Barça took a big step towards the Copa del Rey quarter-finals with a 5-0 first-leg win over Elche at Camp Nou tonight. Neymar, Luis Suarez and Leo Messi all scored before half-time to put Barça three up, Jordi Alba added a fourth after the break before Neymar finished a man-of-the-match performance with his second of the night.
With elections announced for the summer Luis Enrique may face an even more uncertain future than before president Bartameu’s announcement yesterday. The problem for Lucho is that with doubts over his future he could find it even more difficult to maintain his authority with the players. Tonight with Xavi pulling out of the squad today with an injury and Rafinha and Mathieu with minor problems, the Barça coach put out a strong team of Ter Stegen, Alves, Piqué, Bartra, Alba, Rakitic, Mascherano, Sergi Roberto, Suarez, Messi and Neymar.
With Xavi and Iniesta missing, Messi was made captain for the game but with Suarez again in the centre-forward role Messi began on the right though he would increasingly move infield throughout the game. The initial danger came from Jordi Alba and Neymar down the left side but Barça took a while to warm up. It was the usual story of plenty of possession but not too many ideas of what to do with the ball.
There were a couple of half-chances for Messi but Elche keeper Tyton saved both and Dani Alves came close with an audacious left-foot volley that went narrowly wide with Tyton beaten. In the 28th minute Messi sent a fabulous pass to give Neymar a chance but the angle was tight and with the keeper closing him down Neymar clipped his shot past the far post.
The crowd showed its first sign of frustration with some whistles after a poor Rakitic pass into touch. However, Barça won possession back quickly from Elche’s throw-in, the ball came to Messi who turned past one opponent and touched the ball to Sergi Roberto who poked a pass through to Suarez who unselfishly switched the ball left to give Neymar an easy finish from eight yards.
The goal provoked the first reaction from the crowd with some shouts for Luis Enrique which immediately received some whistles in response followed by louder cries of “Messi, Messi”. It was a strange atmosphere with Camp Nou just over a quarter full so not entirely representative of the feeling of the club’s members but if there is a Luis Enrique/Messi divide in the club then the Argentinian certainly won tonight.
Five minutes after the first goal Barça got a second. Alba played a pass forward to Suarez who let the ball run to beat his marker then cut inside another defender before sending a low shot inside the near post. Neymar should have added another and Messi had a crashing volley ruled out for offside. Then just before the break Messi sent another superb pass through for Neymar who galloped into the area before being brought down by Roco. Messi sent Tyton the wrong way from the spot, blew a kiss to the Luis Enrique-supporting section of the crowd, and Barça went in 3-0 up at half-time.
Messi continued showing his skill with the through-ball in the second half. First he sent Neymar into the area but Tyton came out well to narrow the angle. Then in the 56th minute he threaded another sublime pass through the gap for Jordi Alba who’d made an excellent late run into the area, Alba made an awkward control but managed a confident finish for Barça’s fourth.
The spectacular-looking fifth came three minutes later. Messi found Neymar who chested down the pass before cutting inside and sending a powerful drive that took a deflection off Roco’s backside and screamed into the top corner. That’s 16 goals from the Brazilian this season: eleven in La Liga, three in the Champions League and two in the cup.
The final half hour was a stroll. Elche finally managed two off-target effort on goal but Ter Stegen was basically a spectator all night. Adriano, Pedro and Samper were all given minutes but with the tie already in the bag the chances dried up. Messi forced an awkward save from Tyton with a powerful free-kick but the best opportunity for a sixth fell to Pedro after Suarez’s pass but the Canarian scooped his shot over the keeper and a foot wide of the far post.
The result is certainly positive and demonstrates that there is no massive dressing-room rebellion against Luis Enrique. The work-rate and pressing were good as they generally have been all season though doubts about the build-up play will persist despite the goals scored. The midfielders that need to create were rarely involved in giving the final pass with Rakitic particularly off-the-mark with his delivery. With Messi playing this role of mixing the right-wing with drifting infield behind Suarez, Rakitic is finding it difficult to find his role and appears to be suffering a loss of confidence. With Xavi a serious doubt for Sunday’s game with Atlético we will need a better version of Rakitic if he plays. Atlético will prove a much bigger test that Elche and with a much bigger crowd expected there will be another chance perhaps to hear the feelings of a larger percentage of club members.
Barça: Ter Stegen 6.5; Alves 6.5, Piqué 6.5 (Samper m76, 6), Bartra 6.5, Alba 8 (Adriano m61, 6); Rakitic 5, Mascherano 7, Sergi Roberto 6; Suarez 7, Messi 8, Neymar 9 (Pedro m67, 6.5).
Elche: Tyton; Damián, Lomban, Roco, Albacar, Cisma (Fragapane m73); Pasalic, Pelegrin; Fajr; Coro (Johnathas m65), Cristian Herrera.
Goals: m35 Neymar 1-0, m40 Suarez 2-0, m45+1 Messi (pen) 3-0, m56 Alba 4-0, m59 Neymar 5-0.
Yellow cards: m42 Damian, m44 Roco, m58 Coro, m77 Pelegrin.