Two goals from a revived Neymar Jr and another from Leo Messi earned Barça a 3-0 win over Luis Enriqué’s Celta de Vigo at Camp Nou tonight. The three points are vital to keep Barça firmly in the title race but the victory was considerably soured by a knee injury to Victor Valdés that appears to have finished his season.
Valdés has maintained for more than a year that the 2013/14 season would be his last at Barça but he is unlikely to have thought that his blaugrana career could end like this. He hadn’t had a shot yet to save when Celta won a free-kick on the edge of the area for an Adriano handball in the 20th minute. Referee Ayza Gámez initially indicated a penalty but he rectified in time, presumably because his linesman told him the handball was outside. There didn’t appear too much danger when Fabiano Orellano curled his free-kick over the wall, Valdés jumped to save but let the ball slip, then he landed awkwardly on his right leg and despite pouncing on the rebound as soon as he stood again he knew something was wrong.
It was a terrible shame and put a dampener on what had been an excellent opening period from Barça. Luis Enrique sent his team out in a 5-3-2 formation which Barça countered by playing Messi further forward, up against the Celta back line, while Adriano and sometimes Jordi Alba pushed up to give Barça a spare man in midfield. It didn’t take long for Iniesta to find a pass through for Messi to finish but the goal was ruled out correctly for a marginal offside.
Neymar was back on the left wing with Alexis on the right and both forwards were lively from the start. In the 6th minute Neymar found Messi in the area but his shot was blocked, Celta couldn’t clear and Barça regained possession, Iniesta found Messi on the right touchline and the Argentinian dribbled infield across the edge of the area before slipping the ball through for Alexis who drew the keeper Yoel and squared for Neymar to tap in the empty net.
Barça played some splendid football after the goal. Neymar’s confidence seemed restored and he showed a nifty change of pace before stopping dead and crossing but Cabral managed to get in front of Alexis. Adriano playing at right-back again showed he can cut in at shoot with either foot with a stinging left-footer that went straight at Yoel, then the full-back was crossing just out of reach of Neymar, and in the 15th minute he used quick feet to find Alexis who delivered a quick first-time pass to Messi who played the ball on to the left for Neymar, but the angle was tight and this time Neymar’s shot hit the side-netting. Within a minute Iniesta robbed the ball in Celta’s half and sent a quick pass through for Messi who was thwarted by Yoel diving low to his right.
Then came Valdés’s awful moment and the party mood at Camp Nou disappeared. Pinto took over between the posts just three minutes later Celta’s defender Gustavo Cabral was also injured after challenging Alexis and despite returning bravely he was eventually subbed off ten minutes later. In the meantime Iniesta reanimated proceedings with another magnificent assist for Messi who this time made no mistake rounding Yoel to make it 2-0.
However, Barça never regained the rhythm of the first 20 minutes. Neymar had the ball in the net again but from an offside position and Alexis had a fine run shortly before half-time but his shot whizzed narrowly past the near post. Celta showed little in attack with just one corner that saw the ball flicked dangerously across the face of goal and then in first-half injury-time there was the unlikely sight of ex-Blaugrana Andreu Fontás turning his ex-central defensive pairing, Marc Bartra in the Barça area but Alex Song was on hand to clear up.
Sergi Roberto came on in place of Andrés Iniesta at half-time as a precaution over a thigh twinge. Celta switched to their more usual 4-3-3 shape for the second half, pushing a few yards further forward, and it wasn’t long before Pinto was coming under pressure. Celta won two corners early in the half then in the 52nd minute a cross from Celta’s left found Augusto Fernandez just six yards out but Pinto dived to his right to make a fine parry, Santi Mina was following up but Pinto brilliantly completed the double-save, this time twisting to his left.
Camp Nou chanted ‘Pinto Pinto’ both in appreciation of the saves but also, it seemed, as a show of confidence for the keeper. (RAKITIC SCORES AS I WRITE! 2-1 SEVILLA – SIGN HIM UP!). The Barça lines seemed stretched (PAUSE TO GET BREATHE BACK) and besides a few moments from the excellent Alexis and another offside goal, this time Fabregas from Messi’s free-kick, it was Celta who were looking the better team. The visitors won a couple more corners but from the second, in the 67nd minute, Barça broke through Adriano on the right, then Fabregas found Alexis who struck a marvellous cross-field ball into the path of Neymar who controlled with head and chest and then despite close attendance from Fontás and Madinda, the Brazilian allowed the ball to bounce before cracking a left-footer across Yoel and inside the far post.
Pedro came on in place of Neymar and with his first run up the left found Alexis in a good position but Jonny managed to deflect the Chilean’s shot wide. There was then a big scare at the other end when Sergi Roberto underhit a back-pass and Celta substitute Mario Bermejo charged down Pinto’s kick sending the ball agonisingly wide, Pinto running back, cracked his knee against the post and needed treatment. The keeper was okay but the incident will have made some worry about the possibility of Oier Olazábal being needed at such a crucial time of the season.
There was little more apart from a fizzer wide from Alba and a shot from Sergi Roberto blocked near the end. Pinto was still needed for a couple more saves but despite a positive showing from Celta in the second half the visitors couldn’t find a consolation.
As I complete this report the final whistles have been blown at the Calderón and the Sanchez Pizjuan. Atletico are top on 73 points with Barça still just a point behind while Madrid, who were considered clear odds-on favourites four days ago, have now slipped down to third on 70. It’s been a fascinating battle this season and there are now just eight games remaining. Barça once again are in the position of relying on nobody else, eight wins and we are champions. It won’t be easy, of course, and Atlético at Camp Nou on the last day of the season may be a heart-stopper. Next up it’s the local derby with Espanyol at Saturday where we will need to be at our best.
We have lost Valdés, which is dreadfully sad for the player who also looks like missing a World Cup for which he deserved to be Spain’s first choice. We may remember Valdés differently, I suppose goalkeepers will always have their detractors, but for me he’s been a brilliant keeper and I’m sure he will be sorely missed. It’s up to Pinto now to step up to the challenge.
Barça: Valdés 6 (Pinto m23, 8); Adriano 7, Bartra 6, Mascherano 6.5, Alba 7; Fabregas 6.5, Song 6.5, Iniesta 8 (Sergi Roberto h/t, 6); Alexis 8.5, Messi 7.5, Neymar 8 (Pedro m71, 7).
Celta: Yoel; Mallo, Cabral (Iñigo Lopez m38), Fontás (Oubiño m74), Jonny, Aurtenetxe; Augusto Fernandez, Madinda, Alex Lopez; Orellana (Bermejo m64), Santi Mina.
Goals: m6 Neymar 1-0, m30 Messi 2-0, m67 Neymar 3-0.
Yellow cards: m20 Adriano, m75 Augusto Fernandez