Valencia and Barcelona were forced to settle for a controversial 1-1 draw as La Liga’s top two met at the Mestalla Stadium.
Here are three things we learned.
LA LIGA NEEDS TECHNOLOGY
Midway through the first half, Barcelona took the lead when Lionel Messi’s shot was horribly mishandled by Valencia keeper Neto, who saw the ball squirm through his arms and bounce nearly a foot over the line before he desperately swatted it away.
Except Barcelona didn’t actually take the lead, because referee Ignacio Iglesias and his assistant somehow contrived to rule that the ball had not crossed the line, waving play on to prompt utter disbelief all around the stadium.
It was a truly horrendous decision but it stood because La Liga is the only major league in Europe which does not use technology to help eradicate such mistakes. There are plans to introduce video assistant referees next season, but goalline technology – which would have instantly corrected this scarcely believable error – has been ruled out by La Liga president Javier Tebas, who believes it is too expensive.
Given the embarrassment caused by this decision, however, and the amateurish perception it creates, the question is whether La Liga can really afford NOT to have goalline technology. The matter is sure to be debated in the next few days.
VALENCIA FAIL TO CONVINCE
After a run of eight consecutive wins to leap into second place in La Liga, this game was Valencia’s chance to prove they truly belong in the thick of the title race.
But although they didn’t entirely fluff their lines, they were slightly flattered by this draw after being thoroughly outclassed in the first half and benefitting from a ludicrous officiating decision to rule out Messi’s goal.
The home team were much better after the break but, in truth, they did not really look good enough to win the title over a nine-month slog.
There’s certainly quality in the ranks and commendable manager Marcelino has them extremely well-drilled, so a challenge for a top four place is certainly realistic – and that would be a major achievement in itself.
But that’s not enough to win arguably the most competitive league in the world. The margin for error to top Barca and Real Madrid over 38 games is so slim it’s hard to see how Valencia can really maintain their current challenge – even their eight-game winning streak has left them four points behind the leaders, and failure to win this game probably killed off any realistic chances of lasting the course.
ALBA MAJOR BENEFICIARY FROM NEYMAR DEPARTURE
During the second half of last season, Jordi Alba’s stock fell so low that he was often left out of the Barcelona line-up by then-boss Luis Enrique and it didn’t even cause much comment.
Alba’s gradual loss of form was the result of an imbalanced team shape which over-emphasised the front three of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, with little opportunity for others to contribute to the attack.
On Sunday night, though, Alba showed how his career has been rejuvenated since the departure of Neymar by galloping forward to meet Messi’s exquisite through ball and producing an excellent first-time volleyed finish into the roof of the net.
If Neymar had still been in the team, it’s highly unlikely that Alba would have got himself into such a position in the first place because that space was exclusively reserved for the Brazilian.
But PSG’s mega-money summer swoop created the opportunity for Alba to become a greater attacking presence and he has seized it eagerly, already delivering four assists this season and now rescuing a vital point with an extremely well-taken goal.
Valencia and Barcelona were forced to settle for a controversial 1-1 draw as La Liga’s top two met at the Mestalla Stadium.
Here is our player ratings.
Neto 5: Extremely lucky to get away with a howler when he fumbled Messi’s shot over the line but the officials didn’t spot it. Made a couple of decent low saves from Messi and Suarez.
Montoya 6: Little opportunity to get forward and was beaten by Alba for the equalising pass, although the quality of Messi’s pass gave him little chance.
Garay 7: Rugged and determined defending to hold Barca at bay. Struggled with injury during much of the second half and was eventually replaced.
Gabriel 8: Made several timely interventions on the edge of his area and definitely won his head to head battle with Suarez. Booked for fouling Messi.
Gaya 7: Got better and better as the game went on, providing an excellent assist for the opening goal and defending with diligence.
Soler 5: Quiet performance with little attacking impact from the youngster, who was replaced near the end.
Kondogbia 5: Found himself overwhelmed by Barca’s rapid pressing in the first half and looked lost at sea. Better in the second period but still relatively quiet. Booked for chopping down Messi.
Parejo 6: Couldn’t get into the game at all in the opening period but improved significantly when the game opened up after the break, showing his passing ability to launch several attacks.
Guedes 7: Made a pacy run to spark Valencia’s only sustained first half attack and was by far the biggest threat in the second half, regularly getting past Semedo to create danger. Had a hand in the goal.
Rodrigo 7: Had an early shot blocked and proceeded to work hard and intelligently to link midfield with attack. Took his goal well at the near post and showed a good understanding with Guedes.
Zaza 6: Could not have done more running but a bit of a headless chicken. Shot wide when Valencia broke immediately after Barca’s ‘ghost goal’ and volleyed a presentable chance over the bar with the last kick.
Pereira 6: Came on as a late sub and had a couple of dangerous runs down the right, firing a half-chance into the side-netting.
Vezo and Mina: Appeared too late to make an impact.
Decent response from Valencia in the second half but I just don't see them as realistic title contenders at all. Really would love them to sustain challenge, but 4th probably best they can hope for.— Andy West (@andywest01) November 26, 2017
Ter Stegen 6: Little to do in Barca’s goal. Might be slightly disappointed that he failed to cut out the cross for Rodrigo’s near-post goal.
