Alexis Sanchez’s first blaugrana hat-trick and a goal from Pedro Rodriguez earned Barça an impressive 4-0 win over Elche at Camp Nou this afternoon. The victory means Barça remain top of La Liga for another week. The advantage over second placed Atlético Madrid is still just goal difference with both teams on 49 points going into next Saturday’s eagerly-awaited clash at the Vicente Calderón.
Tata Martino surprised today by leaving Neymar Jr out of the starting XI but it proved to be a shrewd decision as both Pedro and Alexis caused the Elche defence all sorts of problems with their off-the-ball movement and direct runs into the space left by “false-nine” Cesc Fabregas who played more of a midfield role than that of a striker. As early as the first minute Iniesta spotted Alexis’s run into the central position but the linesman’s flag annulled the play incorrectly before Elche’s keeper Toño stopped Alexis’s shot.
If the linesman got it wrong in Elche’s favour here, six minutes later he again got it wrong but this time it cost the visitors a goal. Xavi started the move, turning this way and that in midfield before sending a wonderful pass out to Jordi Alba on the left, Alba controlled before whipping in an excellent low cross which found Alexis running in at the far post from an offside position, and the Chilean opened his account with a first-time stab into the roof of the net.
It was clear that Barça were tuned in for the game, and the hard-working approach from the home team gave Elche plenty of problems in possession. However, in the 14th minute Fran Escribá’s men managed to build a move from the back with six or seven passes before Fidel cut inside from the left and clipped a neat pass into the area for Boakye who fired his shot against Valdés’s near post.
It is unlikely that an Elche equalizer at this point would have made any difference to the game’s final outcome and just a couple of minutes later Barça went 2-0 up. Fabregas was again back near the half-way line, exchanging passes with Xavi, when he spotted Pedro’s run and sent a glorious ball in for the Canarian to skip round Toño and turn the ball in past Botía’s desperate goal-line lunge. Sixteen minutes on the clock and game over for Elche.
There should have been more first-half goals, especially in the last fifteen minutes but Barça’s finishing was perhaps the only negative in a commanding performance. Pedro fired wide from Fabregas’s cross from the right, and soon after, Pedro again failed to find the target with his lob after Lombán’s poor clearance. Xavi then had two tries after a back-pass from Botía was handled by Toño, but from the indirect free kick both Xavi’s shots hit the defensive wall on the goalline. Iniesta went on a dazzling run into the area but he couldn’t find the shooting chance, then just before the break Montoya led a counter through the middle before finding Fabregas who chipped in a lovely cross to Alexis who tried to squeeze a shot inside the near post but only succeeded in hitting the side-netting.
There was no let up from Barça in the second half and it was always just a matter of how many goals would go in. Xavi should have made it 3-0 in the 47th minute after Pedro’s slick flick-on sent Fabregas in for a clear chance before being brought down in the area by Sapunaro who was fortunate not to see a card of either colour when a red seemed the most likely option. Xavi sent the penalty wide of Toño’s left-hand post but the miss never looked like proving costly. Barça should have been awarded another penalty soon after when Xavi drove the ball across the goalmouth, but referee Fernández Borbalón failed to see Botía preventing Piqué from scoring by pulling him back.
It’s worth mentioning here that despite the penalty miss Xavi’s performance was one of positives tonight. He led the orchestra, controlling the rhythm, and he played a part in each of the first three goals. For the third, in the 63rd minute, it was Xavi who found Iniesta who then sent the ball quickly on for Pedro who, with Toño coming out, unselfishly played the ball right for Alexis to tap into the empty net. Soon after, Martino gave Xavi a rest, bringing on Sergi Roberto in his place.
Alexis completed his hat-trick in the 69th minute. Piqué played a long ball forward and Botía slammed into the back of the Chilean, giving Barça a free-kick 25 yards out and seeing the first yellow card of the game in the process. Alexis picked himself up and curled the free-kick skilfully over the wall and down inside the post beyond Toño’s dive.
There was little more after the fourth goal as Barça maintained control. Tello and Neymar came on near the end and the Brazilian was involved in a couple of moves with Iniesta which might have won penalties. In the 84th minute Neymar surprised Botía with his clever flick and after Iniesta stole in, Fernández Borbalón unbelievably ignored Botía’s lunge from behind to take Iniesta’s legs. The final appeal was not so clear after Neymar bounced off Mantecon but it mattered little. It was more worrying to see Marc Bartra go off at the end with what seemed to be a muscle injury but reports after the game suggest he was just suffering a bit of cramp.
This was a very positive way to start the new year. Martino’s team selection made perfect sense, he got his rewards with the goals from Alexis and Pedro, and it’s no exaggeration to say Barça could, and probably should, have scored eight today. The work-rate was excellent considering it’s the first game back after Christmas, and again Pedro and Alexis deserve credit for leading the pressing when we lost possession. There was a minute in the first half which demonstrated the team’s work-rate better than any. Around the 33rd minute Elche managed to hold onto the ball by stringing together about twenty passes. It was an impressive display of passing skills from the visitors but Barça never lost shape and Elche never looked like making a killer pass. Barça kept chasing and despite keeping possession the Elche players were not allowed to make the passes they wanted, being forced backwards before eventually Iniesta won the ball inside Elche’s half, leading to a quick attack which ended with an Iniesta shot.
It was good to have Valdés back between the posts though he had very little to do in the 90 minutes. Leo Messi will be back next which can only make us even better. I have to say here I loved Martino’s comment that Messi has an “assassin’s look” about him. With Busquets, Alves and Neymar also all ready to come in, the Barça coach will have a tough job choosing his best XI for next Saturday’s match at Atlético. First, it’s back to the Copa del Rey with the visit of Getafe to Camp Nou on Wednesday.
Barça: Valdés 6; Montoya 6.5, Piqué 7, Bartra 7, Alba 7; Xavi 7.5 (Sergi Roberto m65, 6.5), Song 6.5, Iniesta 7.5; Alexis 8.5 (Tello m74, 6.5), Fabregas 7.5, Pedro 8 (Neymar m81, 7).
Elche: Toño; Sapunaro (Mantecon m80), Botía, Lombán, Albácar; Ruben Perez, Carlos Sanchez (Javi Marquez m66); Aaron Ñiguez, Gil, Fidel (Manu del Moral 61); Boakye.
Goals: m7 Alexis 1-0, m16 Pedro 2-0, m63 Alexis 3-0, m68 Alexis 4-0.
Yellow cards: m68 Botía, m73 Alba, m73 Fabregas, m86 Ruben Perez.