Barça return to the top of La Liga after a somewhat fortunate 1-4 victory over Sevilla at the Sánchez Pizjuán tonight. Alberto Moreno fired the Andalucians into a deserved fifteenth minute lead as Barça began poorly but an equalizer from Alexis Sanchez in an offside position brought the scores level before Leo Messi put Tata Martino’s men in front just before half time. Messi netted his second of the game in the 56th minute before a late goal from substitute Cesc Fabregas left a harsh scoreline for the home team.
Tata Martino made six changes to the team that beat Real Sociedad in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday. As expected Victor Valdés was back in goal while Marc Bartra and Adriano Correia came in for the suspended Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba. Andrés Iniesta returned to the starting XI in place of the in-form Fabregas while there was a surprise as Martin Montoya and Alex Song were preferred over Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets.
Whether it was the changes to the line-up or the wet conditions after a day of heavy rain in Seville, Barça began sloppily with Piqué, Bartra and Song looking particularly uneasy against the home team’s early high press. Sevilla were already looking the better team when the excellent Ivan Rakitic dribbled in past Piqué from the right in the 15th minute, the Croation exchanged passes with Diogo before nudging the ball across the area, Vitolo got a touch in front of Alexis, and Montoya failed to close down Moreno who cracked a shot that took a deflection off Bartra leaving Valdés with no chance.
There was little reaction from Barça to the goal and five minutes later Sevilla were unlucky not to go further in front when Rakitic sent in a free-kick from the right and Fazio rose unchallenged to glance a header that came out off the far post. Barça timidly came forward with a couple of attacking runs from Alexis and Adriano but Barça didn’t manage a shot on goal until Xavi’s weak 20-yard effort in the 27th minute. Sevilla continued to look more tuned in and Barça’s defence were unsettled again when Bacca got the better of Piqué before squaring for Rakitic who missed the target from just outside the area.
Barça just couldn’t find any rhythm with Xavi taking three or four touches where on other days he would use one or two, and Messi struggling to get into the game. When the Argentinian did get the ball, more often than not he lost it. Then in the 33rd minute Sevilla defender Nico Pareja fouled Messi about 40 yards out. Messi chipped in the free-kick and inexplicably the linesman failed to see both Alexis and Piqué in offside positions and Alexis was free at the far post to make an unorthodox back-header and bring the scores level.
The linesman’s error was a vital stroke of luck to put Barça back in the game but the next chance again fell to Sevilla with Rakitic flighting in another dangerous free-kick and Valdés had to make a save with his foot that he knew little about in the ensuing scramble. Sevilla would have felt hard done by to go in at half time at 1-1 but just before the break Barça put together their first decent move of the game with Iniesta, Adriano and Messi combining to send Pedro away on the left, the Canarian pulled the ball back to Messi arriving on the edge of the area and the four-time Ballon d’Or winner cracked a shot that flew past Sevilla keeper Beto and inside the far post.
Sevilla tried to come back at the start of the second half. Gameiro got away from Song and sent a dangerous cross to nobody and soon after Montoya allowed Vitolo to rob him before pulling his shot wide of the far post. Barça began to react with Iniesta taking a more prominent role in midfield, but two decent attacks came to nothing with Xavi failing to shoot and an angled shot from Alexis going wide.
In the 54th minute Bacca powered in a shot from 25 yards which Valdés could only parry into the path of Gameiro. It was a massive chance to equalize but Gameiro’s rebound clipped Valdés’s leg and went wide. two minutes later Messi found Iniesta who made a run through the inside-left position before whipping a pass back into Messi who made an excellent first touch before clinically sending his shot inside Beto’s right-hand post.
The blow was too much for Sevilla and the game became much more comfortable for Barça. There were still good chances for Fazio who misjudged his jump and for Cheryshev who failed to control after being allowed too much space by the dormant Piqué, though the three points didn’t look in danger now. The final nail in Sevilla’s coffin came from Fabregas who clipped the ball over Beto after exchanging passes with Alexis.
The result should not disguise the fact that Barça played a lame first 45 minutes. Things improved in the second half, and especially after Messi’s second, though without the lucky breaks we could easily have gone home with nothing today. It is difficult to understand some of Martino’s team selection, especially the decision to leave out Busquets for such a tough game. With the three top teams now level on 57 points we can not afford to rely on fortune to keep our title challenge going in future weeks. We are still in for three trophies this season so we may still end the season successfully though the performances last week against Valencia and again in the first half tonight don’t leave me with too much optimism.
Sevilla: Beto; Diogo, Pareja, Fazio, Alberto Moreno; Iborra (Trochowski m64), Carriço, Vitolo (Jairo m77); Rakitic; Gameiro (Cheryshev m64), Bacca.
Barça: Valdés 6.5; Montoya 6, Bartra 6, Piqué 5, Adriano 6; Xavi 5.5 (Busquets m83, –), Song 5.5, Iniesta 7; Alexis 6.5 (Sergi Roberto m89, –), Messi 7.5, Pedro 6.5 (Fabregas m73, 7).
Goals: m15 Alberto Moreno 1-0, m 34 Alexis 1-1, m44 Messi 1-2, m56 Messi 1-3, m88 Fabregas 1-4.
Yellow cards: m20 Song, m39 Carriço, m59 Pedro, m68 Valdés, m70 Diogo, m71 Cherychev