Barça scraped three points at Almeria this afternoon despite offering the worst performance of the season so far. A woeful first half ended with Almeria deservedly leading 1-0 thanks to a 37th minute breakaway goal from Thievy. It could have been Barça’s third straight league defeat for the first time since 2003 but Luis Suarez saved the Catalans’ blushes with two assists for Neymar and Jordi Alba to turn the game round in the last twenty minutes.
Both Suarez and Neymar started the game on the subs’ bench along with Xavi, Alves, Montoya and the out-of-favour Piqué. After three games fielding the Suarez-Messi-Neymar trio up front Luis Enrique preferred to give a start to both Pedro and Munir. Rafinha returned in midfield and Adriano replaced Alves at right-back.
The changes may have been intended to breathe new energy into the team but the lack of ideas was striking. Time and again the play began with the centre-backs and while Mascherano gave another solid performance Bartra was often too hesitant on the ball. The midfield was again often missed out as the defenders played long balls forward, the only one that might have harmed the Almeria defence came from Mascherano to Munir but the young striker trod on the ball as he attempted to dribble past Dubarbier.
Almeria deserve credit for showing more fight than Barça throughout. The home team harried the visitors into mistakes which led to four corners in the first twenty minutes for the Andalucians though the biggest ‘oooh’ from the crowd came when Fran Velez just failed to get his head to Verza’s curled free-kick. Soon after Thievy got the better of Mascherano and brought the first save from Bravo with a low angled shot from the left.
Barça’s chances had been limited to a ninth minute break led by Rafinha that saw Messi have two shots blocked by Ruben and then the ex-Barça keeper also got a hand to turn Rafinha’s follow-up past the post. Then in the 28th minute Alba’s cross from the left passed everyone to reach Munir who chipped in a delicate cross for Rakitic who couldn’t get enough power on his header and Ruben dived to push the ball away, Pedro arrived to clip the ball back across goal but Messi could only head against the bar.
Messi always says he doesn’t think about personal records but he has now been stuck just one goal short of Telmo Zarra’s league total of 251. In the 37th minute the Argentinian dribbled this way and that trying to find an opening but faced with three opponents he allowed himself to get robbed ten yards from the Almeria area. Soriano exchanged quick passes with Azeez before sending a firm pass between Mascherano and Bartra, who were caught high by the halfway line, and neither centre-back could catch the speedy Thievy who ran on to shoot coolly past Bravo.
There was little reaction from Barça to the goal and the team’s frustration was demonstrated by a very un-Barça-like hoof forward to nobody from Bartra and a moan from Messi to the referee after another loss of the ball from the Argentinian. Luis Enrique made the bold move of bringing on both Suarez and Neymar for Munir and Pedro at half-time. But was it too soon for such a move? It certainly left fewer options for later changes.
There was little improvement in the first quarter-hour of the second half with Neymar appearing to join the general disorder. Then in the 61st minute the Brazilian spotted a pass for the late run from Adriano but instead of shooting the full-back crossed and a defender put the ball out. From the resulting corner the ball was headed on at the near post and Suarez hooked the ball against the crossbar from six yards. Having hit the bar four times in last week’s defeat to Celta it was looking like the woodwork would again ruin Barça’s day.
Luis Enrique’s final substitution was to bring on Xavi in the 66th minute in place of the again disappointing Busquets. Xavi did nothing special but Barça began to play more through the midfield and six minutes later Rakitic knocked the ball forward to Suarez who turned Trujillo brilliantly before sending in a low cross which cut out the goalkeeper and Neymar clipped in the equalizer past Ximo Navarro’s comical attempt to clear off the line.
Almeria may have been affected by their disappointment at losing the lead but suddenly Barça were looking like Barça and with 17 minutes remaining a winner now looked likely. Suarez was at the centre of all the danger, three minutes after Neymar’s goal, Suarez repeated the turn on Trujillo but fired narrowly past the post. Soon after, the Uruguayan again shaped to turn but this time he flipped the ball up for Messi who sent his second header of the game against the cursed crossbar. Then in the 82nd minute Rakitic again fed Suarez on the right and the ex-Liverpool man crossed perfectly for the arrival of Alba whose volley hit the floor before bouncing over Ruben and in.
It was a great relief for Barça and there was no coming back for Almeria. There just remained the possibility of a goal for Messi but in injury time after bursting through the middle Ruben denied him again with another good stop.
Three points will have to do though there was a lot to be worried about today. First the decision to rest both Suarez and Neymar together seemed unnecessary. Why not rest them alternately? The most troubling, however, was the lack of ideas in the first half when the centre-backs seemed to have no options other than to play it long. This was only Almeria who with respect have nobody who would get near to Barça’s first team, yet we only managed two chances in the first half and Almeria were fully deserving of their lead.
It’s been a bumpy ride since the last international break and after losing to Madrid and Celta we have lost top spot in La Liga. There now follows another two-week break for international matches with the next game on November 22 against Sevilla at Camp Nou.
Almeria: Ruben; Ximo Navarro, Trujillo, Fran Velez, Dubarbier; Thomas, Verza, Azeez, Thomas, Soriano; Jonathan, Thievy.
Barça: Bravo 6; Adriano 5.5, Mascherano 7, Bartra 5, Alba 6; Rakitic 5.5, Busquets 5 (Xavi m66, 6), Rafinha 5.5; Munir 6 (Suarez h/t, 7.5), Messi 5, Pedro 5.5 (Neymar h/t, 6).
Goals: m37 Thievy 1-0, m73 Neymar 1-1, m82 Alba 1-2.
Yellow cards: m31 Thomas, m35 Soriano.