Barça came from behind to beat Valladolid 4-1 at Camp Nou tonight and extend the winning run from the start of La Liga to eight games. Javi Guerra headed the visitors in front after ten minutes but Barça hit back with two goals from Alexis Sanchez and one apiece from Xavi and Neymar.
Following Real Madrid’s late win at Levante Barça needed a victory to retain the five points advantage over their bitter rivals. Tata Martino rested Busquets, Pedro and Iniesta meaning a return to the team for Song, Alexis and Tello. Neymar was given the injured Messi’s false nine role while Cesc Fabregas was moved back into midfield.
Alexis had claimed this week that he was ready ‘to explode’ and he began the night keenly, sending in one dangerous low cross that was cleared for a corner, then soon after he spurted into the right of the area before squaring for Fabregas who was leaning back too much and skied his shot. Then in the tenth minute Valladolid won a corner off Marc Bartra. Patrick Ebert sent in an inswinger from the left and Javi Guerra, moving away from goal, rose above Adriano and headed past Valdés. Yet again Barça concede from a corner and it all looked far too simple for Guerra to score.
Barça reacted quickly to the set-back. In the 13th minute Bartra surged forward and was allowed to shoot from 25 yards and Mariño had to dive to turn the ball round the post for a corner. A minute later a long ball forward was headed down by Neymar, Tello squared to Alexis who after a step forward let fly with a terrific shot from 25 yards that whizzed past Mariño into the roof of the net.
Soon after the equalizer Tello should have put Barça in front. Neymar made a splendid turn in the centre circle to escape his marker before threading a pass through the defence for Tello to chase, the youngster was one-on-one with the keeper but waited too long as he tried to open his body for his trademark finish and Marc Valiente slid in to block.
Valladolid showed they were by no means out of it with Ebert sending a spectacular attempt at an overhead kick well over. The visitors were making things difficult for Barça with some tight marking on Xavi and Fabregas in midfield while the lack of a strong Barça press meant they were often allowed to break forward. Bartra was twice called on to clear up danger in the Barça penalty area then in the 24th minute Omar attacked down the right before finding Bergdich whose toe-poke was deflected wide for a corner.
Barça were putting too much emphasis on trying to attack through the middle and there was little connection between midfield and attack. However, in the 27th minute Fabregas managed to send Neymar through on goal but the Brazilian hesitated a moment and then his shot hit Mariño and went out for a corner. Neymar was not discouraged and took on the Valladolid defence at every opportunity. In the 30th minute he made a splendid solo run into the area before being knocked off the ball in what might have been interpreted as a penalty. It was a doubtful call but there were few complaints when referee Fernando Teixeira Vitienes waved play on. However, a minute later Neymar was brought down by Carlos Peña and this time Camp Nou protested vociferously.
Barça might have felt hard done by but with Valladolid continuing to defend doggedly there were few chances to put things right. In the 39th minute Alves came forward through the middle before slipping a pass right for Alexis who had made an excellent run into space but then the Chilean fired his shot across the face of goal and wide. A couple of minutes later Alves got forward again and found Fabregas who had time to look up but sent his shot disappointingly straight at Mariño.
There was a slight sluggishness to Barça’s passing in the first half with Xavi particularly looking off form, while there was also a lack of width to the play with Tello seeing little of the ball. Things improved in the second half though it was Neymar’s continued attempts to beat players that finally made the difference. Twice Peña denied the Brazilian after runs into the area, then in the 52nd minute Neymar twisted away from two opponents, creating space to free Tello who crossed first time from the left and Xavi, who had made a run into the danger zone, diverted the ball past Mariño from close range.
Barça sensed the kill and went looking for a third goal. Neymar again burst into the area only to shoot into the side-netting. Then Tello curled a 25-yarder over Mariño only to see the ball bounce out off the crossbar. In the 64th minute Valladolid lost the ball in midfield and Xavi got the ball quickly forward to Neymar who played a perfect simple pass to the right for Alexis to sprint in and beat Mariño despite the keeper getting a touch to the ball.
With a two-goal advantage Barça could finally breathe more easily. Iniesta came on for Fabregas and soon after Barça went further in front. Xavi opened play to Alexis on the right and he knocked the ball back for Alves whose cross was flicked on by the stretching Xavi and the ball fell nicely for Alexis who’d made his run into the area. At this point Alexis had a clear chance for his hat-trick but for some reason he decided to send the ball across to Neymar who was in a less favourable position than the Chilean, but fortunately for everyone Neymar fired the ball low into the corner of the net.
Martino made further substitutions, first replacing Tello with Pedro and then ten minutes from the end putting on Busquets as centre-back in order to give Piqué a rest. In between these substitutions there was another strong penalty appeal when Rueda brought down Neymar but Teixeira Vitienes again chose to ignore the appeal. One has to wonder whether referees are over-compensating against Neymar for his, let’s be fair, deserved reputation for diving.
There was little more of note. Valdés gave one poor kick straight to Osorio but Busquets defended his position well which may give Martino another argument not to sign a central defender this winter. Then in injury time Alves sent a tempting little lob in to give Alexis a final chance of a hat trick but with little power on the cross the Chilean could only head the ball straight at Mariño.
There were quite a few positives to take from the game despite a below-par first half. We achieved a relatively comfortable win in the end and the absence of Leo Messi was hardly noticed. This was mainly due to the continued excellence of Neymar who offers a spectacular array of talents to make the difference in attack. Added to this we now have Alexis looking at his best, his always first-rate team work now being accompanied by an improvement in marksmanship. At the back Bartra and Piqué both gave another strong performance which will help to alleviate our worries about the defence. I’d still like to see a signing this winter but it may be difficult to find anybody to improve on what we have. At least Bartra has had the chance to show some consistent good form which should relieve him of some pressure when he is called on again.
Barça: Valdés 6.5; Alves 6.5, Bartra 7, Piqué 7 (Busquets m79, 6.5), Adriano 6; Xavi 6.5, Song 6.5 Fàbregas 6 (Iniesta m65, 7), Alexis 8.5, Neymar 8, Tello 6.5 (Pedro m73, 6).
Valladolid: Mariño; Rukavina, Jesus Rueda, Marc Valiente, Carlos Peña; Fausto Rossi, Javier Baraja; Ebert (Rama m71), Omar, Bergdich (Alcatraz m87); Javi Guerra (Osorio m61).
Goals: m10 Guerra 0-1, m14 Alexis 1-1, m52 Xavi 2-1, m64 Alexis 3-1, m70 Neymar 4-1.
Yellow cards: m33 Bergdich, m47 Rossi, m91 Omar
Attendance: 64, 659