A first-half Leo Messi hat-trick proved enough to earn Barça a nervous victory over Valencia at Mestalla tonight. Messi’s goals gave Barça a commanding 0-3 lead in a brilliant opening 41 minutes from Barça but two late first-half strikes from Helder Postiga put Valencia back in the game. After the explosive end to the first half neither side could find the net in the second period. There were chances for both sides with the closest attempt coming in the 86th minute when Victor Valdés got his fingertips to Jonas Gonçalves’s shot before the ball bounced out off the post.
With Xavi and Alexis rested, Tata Martino made the logical decision to bring Pedro back on the right wing while restoring Iniesta to midfield to form a trio with Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fabregas. There had been interest to see whether Iniesta or Fabregas would play the Xavi role of organising the team and from the kick off it seemed clear that Iniesta was in his normal position on the left of midfield with Fabregas on the right. However, Iniesta played a more reserved game which allowed Fabregas to excel in a varied role, dropping back sometimes but more often surging forward to support Messi through the middle while also impressing with an array of passes.
Both teams played a high pressing game from the start but there was little penetration until the 8th minute when Messi fired wide after Fabregas slipped a pass into the area. After this, for a splendid twenty-minute spell, Barça began to find space behind Valencia’s high defence with remarkable regularity. Iniesta sent Neymar haring for goal but after entering the penalty area the Brazilian tried to turn only to find the Valencia defence closing him down. Thirty seconds later and Messi played a superb pass through to Neymar who this time managed to shoot past Diego Alves only to have the goal disallowed for offside. The replay suggested that Guardado had played Neymar onside but in less than a minute Barça had the ball in the net and this time it counted. Busquets found Fabregas who threaded a ball through for Messi to chase, Diego Alves came running out of his goal but Messi resisted the goalkeeper’s challenge, sprinting on to beat Ricardo Costa to the ball and force it over the line.
A familiar pattern followed of Barça pinning an opponent back in its own half. Neymar curled one wide after Messi’s neat pass and Iniesta drove over from 25 yards. The nervousness in the Valencia defence was demonstrated by Diego Alves sending a loose pass towards Iniesta who was just impeded from shooting by an excellent intervention from Michel Herrera. Then in the 27th minute Messi set Fabregas up with a shooting chance and Diego Alves had to be alert to save the awkward bouncing sidefooter from 25 yards.
Valencia had hardly been seen in attack until Pabon fired in a 30-yarder from the left that went straight at Valdés in the 31st minute, then three minutes later Pabon shot again from a bit closer but the effort lacked power and Valdés dived comfortably to gather. There was nothing easy about Valdés’s next save, Ever Banega found Pabon inside the area and the Barça keeper sprang magnificently to his left to parry the Columbian striker’s shot.
The game had been intense and entertaining up until this point but the final minutes of the first half were breathtaking. In the 39th minute Busquets robbed Canales midway inside the Valencia half, knocking the ball on to Fabregas who played Messi into the right of the area to beat Diego Alves with a right-footed finish into the far corner. Messi completed his hat-trick two minutes later and Fabregas was again involved. Messi started the move, finding the ex-Arsenal man in the inside left position, Fabregas then sent Neymar into the left of the area and the Brazilian slipped a neat pass through to Messi who had continued his run through the middle to steer the ball low past Diego Alves from eight yards.
Three-nil up and Barça should have been home and dry. Things started to go awry in the 44th minute when Pedro underhit a back-pass to Valdés, allowing Postiga a chance which Valdés managed to deflect out for a corner. A minute later the ball came out to João Pereira on the right, Neymar didn’t drop back to cover, allowing Pereira the chance to cross to the near post where Postiga met the ball with hooked shot that flew past Valdés just inside the near post.
The game then entered first half injury time which had been signalled to be just one minute. Inexplicably the referee, Jose Antonio Teixeira Vitienes, allowed play to run on for more than two minutes in which time first Valdés had to tip over from Banega’s 20-yard drive, then from the resulting corner Postiga rose above Alves and Iniesta at the near post to power a header across Valdés inside the far post. Two-three, and finally Teixeira Vitienes blew for half time.
Both sides began the second half more cautiously but as Valencia gradually pushed further forward the chances started coming at both ends. Guardado had Valencia’s first attempt after the break, blasting wide after Pabon’s assist, then soon after, Messi let fly from 25 yards, forcing Diego Alves to tip the ball over. Then in the 64th minute, Iniesta, who had a relatively quiet game, delivered a fine cross from the left but Pedro misplaced his header from eight yards. Pedro’s misfortune continued a couple of minutes later when he hesitated after Messi’s chested pass and missed a possible shooting opportunity. Valencia’s coach Miroslav Djukic reacted by bringing on Feghouli and Jonas, and soon after Martino sent on Tello in Pedro’s place.
As the game neared its end the tension mounted with the Mestalla public trying to roar their team on to an equalizer. One very good Valencia build-up in the 79th minute led to Jonas firing a shot that was deflected for a corner. Then from the resulting kick Ricardo Costa headed over the Barça crossbar.
Martino brought on Johnathan dos Santos in place of the tiring Fabregas, a signal to the critics that the Barça coach has faith in his youngsters to perform in important moments. Fabregas wasn’t the only one showing signs of fatigue as the heat and humidity took effect which led to the game remaining open to the end. In the 83rd minute Messi came agonizingly close to his fourth goal, his shot grazing the post after a splendid flick from Neymar and a quick exchange of passes with Alba. A minute later Neymar headed the ball into Messi’s path but the Argentinian couldn’t force the ball past Diego Alves.
Then came the heart-stopping moment for Barça fans, Piqué failed to make a good clearance, sending the ball to Jonas who turned Piqué and Mascherano this way and that before cracking in a low shot that Valdés just managed to touch with the tips of his fingers and the ball bounced out off the base of the post.
There was still time for a double chance for Alba and Messi but Diego Alves completed a fine game by stopping both efforts. Both goalkeepers, despite the goals conceded, had very good game which should help to demonstrate the quality of the entertainment. In one final push from Valencia Valdés first gathered Feghouli’s weak header, then in the final action of the game the Barça keeper punched clear a Valencia corner. Nine points out of nine for Martino’s Barça but the pressure is on with Atlético, Villarreal and Madrid all winning their first three games too.
Valencia: Diego Alves; João Pereira, Rami, Ricardo Costa, Guardado; Michel Herrera (Dani Parejo m82), Javi Fuego; Canales (Jonas m68), Banega (Feghouli m68), Pabón; Postiga.
Barça: Valdés 8; Dani Alves 6.5, Piqué 6, Mascherano 7, Alba 6.5; Fabregas 9 (Dos Santos m80, 6.5), Busquets 8, Iniesta 7; Pedro 6 (Tello m72, 6.5), Messi 8.5, Neymar 7 (Sergi Roberto m91, –).
Goals: m11 Messi 0-1, m39 Messi 0-2, m41 Messi, m45 Postiga 1-3, m45+3 Postiga 2-3.
Yellow cards: m17 Pereira, m29 Alba, m65 Dani Alves, m74 Neymar.