Last season Malaga survived 180 minutes without conceding a goal against the might of Barça’s firepower. Tonight at Camp Nou it looked like Javi Gracia’s team might gain yet another clean sheet as despite the reunion of the Messi-Suárez-Neymar trident, Barça failed to break through until the final quarter of the game. It wasn’t the deadly threesome that finally beat Carlos Kameni in the Malaga goal but a 73rd minute strike from central defender Thomas Vermaelen who scored his first goal for the club to earn three very useful points.
Luis Enrique put out the expected XI with Sergi Roberto continuing to deputise for the injured Dani Alves and Neymar returning in place of Rafinha. Malaga played an early high press to put Barça’s defence under pressure but as Barça played round the press the Andalucians quickly regrouped closer to their own area to deny any way through. It was clear that it wasn’t going to be easy and Malaga’s workrate and organisation left a positive impression which following Barça’s recent games against Athletic Club demonstrated again the very high level in La Liga. Neither of Barça’s first two league opponents are among the five that qualified for this season’s Champions League, yet both sides have worked very well as a team and made things very difficult for the likes of Suárez and Messi.
After a decent start from both sides tonight Malaga nearly took a surprise lead in the 19th minute when Sergio Busquets gave a careless pass straight to Juankar who spotting Bravo a long way off his line sent a tremendous shot from inside his own half that clipped the roofnetting as it sailed narrowly over. The away side’s plans were affected soon after when veteran defender Weligton went down injured and had to be replaced by Albentosa. Barça nearly took advantage of the brief moment of disorganisation in their opposition’s defence with Messi crossing from the left to the unlikely target of Javier Mascherano who glanced a header that clipped the top of the bar.
Barça’s dominance was demonstrated by the positioning of Mascherano and Vermaelen with Barça’s last line of defence often seen ten or even fifteen yards inside the Malaga goal. However, despite hard work from Suárez in particular, Barça’s shots were all going straight at Kameni while Malaga created brief danger with Amrabat turning past Vermaelen before crossing low from the right but Cop, who got between Mascherano and Sergi Roberto, was stretching and could only poke the ball softly at Claudio Bravo.
Barça’s frustration increased with two penalty appeals ignored by referee Jaime Latre near the end of the first half. Neymar stopped completely when the ball struck Torres on his arm as he slid in but the ref waved play on, then a minute later Suárez went down under pressure from Angeleri who failed to make contact with the ball but the Uruguayan was judged to have fallen too easily.
Malaga’s tight 4-4-2 formation looked even narrower in the second half as Barça continued to push forward in search of a goal. Barça used the width of the pitch well with Iniesta looking for Sergi Roberto while Messi tried to open the play towards Alba. The intention was to open gaps and Busquets threaded a pass through one for Neymar to get into the area but instead of shooting the Brazilian found Messi who forced Kameni’s first difficult save in the 52nd minute.
Barça turned up the pressure and Kameni had to dive again to stop efforts from Vermaelen and Messi before Iniesta whistled one narrowly wide from 25 yards. Perhaps the forwards overelaborated at times as they tried to pass their way through the massed bodies in the area but Luis Enrique’s first decision was to bring on Rafinha in place of midfielder Ivan Rakitic.
In the 69th minute, when Kameni dived to stop a Messi thunderbolt, it was Barça’s seventeenth shot of the game, nine of which had needed saves from the Malaga keeper. At this point there seemed a good chance that the Andalucians could hold out yet again to deny us two points. Then, in the 73rd minute Sergi Roberto found Suárez on the left and his cross was only half cleared by the diving Kameni, the ball falling nicely for Vermaelen who hooked the ball in from 12 yards.
Finally a way through! And after Mascherano had come so close to scoring his first goal for the club in the first half, it was the other centre-back, Vermaelen, who got the breakthrough with his debut goal. With the 1-0 lead Barça concentrated on keeping the ball and slowing down the game to good effect. Malaga appeared to have run out of steam until in the final minute of injury time a mix-up between Busquets and Alba led to Malaga launching an attack up the left, but when the cross came in, substitute Charles, under pressure from Alba, couldn’t find the finishing touch.
From the outside it may appear that Barça are well below their best with just two 1-0 victories at the start of La Liga. However, both victories have been against very decent opposition and the team have demonstrated the same steely determination that was an important part of last season’s triumphs. In both games we have looked very solid defensivly with Vermaelen and Sergi Roberto both coming in and doing a sound job. I feel plenty of optimism for another good season. The goals will arrive. With the talent we have up front they are sure to.
Barça: Bravo 7; Sergi Roberto 7, Mascherano 7, Vermaelen 7.5 (Mathieu m90, –), Alba 6.5; Rakitic 6 (Rafinha m63, 6.5), Busquets 6, Iniesta 8; Messi 7, Suárez 7.5, Neymar 6 (Sandro m86, –).
Malaga: Kameni; Rosales, Angeleri, Weligton (Albentosa m25), Torres; Horta (Juanpi m74), Tissone, Recio, Juankar; Amrabat (Charles m54), Cop.
Goal: m73 Vermaelen 1-0.
Yellow cards: m43 Recio, m89 Tissone, m91 Torres.