Barça move to within a point of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga after a 4-1 victory over Almeria at Camp Nou tonight. An early goal from Alexis Sanchez was followed by a splendid free-kick from Leo Messi which put Barça 2-0 up midway through the first half. However, Ángel Trujillo headed Almeria back into the game soon after as Barça again conceded from a corner. The scoreline remained dangerously at 2-1 until the final ten minutes when Puyol and Xavi added goals to secure the three points.
Tata Martino surprised somewhat by preferring Puyol and Adriano over Bartra and Jordi Alba in defence but the rest of the team was as predicted with Iniesta and Pedro benched in order to start with an XI of Valdés, Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano, Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas, Alexis, Messi and Neymar, a line-up that was notable for having six South American players starting.
Barça began well with Xavi and Fabregas immediately dominating in midfield. Alexis Sanchez also had a good evening and his intelligent movement to drag Almeria left-back Dubarbier out of position created space for Alves to attack. Twice in the first six minutes Xavi and then Fabregas found the Brazilian right-back in the Almeria area but on both occasions he failed to find a finish.
Then in the ninth minute Neymar, who spent most of the night stuck to the left touchline, played the ball inside to Fabregas who turned well and shot, Almeria keeper Esteban dived to save but he parried the ball straight to Alexis who was alert to slip the rebound home from an angle. Neymar should have made it 2-0 after Xavi’s superb 40-yard pass but he hesitated between shooting and passing, allowing a defender time to intervene.
Almeria defended in a 4-5-1 formation but they weren’t shy to push players forward in possession. This occasionally gave Barça the chance to attack on the break as in the 20th minute when good work from Adriano and Xavi sent Messi into a good position but the Argentinian was slipping as he shot and Esteban dived to save.
Ramón Azeez had already seen a yellow card for an early foul on Neymar and in the 23rd minute Corona joined him in referee Del Cerro Grande’s notebook after pulling back Messi five yards outside the penalty area. The free-kick was just a couple of yards to the left of being completely central and Xavi and Messi both lined up for a shot. In the end it was Messi who sent a brilliant curling shot round the wall that crept just inside the post.
The job looked done at 2-0 and the possibility of a thrashing looked on the cards. However, as we have seen so often this season poor defending at set-pieces allowed our opponents a life-line. Just three minutes after Messi’s goal Corona sent in a corner from the left, Valdés came and stopped, Puyol jumped and missed, while Fabregas failed to follow Trujillo who was free to head in from eight yards.
Barça pushed to restore the two-goal advantage in the last 15 minutes of the first half and Messi began to appear more but with little luck. One quick two-step shuffle took him past Esteban when there seemed no room but his angled shot hit the sidenetting, then another powerful low shot was turned round the post by the Almeria keeper. Neymar flashed a shot wide after Puyol’s square pass, then in the 38th minute Alexis played a brilliant assist with the back of his head/neck from Xavi’s chip but Messi diving in could only send his header wide. Alexis ended the half with a quick dash up the right but when he crossed Messi stretched to get a touch which only succeeded in taking the ball away from the better-positioned Neymar.
The second half was disappointing in contrast to a fairly decent first 45 minutes. Sloppy passes began to appear and only Xavi maintained his level with his visionary passes behind the Almeria defence. Unfortunately Neymar did not have his night, either in getting past Rafita or in his finishing. In the 50th minute Xavi sent the Brazilian through but his shot went straight at Esteban.
The team were struggling to make more chances and the danger of an equalizer was demonstrated in the 63rd minute when Vidal shot straight at Valdés from 15 yards. Messi tried to get Barça back on track, playing a one-two with Alexis before setting up Neymar for another chance but the Brazilian scuffed his shot well wide. There were some moments of magic from Neymar but it was either in the wrong place – one turn to escape pressure in the left-back position should earn an advisory word from Martino – or he overdid it and after beating three opponents he lost it to the fourth.
Martino brought on Pedro and Iniesta in place of Alexis and Fabregas and Barça regained some rhythm as Almeria tired near the end. Puyol finally grabbed Barça’s third goal after Messi’s magnificent leap above Verza to head Xavi’s corner against the bar. Then right at the end Pedro pulled the ball back to Xavi who completed a fine performance by picking his spot inside the post from just outside the area.
Barça: Valdés 6; Alves 6, Puyol 7, Mascherano 7, Adriano 6; Xavi 8, Busquets 7, Fabregas 7 (Iniesta m79, 6.5); Alexis 7.5 (Pedro m72, 7), Messi 7, Neymar 5.5 (Tello m88, –).
Almeria: Esteban; Rafita, Trujillo, Torsiglieri, Dubarbier; Johnathan Zongo, Azeez (Suso m79), Verza, Corona (Tebar m72), Aleix Vidal; Rodri (Barbosa m62)
Goals: m9 Alexis 1-0, m24 Messi 2-0, m27 Trujillo 2-1, m83 Puyol 3-1, m89 Xavi 4-1.
Yellow cards: m17 Azeez, m23 Corona, m25 Adriano, m81 Verza, m86 Tebar.