Barça took a massive step towards the Spanish league title today with a 2-0 victory over Real Sociedad which was immediately followed by Real Madrid’s 2-2 draw with Valencia at the Bernabéu. Barça needed to wait until the 51st minute before Neymar Jr scored his 50th blaugrana goal to break the deadlock and the three points were not sealed until Pedro’s brilliant overhead kick five minutes from the end. Barça now need just three points from the remaining two games away at Atlético and at home to Deportivo to be champions.
Luis Enrique rested Rakitic, Iniesta, Alba and Busquets with the Champions League in mind, Mascherano moved into Busquets’s place in midfield where he was accompanied by Xavi and Rafinha while Adriano and Bartra came into defence. The attacking trio of Messi, Suárez and Neymar started yet again up front and they each had a chance in the first twelve minutes to put Barça ahead. First Alves crossed for Messi who sent a looping header over Rulli but the Real goalkeeper reacted well to tip the ball over the bar. A minute later Alves sent in another cross from the right and Suárez glanced his header wide. Then Neymar played a one-two with Messi but his angled low shot was stopped by Rulli’s left foot.
After the early flourish from Barça, the visitors began to look more comfortable in their packed defence. The four new faces in Barça’s line-up all looked a little rusty and Barça’s normal rapid flow was affected. However, another chance arrived in the 28th minute when Messi chipped in a pass for Piqué whose first shot was well stopped by Rulli and his overhead kick from the rebound went wide.
Barça increased the tempo as half-time approached. Rafinha led one counter-attack before Messi’s cross was headed narrowly wide by Suárez. Xavi’s free-kick was chested down well by Neymar for Rafinha whose shot failed to find a way through a sea of defenders’ legs. Then just before the break Alves let fly from 30 yards but his effort flew narrowly wide.
The goalless scoreline at half-time may have created a few nerves around Camp Nou but Barça came out strongly after the break with the intention of breaking the deadlock quickly. Five corners were won in five minutes with Bartra coming very close with a near post header only to be denied by a magnificent save from Rulli. Then in the 51st minute Messi sent in a deep cross from the right, Mikel Gonzalez could only flick the ball on with the top of his head to Neymar who arrived at far post to head home from close range.
Real tried to push further forward after the goal and Luis Enrique brought on Busquets for Bartra with Mascherano moving back to improve Barça’s play out from defence. Barça looked for a second goal to assure the victory but there was reluctance to push too many players forward with the risk of a Real equalizer. Alves, however, continued to attack, crossing once for Neymar who headed straight at Rulli, and then again for Xavi to chest the ball down for Messi but again the packed defence blocked the shot.
Iniesta replaced Xavi while Real’s coach David Moyes brought on strikers Chory Castro and Finnbogason but there was never much threat to Claudio Bravo’s goal. The Barça keeper dealt well with three or four crosses and easily stopped one deflected shot but he generally had very little to do.
With ten minutes remaining Pedro came on for Rafinha and Barça switched to 4-2-3-1. As Real pushed further forward the gaps began to appear for Barça on the break and Messi forced another save from Rulli after an exchange of passes with Neymar. Another quick counter in the 85th minute lost direction a bit with Messi chasing to the right to recuperate the ball. The Argentinian then crossed low towards Suárez but a defender got a foot in, sending the ball up in an arc which came down near the penalty spot only to be met by Pedro with a glorious overhead kick that flew into the top of the net.
The league is so much nearer after today’s results. We must now pray the proposed players’ strike does not go ahead as it would spoil a fantastic climax to our season.
Barça: Bravo 7.5; Alves 7.5, Piqué 7.5, Bartra 6.5 (Busquets m61, 7), Adriano 6; Rafinha 6 (Pedro m81, 7.5), Mascherano 6.5, Xavi 6.5 (Iniesta m74, 6.5); Messi 7.5, Suárez 6.5, Neymar 8.
Real Sociedad: Rulli; Carlos Martinez, Mikel Gonzalez, Iñigo Martinez, De la Bella; Bergara, Pardo; Xabi Prieto, Granero, Canales (Chory m73); Vela (Finnbogason m77).
Goals: m51 Neymar 1-0, m85 Pedro 2-0.
Yellow cards: m26 Granero, m27 De la Bella, m29 Bergara, m62 Rulli, m63 Mascherano, m75 Pardo.