Semedo 5: Made some good bursts down the right in the first half but struggled badly against Guedes after the break. Was beaten in the build-up for the goal and later substituted.
Umtiti 9: Immense. Set the tone by making a good block from Rodrigo’s early shot and continued in a similar vein throughout, concluding with a well-timed challenge in stoppage time. Won every ball that came near him with awesome strength and immaculate timing.
Vermaelen 7: More than solid on his first Barca league appearance for nearly two years. Dispelled fears of rustiness with a committed and confident display.
Alba 8: Always progressive down the left, repeatedly linking well with Iniesta, and produced a decisive finish after being superbly found by Messi for the equaliser. Non-stop running machine.
Rakitic 5: Gave the ball away for Rodrigo’s early chance and didn’t really improve. Had a long range shot easily saved but not much more in attack and was the first man replaced.
Paulinho 7: Impressive in the midfield battleground, working hard to deny Valencia possession and making several bursts into the penalty area. Had a powerful early shot tipped over and headed over a stoppage time corner.
Busquets 8: Superlative first half display, effortlessly controlling the midfield. Seemed to know exactly where the ball was going two seconds before anyone else. Less dominant after the break when the game became stretched.
Iniesta 6: Some touches of class from the skipper, especially a one-two with Messi which saw him shoot too close to Neto. As often happens these days, faded in the second half and was substituted.
Messi 8: Like an orchestra conductor, he directed everything his team did going forward. Outrageously unlucky to have a goal chalked off when Neto spilled his shot and conjured a delicious angled assist for Alba’s equaliser.
Suarez 4: Another very poor performance. Forced saves from Neto with a narrow-angled shot and a strike on the turn, but lost possession and was flagged offside far too often. A weak link.
Deulofeu 4: Preferred to Alcacer from the bench but did little to justify that decision, repeatedly losing the ball and hitting the first defender with his crosses. Frustrating.
Denis 5: Came on for Iniesta and looked neat and tidy without offering any penetration into the box.
Vidal 6: Replaced the struggling Semedo and helped shore up the defence in the final stages.
Los Che are rejuvenated this year and they go into the contest just four points behind table-topping Barca after eight successive victories.
However, the visitors have dropped just two points all season and go into the game on a high after Lionel Messi signed a new contract.
Here, we look at some talking points surrounding the game.
IS VERMAELEN UP TO THE TASK?
Barca have remarkably conceded only four goals in their opening 12 games, keeping clean sheets in five consecutive away games heading into this weekend’s trip to Mestalla.
But with Gerard Pique suspended and first choice back-up Javier Mascherano injured, the league leaders’ hugely impressive defensive record faces a major test against Valencia’s free-scoring attack.
The absences mean that Samuel Umtiti will almost certainly be partnered for the very first time by veteran Belgian international Thomas Vermaelen, who has become a forgotten man at Camp Nou after failing to play at all under new boss Ernesto Valverde except a solitary outing in last month’s Copa del Rey victory at lower league Real Murcia.
At least Vermaelen had two recent friendly games with Belgium to get rid of some of his rustiness, but he has not started for Barca in La Liga since January 2016 and only had four league starts during last season’s loan spell at Roma.
Vermaelen has plenty of experience and ability, of course, but facing Valencia’s potent attack for his first ever game alongside Umtiti is a far from ideal scenario and the home team will surely feel his presence increases their chances.
WHO WILL WIN THE MIDFIELD BATTLE?
Before Valencia can test Vermaelen, however, they have to get the ball into the Barca box and a key role in that task will be played by the central midfield pairing of Dani Parejo and Geoffrey Kondogbia, whose brilliant long-range strike broke the deadlock in last week’s hard-earned win at Espanyol.
Former Sevilla man Kondogbia is looking to rejuvenate his career in La Liga after an underwhelming spell in Italy with Inter Milan, and his rampaging style and defensive skills have provided the perfect complement to the passing range of Parejo, whose playmaking output has not always matched his ability in the past but who is now finding the most consistent form of his career.
On Sunday night Kondogbia and Parejo will attempt to overcome Barca’s midfield trio of Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets, and it will be vital for the home team to establish a strong presence in that key battleground if they are to threaten the visitors’ back four.
If Barca can exert their usual command over possession, it will be tough for the hosts to extend their winning run.
ARE VALENCIA REALLY TITLE CONTENDERS?
A spectacular start to the season, including an ongoing run of eight consecutive victories, has seen Valencia shrug aside their recent label as underachievers on an almost comical scale to become the biggest challengers to Barcelona at the top of the table.
Under the leadership of former Villarreal boss Marcelino, who arrived in the summer to become the team’s seventh manager in three years, Los Che have been revitalised, playing fast-paced and attack-minded football to climb clear of Real and Atletico Madrid in second place.
They have looked convincing all over the park and especially in attack, banging home 32 goals in their opening 12 games – just one less than Barca themselves.
Simone Zaza has top scored with nine goals, while Rodrigo has earned international recognition for Spain with seven goals and Paris Saint-Germain loanee Goncalo Guedes has looked a star in the making on the wing.
But this is by far their biggest challenge against a Barca team with an outstanding record of 11 wins and 1 draw. If Valencia can pass the test and move within a point of the leaders, we’ll have to start taking them seriously as credible title challengers.