Barça’s lead at the top of La Liga was cut to two points tonight when Sevilla fought back from 0-2 down to earn a 2-2 draw in a thrilling contest at the Sánchez Pizjuán. Barça played magnificently in the first 35 minutes to build up a two-goal advantage through goals from Leo Messi and Neymar. However, before half-time arrived Claudio Bravo failed to stop a 30-yard drive from Ever Banega and Unai Emery’s men were back in the game. Then with under ten minutes remaining a mistake from the otherwise excellent Gerard Piqué let Sevilla in for an equalizer through substitute Kevin Gameiro.
Sevilla demonstrated their intentions to make quick transitions forward right from the kick-off with Vitolo sending in a dangerous cross from the left in the first ten seconds. Barça tried to tame the home side’s fury with possession football and with Messi moving infield a lot to combine with Rakitic and Iniesta, and Neymar looking more like his talented self on the left, it wasn’t long before Sevilla found themselves pinned back.
Luis Enrique preferred Mathieu over Mascherano in defence to counter the aerial threat from Iborra and Bacca but there was little seen from Sevilla in attack as Barça worked hard to recuperate the ball whenever possession was lost. The first shots came from Messi, Neymar and Iniesta but the early highlight was a sublime control from Messi to take down Piqué’s long pass. Then in the 14th minute Neymar dribbled in from the left before finding Messi in a bit of space on the right, three players moved in to close the Argentinian down but he spotted a gap and with practically no backlift curled a shot just inside the far post.
After Messi’s goal Barça took complete control and we saw some splendid possession football with Busquets and Messi particularly outstanding. Iniesta nearly went through after Neymar’s stylish backheel but his attempted one-two with Suárez didn’t quite come off. Suárez was Barça’s only outfield player who wasn’t clicking as he then missed his pass for Neymar after a quick break forward. However, the Uruguayan worked hard as always and after half an hour he won a free kick left of centre on the edge of the box. Neymar and Messi lined up to take the free-kick and I have to admit at this point I was wondering why Rakitic wasn’t there. Before my thought went much further Neymar curled the ball brilliantly over the wall and an inch inside the near post, leaving Sevilla keeper Sergio Rico rooted to the spot.
Had the game ended here we would have been talking about an exhibition. There were similarities with the first 30 minutes at the Etihad in February but Sevilla tried harder to press than Manchester City did which arguably made tonight’s opening half hour even better. Suárez might have made it 0-3 after a one-two with Neymar but he blazed his angled shot high and wide from eight yards.
Sevilla finally created a chance in the 34th minute but Iborra missed the target after Banega’s pass into the area. Four minutes later it seemed Barça’s defence had withstood Sevilla’s attack but Mathieu’s headed clearance fell to Vitolo who squared to Banega who was allowed to advance and let fly from 30 yards and Bravo slightly misjudged the swerving ball and could only touch the ball onto the post and in. Bravo will know he could have done more but it was by no means easy to save, Iniesta could also be slightly faulted for failing to close down Banega.
The goal was a big boost to the home team and with the crowd reanimated a new game began. Barça continued to look impressive but the Sevilla beast could no longer be contained and Piqué needed to be at his best to prevent further threats to Bravo’s goal before half time.
The second half was more evenly balanced and despite both sides looking to attack there were few goal chances at either end. Barça’s best chance to make it 1-3 came in the 50th minute when Iniesta played a one-two with Suárez but then shot straight at Rico as the keeper sped out of his goal, the rebound fell to Suárez but from ten yards out he skied his shot.
Sevilla found shooting opportunities but failed to trouble Bravo again, perhaps the speed of their attacks led to inaccuracy as Vidal, Bacca and Coke twice, missed the target. Barça continued to try and restore control and there were short periods of possession that looked encouraging but the odd mistake was creeping in.
Sevilla brought on the fresh legs of M’Bai, Reyes and Gameira while Luis Enrique replaced Neymar with Xavi to add an extra man to midfield. The move might have worked but Neymar seemed the wrong forward to take off, there was pressure on the Barça defence but Piqué and Mathieu were dealing with it well. Then Piqué of all people gave a loose pass straight to Reyes near the half-way line. Reyes skipped past Busquets and sent Vidal racing in on the right, Mathieu came across but Vidal got his cross in and Piqué couldn’t catch Gameiro who scored from close in. Barça pushed for a winner in the final minutes but could only manage long shots from Rakitic and Alves that both missed by a distance.
The result is disappointing, especially after leading two-nil, but Sevilla’s unbeaten home record speaks for itself and we should be encouraged that we can play as well as we did in the first half. It’s often pointed out that perfect football is impossible and some mistakes are inevitable. Tonight we were punished severely for two errors that were by no means dreadful mistakes. Sevilla deserve credit for fighting all the way and I feel it’s fair to say neither side deserved to lose a fascinating contest. We now have Real Madrid breathing down our necks but we can also be encouraged by the fact that our closest rivals still have to come to the Sánchez Pizjuán where nobody is going to have it easy. It looks like being another nail-biting finish to the season.
Sevilla: Sergio Rico; Coke, Pareja, Carriço, Tremoulinas; Banega, Krychowiak; Aleix Vidal, Iborra (M’bia m70), Vitolo (Reyes m70); Bacca (Gameiro m75).
Barça: Bravo 5.5; Alves 7, Piqué 7.5, Mathieu 7, Alba 7; Rakitic 7, Busquets 7.5, Iniesta 7 (Pedro m86, –); Messi 7.5, Suárez 6, Neymar 8 (Xavi m73, 7).
Goals: m14 Messi 0-1, m31 Neymar 0-2, m38 Banega 1-2, m84 Gameiro 2-2.
Yellow cards: m29 Carriço, m46 Iborra, m57 Banega, m61 Busquets, m62 Piqué, m77 Reyes, m82 M’bia