It was close and it was nervy, but finally Jeremy Mathieu’s 73rd minute header earned a 0-1 victory over Celta at Balaidos tonight to maintain Barça’s lead over closest rival Real Madrid at the top of La Liga. Madrid had bounced back from defeat at Camp Nou with a crushing 9-1 win over Granada at lunchtime but Barça’s victory restores the four-point advantage with nine games to play.
Celta began the game strongly. Playing an energetic high press the Galician team unsettled Barça, forcing early mistakes from Neymar, Iniesta and Rafinha on his return to Vigo. Ex-blaugrana Nolito was particularly lively and in the 11th minute he created the first chance of the game for Larrivey but Bravo got down well to save the Argentinian striker’s angled shot. Barça responded with a run and shot from Messi which forced an excellent one-handed stop from Celta keeper Sergio Alvarez, Neymar should have done better with the rebound but he failed to get good contact with the bouncing ball and sent his shot high and wide.
Neymar was particularly disappointing in a generally below-par team performance from Barça. Messi showed a few moments of skill but he was fairly quiet, Suárez battled valiently but with little luck and he managed just one shot on goal in the 23rd minute (a powerful drive from the right straight at the keeper), the full-backs failed to get forward while neither Rafinha nor Iniesta had much influence in midfield.
Piqué stood out with another impressive performance in defence, but with Nolito getting the better of Alves there was always a sense of danger from the home team. One sliced clearance from the Brazilian right-back almost sent his opponent straight through on goal and Bravo had to rush out quickly to make a risky sliding tackle with his foot. Celta were looking the better team at this point, and as the first half came to an end Nolito sent in a cross from the left, Orellana volleyed the ball back across goal to give Larrivey a golden chance but he blazed his shot wide from 12 yards.
Barça began the second half better and Neymar was unfortunate to have a goal ruled out as he looked in line with the last defender when Adriano made his pass. Nolito was still causing problems and Busquets needed to make a good block to stop his shot. Barça responded with a Neymar low cross to the near post that Messi turned narrowly wide. Then Nolito popped up again in the Barça area to hit a low shot wide.
The game was looking evenly-balanced but this all changed with the entrance of Xavi Hernández in place of Rafinha in the 57th minute. Barça immediately began to gain more control and soon after there was a great chance for Alves after Suárez’s back-heel but the Brazilian miscued his left-foot effort well wide.
Celta coach Eduardo Berrizo reacted by bringing on the fresh legs of Radoja and Charles. The home side came forward again with Mallo curling a 25-yarder just wide and shortly afterward Piqué needed to make a superb last-ditch tackle to thwart Charles. Then in the 73rd minute Barça won a free-kick on the left after a handball by Cabral. Messi and Xavi stood over the ball and probably most people expected Messi to take the free-kick; however, Xavi sent in a deep inswinger to the far post where Mathieu arrived behind everyone to send a diving header squeezing in off the crossbar and the near post.
Luis Enrique then made the rather bizarre decision to bring on Pedro in place of Iniesta but with Celta tiring it made little difference. Rakitic came on for Suárez to correct the imbalance then in the 88th minute Orellano got himself sent off after throwing a sod of grass at Busquets. It really was quite bizarre as Busquets delayed the taking of a free-kick, almost certainly as a ploy to win his 5th yellow card which means he’ll miss the “easier” game against Almeria on Wednesday, Orellano lost his patience and scooped up a lump of grass from the turf before hurling a perfect shot straight into Busi’s face. Referee Birandi Garrido didn’t see the funny side showing a straight red to Orellano and a yellow to Busquets.
Messi should have finished things off in the 91st minute after going clean through but his dink over Sergio Alvarez also cleared the bar before landing on the roof of the net. Celta made one final push for an equalizer but Busquets made a providential tackle to deny Nolito in the final minute of the game. There was still time for the Celta corner but Bravo rose above everyone to punch the ball clear and the ref blew for full time.
It wasn’t pretty, and as against Madrid there were periods when we were outplayed. However, there is a resilience to this team that we have only ever really seen before under Pep Guardiola. The winner didn’t come quite as late as at Villarreal or Valencia earlier in the season but that’s three important 0-1 away wins at difficult grounds which if we go on to win the title will have played a very important part in the triumph.
Celta: Sergio Alvarez; Mallo, Cabral, Fontas, Jonny; Augusto Fernández, Pablo Hernández (Mina m83), Krohn-Dehli (Radoja m67); Orellana, Larrivey (Charles m71, Nolito.
Barça: Bravo 7; Alves 5, Piqué 8, Mathieu 7, Adriano 6; Rafinha 5.5 (Xavi m57, 7.5), Busquets 7, Iniesta 5.5 (Pedro m75, 6); Messi 6.5, Suárez 6 (Rakitic m86, –), Neymar 5.
Goal: m73 Mathieu 0-1.
Yellow cards: m24 Krohn-Dehliu, m45 Suárez, m88 Busquets (misses next match), m94 Nolito.
Red card: m88 Orellana