Leo Messi scored his 300th and 301st goals for Barça (his 36th and 37th league goals of the season!) to claim a narrow 1-2 victory at Granada tonight. Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo had put the Andalusians in front after 26 minutes but Messi’s double second half strike earned another three points as Barça march towards a 22nd La Liga title.
With an eye on the Champions League game at AC Milan on Wednesday Jordi Roura and Tito Vilanova decided to start with Carles Puyol, Andrés Iniesta and Jordi Alba on the bench which meant Javier Mascherano and Adriano Correira came into defence while Alexis Sanchez was given another chance in attack. Thiago Alcántara continued in midfield in place of Xavi who didn’t travel. Granada’s coach Lucas Alcaraz used the same 4-4-2 starting XI that beat Real Madrid and Deportivo in his first two games in charge with ex-Blaugrana Nolito starting on the left of midfield.
The changes in Barça’s lineup mainly affected the left side of the team and it was unfortunate that four times in the first twenty minutes Messi opened the play to the left with little luck. After four minutes he slipped the ball through to Alexis who today returned to his more erratic version, getting a poor first touch which saw the ball run through to Granada’s keeper Toño. The next time Messi found Adriano who sliced his cross straight at Toño. Soon after Messi again sent the ball out for Adriano who crossed to the far post where Fabregas headed back across goal and Messi couldn’t find good contact with his jumping twisting attempt to hook in a volley. Then in the 19th minute Alexis curled one past the far post after another assist from the four-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Granada meanwhile looked to attack Barça from the wings. As early as the 6th minute Ighalo’s gallop up the right had exposed Mascherano and then a minute later Nyom’s cross from the right had reached Nolito at the far post but he was hopping back when he volleyed and failed to get any power to trouble Valdés too much. However, after the initial first ten minute spell it had seemed as if Barça were dictating the play. After Barça’s four attempts from the left side in the 20th minute Dani Alves got forward on the right to cross for Thiago who headed over from twelve yards.
There were then two half hearted penalty shouts from Barça. First in the 21st minute Torje cut across Fabregas from behind, making slight contact – though it might be said Cesc ran across Torje’s path making the contact inevitable. Then in the 25th minute Alexis chased Messi’s pass into the area before crumbling under Diego Mainz’s challenge though there didn’t seem to be much to appeal for. As Alexis picked himself up Granada made a well worked counter-attack up their right side. There was a slight moment of distraction from Adriano which allowed Carlos Aranda room to send in a cross which found Nolito, also with too space at the far post, who volleyed the ball back across goal to where Ighalo tapped in from close range. Despite being a foot or so offside the linesman’s flag stayed down and Ighalo’s goal stood.
Barça tried to hit straight back with Adriano firing just wide but Granada were buoyed by the goal and fighting for every ball. Mascherano tried the route-one approach with a long ball from defence for Pedro to chase, Siqueira tussled the Canarian to the floor and received a yellow card. From the free kick Messi’s curler went straight at Toño but he was just lining up his sights for later. Barça’s best chance of the half came in the 37th minute, Piqué sent a long ball for Alves who drove in a first time cross to Thiago who showed enormous skill to cushion a pass with the outside of his right foot which set up Messi but Toño was out quickly to block the Argentinian’s volley.
If Thiago had demonstrated his undoubted class with the assist to Messi he was to show his worst side just before half time. Barça won a defensive free kick in the left back position and Thiago inexplicably played a square pass across the edge of the area straight to Aranda, fortunately Piqué and Mascherano were quick to pressurize the Granada striker who could only shoot softly at Valdés.
It was not a good way to finish a disappointing first half and there was little to suggest anything had changed in the opening minutes of the second half. The only difference was that Alba had come on for Adriano (as a precaution) near the end of the first period. Now Alba was offering different options on the left and in the 50th minute he got forward before playing the ball inside for Fabregas to shoot from 25 yards, Toño couldn’t hold it and Messi was quickest to pounce on the rebound and stab home his 300th blaugrana goal.
With the score now at 1-1 Granada began to play deeper almost as though they sensed the inevitable. Barça were trying some intricate one-touch stuff to try and break through the middle and Messi was unlucky to be called offside after Alexis’s pass found him inside the 6-yard box to set up Fabregas for an incorrectly disallowed goal. Alexis had one more run into the area after Fabregas’s pass but Nyom did enough to knock the Chilean off his stride and soon after he was subbed off for Tello. The speedy winger had not been on long when he found Pedro who was desperately close with a low shot from 25 yards that bounced out off the inside of the post.
The game entered the last twenty minutes with Barça still searching for a winner. In the 72nd minute Thiago was brought down by El-Arabi 25 yards out. Before the free kick was taken Roura brought on Iniesta in place of Pedro though this would have little influence on what happened next. Messi curled the free kick over the wall and Toño was a little slow to react and couldn’t keep the ball out despite getting a slight touch on the ball.
Finally with the lead Barça now looked to control the game while Granada were forced to push up in search of an equalizer. El-Arabi had a header straight at Valdés but as Granada pushed up they left spaces at the back which Tello could exploit. In the 83rd minute now playing on the right Tello made one tremendous run into the area which opened a half-chance which Messi volleyed well over. Two minutes later it was Messi making the run, pulling the defence towards him, before finding Iniesta who played the ball onto Tello in loads of space on the right but he drilled his final shot just over the crossbar.
In the final minutes Barça’s close passing game almost led to disaster as Granada’s high pressing caused us into some imprecision. Losing the ball in our own half led to two chances, first in the 88th minute when Iñigo Lopez got forward for a header which Valdés saved comfortably, then in the 92nd minute Brahimi played a 1-2 to get into the area for a clear chance with his shot just clipping Valdés sufficiently to send the ball wide of the post. A Granada equalizer would have cruel for us but perhaps we would have deserved no better for some of our sloppiness tonight. There may still have been time for further chances for Messi and Iniesta but it is unlikely Granada would have left such space at the back if they had equalized with Brahimi’s chance.
Granada: Toño; Nyom, Iñigo Lopez, Mainz, Siqueira; Torje (Brahimi m76), Mikel Rico, Recio, Nolito (Buonanotte m74); Aranda (El-Arabi m58), Ighalo.
Barça: Valdés 7; Alves 6.5, Piqué 7, Mascherano 6, Adriano 5.5 (Alba m37, 7); Thiago 6, Busquets 7, Fabregas 7; Pedro 6.5 (Iniesta m72, 7), Messi 8, Alexis 5.5 (Tello m60, 6.5).
Goals: m26 Ighalo 1-0, m50 Messi 1-1, m73 Messi 1-2.
Yellow cards:m34 Siqueira, m69 Nyom, m87 Thiago.