Malaga brought Barça’s eleven-match winning streak to an unexpected end this afternoon with a 0-1 victory at Camp Nou. Juanmi Jiménez took advantage of a poor back pass from Dani Alves and a moment’s hesitation from Claudio Bravo to give the visitors a surprise lead after just eight minutes and Barça never recovered. Real Madrid can now extend their advantage at the top of the table to four points if they win at Elche tomorrow.
Until the goal there were no signs that it would not be Barça’s day. Despite the important Champions League match at Manchester City on Tuesday Luis Enrique began with a strong line-up with only Rakitic and Mascherano left on the bench. The team began positively, moving the ball well, pressing energetically and winning a couple of early corners. However, from the second which Suárez headed straight at Kameni, the Malaga keeper hoofed a hopeful kick forward, Alves was under it but he mis-hit his attempted volleyed back-pass which along with Bravo pausing before coming out allowed Juanmi to nip in and take the ball past the Barça keeper and score into an empty net before Jordi Alba could get back.
The goal came as a shock but there was no reason to believe that Barça wouldn’t bounce back. The recovery work and build-up play was looking good and more corners were won. Rafinha had the chance to shoot from one but Weligton by the post managed to lift his knee to save. Few could have thought at this point that Rafinha’s effort would be the closest Barça would come all game.
There was still the sensation that the team was playing well and that all that was needed was a decent final ball, a moment of luck or flash of magic from the strikers. However, the assists and crosses, whether from Messi or Alves on the right or Alba on the left, always seemed to find a defender or drift just too long.
Malaga defended in a narrow 4-4-2 shape but they were always quick to close down Messi and Neymar on the flanks. Barça tried to move rapidly from one side of the pitch to the other but the visitors worked hard to close the gaps. As Barça failed to find a way through there was a brief flurry forward from Malaga near the end of the first half with an excellent back-heel from Darder giving Horta the chance to shoot from the edge of the area but Bravo parried the ball past the post for a corner. Horta then tried his luck with an overhead kick but the shot lacked venom and was easy for Bravo.
However, Barça ended the half strongly with Messi finding a pass over the defence though Iniesta couldn’t get enough power on his header to trouble Kameni. Then Alves’s cross found Neymar but the Brazilian sent a looping header over the bar. Kameni then came and missed another Alves cross but there was nobody on hand to take advantage.
While the first half wasn’t bad in terms of Barça’s play the second 45 minutes was very poor. There is no doubt a lot of pressure on the players who know how much depends on them not failing, but today the doubts seemed to creep in. The crossing had even less effect than in the first half and when anybody tried to slip a pass behind the defence the linesman’s flag went up to add to the frustration.
Luis Enrique brought on Rakitic for Rafinha with half an hour to go but there was an apprehensive mood in Camp Nou with few chants to lift the team. The minutes ticked on and then the Barça coach replaced Iniesta with Pedro which may have been a gamble but only served for disorganization to set in which got worse with Mascherano replacing Alves while Piqué pushed forward.
In all this time Barça failed to test Kameni and it wasn’t until the 84th minute that a Neymar run created a bit of space for Pedro on the right but the Canarian fired his shot into the side-netting. In injury time from a similar position Suárez managed to hit a shot on target but Kameni held on to the ball well to prevent a possible rebound. Then in the last minute Messi chipped in one of his killer passes but Piqué stretched and could only touch the ball to Kameni when Neymar was probably better placed for a finish.
It was all too little at the end and we can only blame ourselves for not doing more to test Malaga’s well-ordered defence. This was not like the Celta game where we could curse our luck for hitting the woodwork four times and Kameni had a relatively quiet game for a visiting keeper to Camp Nou. It’s pretty sickening to lose to a goal that came from a hopeful punt down the middle but that just shows how unpredictable football can be. There is nothing more other than to pick ourselves up and look for a positive result at the Etihad.
Barça: Bravo 5.5; Alves 5 (Mascherano m73, 6.5), Piqué 7, Mathieu 7, Alba 6; Rafinha 6 (Rakitic m62, 5.5), Busquets 7, Iniesta 6 (Pedro m67, 6); Messi 6, Suárez 5.5, Neymar 5.5.
Malaga: Kameni; Rosales, Angeleri, Weligton, M.Torres; Horta (Duda m79), Recio, Darder, Castillejo; Samuel (Boka m84), Juanmi (Juanpi m50).
Goal: m8 Juanmi 0-1.
Yellow cards: m12 Rafinha, m49 Weligton, m62 Recio, m79 Piqué, m87 Neymar, m91 Alba, m91 Duda.