A last-minute winner from Sergio Busquets earned Barça a vital 0-1 win over Valencia in an intense encounter at Mestalla tonight. Barça were in danger of seeing Real Madrid increase their advantage at the top of La Liga and Claudio Bravo needed to be on form to keep Barça in the game. Neither side could break the deadlock though Luis Suarez had a perfectly good goal ruled out for offside. A late push from Barça was rewarded with Busquets’ strike in the fourth minute of injury time which keeps Barça second in the table, two points behind Madrid.
The big surprise in Luis Enrique’s team selection was the inclusion of both Busquets and Javier Mascherano in midfield. Mascherano played the holding role while Busquets and Xavi played further forward. The team looked serious from the beginning with some good possession football but it soon became clear that any loss of the ball could lead to a dangerous Valencia break.
The first important possession loss came after Mascherano pass for Xavi fell short which led to Mathieu getting booked for bringing down Negredo. Then in the 11th minute Rodrigo cut inside Busquets and sent a low shot which Bravo had to dive low to save. Barça responded with the best chance of the first half when Piqué sent a fine long ball into the area for Neymar. The Brazilian got his foot to the ball but couldn’t control it, however, Suarez was following up and you would have bet on him scoring but he fired his shot too close to Valencia keeper Diego Alves who managed to divert the ball over the bar.
Both sides fought hard to try and gain an advantage but the intensity overflowed at times leading to four more bookings before the half-hour mark, though neither went to Neymar or Otamendi who caused the biggest meleé after the Brazilian went down too easily in the area.
Despite some decent build-up work Barça were struggling to find the final pass and Valencia had the better of the last 15 minutes of the first half. Parejo hooked the ball over Bravo’s bar from a corner and Gomes was just wide with a 25-yard curler. In the 39th minute Rodrigo sent a fine cross to the far post where Feghouli won it but he could only head the ball down and Piqué cleared the danger. Then just before the break a magnificent counter-attack from Feghouli, Negredo and Rodrigo ended with Gomes taking the ball past Bravo but he could only fire his shot into the side-netting.
Valencia continued to have the better of the exchanges at the start of the second half. Mathieu had to be alert to prevent Negredo a heading chance from Rodrigo’s cross, then in the 52nd minute Parejo failed to react when the Barça defence missed a corner. At this point of the game there was little sign that it would be Barça’s day, the new-look midfield was having little impact while the forwards were frustrated by Valencia’s well-organised defence.
Both teams had been fairly conservative, but as neither side could truly be happy with a point the game began to open up. Suarez had another great chance after his hard work chasing Mascherano’s chip into the area had won him the ball in front of Diego Alves but after a quick turn the Uruguayan shot too quickly and pulled his shot wide. Valencia responded with a corner which Mustafi flicked on, the ball ran through to Rodrigo who fired back low past Bravo but Piqué saved the day with a goal-line clearance.
Luis Enrique made the game’s first substitution, bringing on Rakitic for Mathieu and readjusting the team with Busquets back in his normal position and Mascherano moving into defence. Soon after, Alves and Neymar both chased a looping ball into the area, Alves volleyed the ball across the goal and Suarez touched the ball in. Unfortunately for Barça the linesman raised his flag for offside, but the replay suggested that Suarez had been narrowly onside when Alves played the ball.
It may have been a let off for Valencia but the home team continued to look for a winner. Negredo led another excellent break before slipping the ball right to Feghouli but Bravo won the one-on-one with a crucial save with his left foot. Then in the 76th minute after an uninspired Messi lost the ball, Gaya crossed from the left, Mascherano slipped and Negredo smashed a low shot that Bravo saved superbly with a splendid dive to his right.
With ten minutes remaining Rafinha and Pedro came on in place of Xavi and Suarez. In the closing minutes it was clear that Valencia were struggling after the tremendous physical effort exerted. Fuego suffered cramp after chasing Rakitic to the corner flag, and as the fourth official signalled three minutes of injury time Otamendi just managed to get his foot in to prevent a chance for Messi. Barça sensed blood but it was very late in the day. A series of three corners were won and from the third the ball came out to Alves who found Messi inside the right-side of the area, as the game passed the 93rd minute Messi floated in a cross, Neymar’s header was stopped spectacularly on the line by Diego Alves but the ball came out to Busquets who cracked a shot into the roof of the net.
It was a harsh end for Valencia who deserved more on the balance of play. Some supporters showed their frustration by throwing objects at the celebrating Barça players and it appeared as though Messi was hit by a half-full plastic water bottle. The referee David Fernández Borbalán then gave the Argentinian a yellow card for complaining about it! Messi won’t mind, in the same way he won’t mind not having scored today. The victory keeps Madrid in sight and knowing the fate of the title is still in Barça’s hands is an important psychological boost.
It wasn’t pretty and there may still be questions asked about Luis Enrique’s decision to play Busquets out of position. However, given Rakitic’s disappointing recent form and the strength of Valencia’s refreshed team maybe the decision made sense. The midfield lacked creativity but this could be blamed on a below-par performance from Xavi while the overused option of giving the ball to Alves bore little fruit. On the positive side there was a strong performance from the Piqué-Mathieu partnership in defence though most credit should really go to Claudio Bravo especially for the two second half saves from Feghouli and Negredo.
Valencia: Alves; Barragán, Mustafi, Otamendi, Gayà; Parejo (Filipe Augusto m84), Fuego, Gomes; Feghouli, Negredo (Alcacer m82), Rodrigo (De Paula m72).
Barça: Bravo 8.5; Alves 5, Pique 7.5, Mathieu 8 (Rakitic m68, 5.5), Alba 6.5; Xavi 5.5 (Rafinha m80, 6), Mascherano 6.5, Busquets 6; Suarez 5.5 (Pedro m80, 6), Messi 6, Neymar 5.5.
Goal: m94 Busquets 0-1.
Yellow cards: m8 Mathieu, m20 Pique, m20 Barragan, m26 Mustafi, m29 Alba, m70 Rodrigo, m94 Messi