Goals in the first and last minute from Luis Suárez and Leo Messi earned Barça a nerve-wracking 2-0 victory over Valencia at Camp Nou this afternoon to stay top of La Liga for another week with just six games remaining. The result could have been very different had Valencia taken first half chances including a tenth-minute Dani Parejo penalty that was saved by Barça’s hero of the night Claudio Bravo.
There was always a worry that Barça might struggle today after the effort of Wednesday night’s win in Paris. The afternoon kick-off didn’t help and the visitors looked distinctly more tuned in for the contest during the first thirty-five minutes. Luis Enrique played Adriano at left back while Mascherano played the holding role in midfield behind Busquets and Xavi. Valencia played a high press with midfielders Andre Gomes and Parejo playing wide to close down Barça’s full backs. With Feghouli, Rodrigo and Alcacer chasing Piqué, Mathieu and Mascherano, Barça had all sorts of problems to play the ball out of defence.
Curiously, the very first transition from defence to attack from Barça worked a treat. Valencia mounted an attack from the kick with a cross from the right which Piqué headed clear to Mascherano who quickly found Xavi. From the Barça captain the ball came to Busquets who sent a splendid ball forward which gave Messi the chance to get away from Orban. The Argentinian sped forward and Otamendi had to leave Suárez to block his run. Messi slipped the ball to his right and Suárez fired low past Diego Alves with just 56 seconds on the clock.
Despite the goal it was soon clear that Barça were struggling against Valencia’s press. Rodrigo shot wide from the left in the third minute. Then six minutes later a Valencia throw from the left found Rodrigo in the corner of the penalty area, the Valencia forward turned quickly and went down after Piqué’s challenge and referee Gonzalez Gonzalez pointed to the spot. Bravo moved a long way to his left before Pareja’s spot-kick but then sprang back brilliantly to his right to save the low shot.
Barça held on to the lead but Valencia showed no signs of letting up yet. Adriano was having a particularly torrid time at left back, giving away four free-kicks which eventually earned him the game’s first yellow card after 27 minutes. From one of the free-kicks Otamendi headed wide at the far post and as Valencia continued to dominate there were three shots from Paco Alcacer including a 33rd-minute effort that hit Bravo’s right-hand post.
Barça had only managed a couple of Messi-led counter attacks that came to nothing though as the first half neared its end the team began to connect as Valencia’s energy levels dropped slightly. Finally we saw a bit of Barça possession play in the Valencia half and in the 40th minute Messi’s cross was flicked on by Suárez to Neymar who crossed from the left for Xavo to head the ball on but Messi fired the chance wide with his right foot. Despite the slight recovery from Barça there was relief when the half-time whistle came and many in the 92,915 crowd at Camp Nou will have found it difficult to believe that Barça were ahead.
A change seemed inevitable at half-time and Luis Enrique brought on Rakitic in place of Adriano with Busquets switching to his usual position, Mascherano returning to defence and Mathieu moving over to left-back. The changes worked and Barça looked much more comfortable for the second 45 minutes.
It seemed the Valencia storm had passed and the game took on a more familiar pattern of Barça dominating possession. A second Barça goal began to seem more likely with Neymar having the first chance from Dani Alves’s cross but his twisting diving-header lacked power to trouble Diego Alves too much. Messi then came very close with a free-kick from the right which left the Valencia keeper rooted to his spot but bounced out off the crossbar.
Luis Enrique added fresh legs by bringing on Pedro in place of Suárez. If Neymar thought it unfair last week when he was subbed off when playing better than the Uruguayan the same might be said in reverse today as Suárez was one of the few today who can be more than satisfied with his performance.
With the minutes ticking away there was always the danger the one-goal lead wouldn’t be sufficient. In the 75th minute a Valencia shot from the let took two deflections before falling to Rodrigo inside the area, the Valencia was denied by Bravo diving superbly to his left to turn the ball round the post.
As Valencia tried to push forward Messi came more and more into the game, leading attack after attack but Neymar and Pedro failed to make the final connection. Mascherano, looking better in defence than in midfield, cleared twice to stop a Valencia attack in the 90th minute and then with three minutes injury time signalled Messi worked his magic to keep possession near the corner flag for nearly two minutes. There was still time for one final attack from Valencia but Barça cleared the ball out to Neymar who sent a quick pass forward to send Messi clean through on his own. As Diego Alves came out Messi tried to scoop the ball over the keeper, the effort lacked height and the ball hit the keeper but bounced back into Messi’s path for an easy finish for his 400th Barça goal.
The overwhelming feeling at the final whistle is one of relief. The first half an hour was probably the worst we have played all season and while Valencia deserve credit for a well-thought-out pressing game it was worrying that we didn’t appear to have an answer at the time tactically. Bringing on Rakitic helped a lot but if we are honest we could easily have been a couple of goals down at the break. On the plus side we have Claudio Bravo who earned his 18th clean sheet in 32 games this season. Our effectiveness in the two penalty areas is proving to be arguably the biggest reason for our current strong position in three competitions. Tonight we can be thankful to Bravo, Suárez and Messi for making the difference.
Barça: Bravo 8.5; Alves 5.5, Piqué 7, Mathieu 6, Adriano 4.5 (Rakitic h/t, 7); Busquets 6, Mascherano 6.5, Xavi 5.5 (Sergi Roberto m80, 6); Messi 8, Suárez 7.5 (Pedro m65, 6), Neymar 6.
Valencia: Diego Alves; Barragan, Mustafi, Otamendi, Orban (Gaya h/t); Andre Gomes, Javi Fuego, Parejo; Feghouli (Cancelo m67), Paco Alcacer (Negredo m74), Rodrigo.
Goals: m1 Suárez 1-0, m93 Messi 2-0.
Yellow cards: m27 Adriano, m28 Javi Fuego, m35 Orban, m54 Mascherano, m66 Otamendi, m77 Rakitic, m79 Mustafi,m92 Bravo