Barcelona remain unbeaten this season and are now in sole possession of first place in Group H of the Champions League thanks to a hard-fought 1-0 win against FC Porto at the Estádio do Dragão on Wednesday night in Portugal. What was expected to be the toughest away game in the group proved to be the case and Barça were made to suffer for most of the night and somehow survived a brutal second half blitz by the home side, but a first half goal from Ferran Torres and a monumental defensive effort were enough to secure all three points and a crucial away result in Europe for a team in desperate need of one.
The first 45 minutes went about as expected as Porto began with all the momentum looking to launch an early blitz to get the crowd into the game, and they pressed high to force Barça into mistakes at the back to create opportunities.
The plan worked and the hosts were helped by a Blaugrana side too loose with their passing in dangerous areas, and the back four and goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen needed to make some key interventions to stop the home team from scoring the opener.
But the Catalans managed to weather the early storm and started to improve after the first 20 minutes, having more control of the ball and finding their best players in good positions in the final third. João Félix was especially bright and aggressively looked to create for himself and his teammates, and he was the closest of any Barça player to scoring.
A strong 15-minute spell of attacking football didn’t generate a true chance, however, and Barça then lost their best goalscorer as Robert Lewandowski couldn’t continue and had to leave the pitch after taking a tough knock to his ankle early in the half.
Lewandowski was replaced by Ferran Torres, who came on with a ton of hunger and energy and maintained Barça’s good spell with his movement and willingness to take shots on goal, and Ferran was rewarded by his good work just before halftime: a horrible mistake by Porto midfielder Romário Baró created a Barça counter-attack, and Ilkay Gündogan played it through to Torres who showed great composure and calmly placed the ball through Diogo Costa’s legs and into the net for the opening goal.
The halftime whistle came shortly after, and Barça all of a sudden had a valuable lead going into the second half after what was as tough and physical a battle as we expected. Could the visitors finish the job in the final period?
Barça were made to suffer to start the second half as Porto amped up their level of intensity and attacking intent and found a lot of spaces with long balls in behind the Blaugrana defense when Barça played a high line. Jules Kounde and Ronald Araujo had to make a couple of sensational athletic plays to stop certain goals by Pepê, and Barça were very lucky not to concede the equalizer in the first 20 minutes of the final period.
Xavi Hernández took a little too long to make substitutions to try and help his team regain control of the game, but he finally acted and sent on Fermín López and Sergi Roberto with 20 minutes to go to add more numbers in midfield and try to have the ball again.
Neither substitute could have a real impact early on and weren’t helped by their teammates who continued to give the ball away in bad areas, and Ter Stegen had to make another big save on a shot by Galeno to keep Porto from finding the net.
The home team kept pushing and were given a penalty after a handball by João Cancelo, but Anthony Taylor reversed his decision after a VAR review showed a handball by a Porto player in the buildup. Barça got out of jail for a second time shortly after when a bicycle kick equalizer by Mehdi Taremi was disallowed for a very narrow offside, and it felt like Porto’s goal was just a matter of time going into the final 10 minutes plus stoppage time.
Porto coach Sergio Conceição made four attacking substitutions in the 85th minute, including former Barça midfielder Nico González, and threw caution to the wind looking for a goal his team had definitely earned. To make things even more difficult for Barça they found themselves down to 10 men after Gavi was shown a red card for a silly second yellow offense, and the Blaugrana were under siege in the dying seconds.
They somehow survived the late pressure, and the final whistle came to give Barça all three points in what was exactly as brutal of a road test as expected. This took an incredible amount of effort and mental toughness, and Barça deserve a lot of credit for excelling at those things and showing they were ready for the fight.
But the truth is they need to play better, and despite the three points they are still not good enough on the road in Europe. The challenge is now to combine their fighting spirit with good football, but they’ve taken a step in the right direction.
FC Porto: Costa; Mário (Nico 85’), Cardoso, Carmo, Wendell; Varela (Conceição 85’), Eustáquio; Baró (Evanilson 64’), Pepê, Galeno (Jaime 85’); Taremi (Namaso 85’)
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Cancelo, Araujo, Kounde, Balde; Gavi, Romeu (Roberto 69’), Gündogan; Yamal (Alonso 81’), Lewandowski (Ferran 34’), Félix (Fermín 69’)
Goal: Ferran (45+1’)
Red Card: Gavi (90+3’)