the match, while three B team players, Juan Miranda, Chumi and Jorge Cuenca also featured in the starting XI.
Barcelona started the match with strong intentions, quickly pinning Cultural Leonesa deep, but the Catalans couldn’t create anything noteworthy in the opening minutes. The hosts threatened for the first time in the 10th minute, but Jasper Cillessen went untested. Two minutes later, Semedo turned the ball over deep to gift a chance to Zelu who fired on goal, but was denied by a diving Cillessen. Even with a cool 75% ball possession it were the hosts who were the first to really threaten while Barcelona struggled in attack against the aggressive hosts.
The midfield of Sergi Samper, Denis Suarez and Arturo Vidal was having problems organizing Barcelona in attack. Their opponents, however, always looked threatening when in attack, but their next scoring chance which came in the 26th minute also left Cillessen without having to make a save.
Quickly thereafter, Ernesto Valverde sent two midfielders to start warming up on the sidelines. In the 32nd minute Samper had to be taken of the pitch with an apparent injury and was replaced by the promising Carles Alena. With Alena pulling the strings Barcelona started showing some life in attack, but getting anywhere near Jorge Palatsi’s goal remained a daunting task.
Most of Barcelona’s problems were self-inflicted as terrible ball security, poor passing and almost no energy plagued the Catalans and the two sides went into the break scoreless. Barcelona started playing better after Alena joined play, but he himself could not lift his almost lifeless teammates.
The Catalans came ready to play after the restart, attacking from the get-go, quickly causing some problems to the Cultural defense, but the hosts would repel those attacks and again be the first to fire a shot on goal, but once again Cillessen made the save. The shot was Cultural’s second on target while Barcelona were still without a single one. Barcelona were pressing high up the pitch, but the results weren’t always there.
At the one-hour mark, Valverde made his second substitution as Lenglet replaced Cuenca in the heart of the defense. Moments later Alena won a free kick in a dangerous area, about 30-yards out straight down the middle, but Dembele’s attempt went very high and very wide. Two minutes later Cillessen was called into action again, making a save on Zelu’s free kick try.
Even though Barcelona were regularly on the attack, the lack of conviction was worrying - especially considering these were players looking to impress the manager after getting few minutes with the first team. Finally, in the 71st minute, Barcelona fired on goal, with Alena testing Palatsi from distance, causing some problems to the goalkeeper in the process.
Five minutes later the hosts created their best looking chance of the match, with Cillessen having to make two saves in quick succession. First, the Dutchman had to stop a corner kick that went right on goal before tipping Saul Gonzalez’s 20-yards howitzer over the crossbar. With ten minutes left to play, Arthur replaced Malcom, who one would not have noticed on the pitch had he not turned the ball over pretty much every single time he was in possession of it.
Barcelona finally had a good look on goal in the 86th minute when Alena brilliantly set up Munir El Haddadi, heading the ball right into his feet after a cross from the left side. But even with time and space the forward couldn’t get a shot on target, sending the ball well over the bar. But Barcelona’s persistence finally paid off in the first minute of added time. Dembele sent a deep free kick into the danger area where Lenglet escaped his marker and flicked the ball past the keeper and into the back of the net for his first goal in Blaugrana colors.
On the final play of the match Barcelona could’ve added another to their total, but Denis Suarez – in arguably his only noteworthy play – just missed the far post on the counter attack. The small margin of victory has not quite yet guaranteed a spot in the next round though and the return leg will be played in early December at the Camp Nou. Now it’s back to La Liga where the Catalans will take on Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.