Celta Vigo have offered stubborn opposition for Barcelona in recent seasons, with their intensity and attacking ability continually catching Barca off guard, and Saturday was no different as the two sides played out a 2-2 draw.
Celta were good value for their point, with Iago Aspas getting a goal and an assist to counter Lionel Messi‘s performance for the hosts. The result means Valencia could come to within two points of Barcelona, and Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have the opportunity to cut the gap to six points.
Here’s how each player fared in the thrilling game.
Marc-Andre Ter Stegen – 6/10
It’s been said at times this season that Barcelona’s goalkeeper has been the team’s second-best player, after Messi. Ter Stegen showed why he’s been getting such hype, making a crucial save at the end to deny Celta a shock win while the initial save with an outstretched right foot in the lead up to Aspas’s goal was otherworldly.
Sergi Roberto – 7/10
Although his preferred position is midfielder, Sergi Roberto has been pressed into the right-back slot fairly often in his career, and has performed well there. That versatility adds to his value, both as a Barcelona player and as a transfer target, and he put in another assured performance on Saturday.
Gerard Pique – 7/10
It would be hard to say that Barcelona were missing Pique last week, as they played well without him against Valencia and even he would have been hard-pressed to help them weather the Valencia storm in the second half on that game. But on Saturday, he showed why he’s the team’s best defender, displaying much-needed composure and solidity.
Samuel Umtiti – 6/10
The Frenchman had another composed game at the back, up until Celta’s second goal. He was beaten too easily and picked up an injury in that move, and could be set for an extended spell on the sidelines.
Jordi Alba – 7/10
A typical Jordi Alba game, where he spent most of his time attacking rather than defending, and it paid off again as he assisted Luis Suarez for the goal that put Barcelona in front. He could’ve done better for Celta’s second goal, where Aspas beat him too easily to get a cross in.
Ivan Rakitic – 7/10
Ivan Rakitic has rediscovered his best form this season, after a couple of campaigns in which the Croatian had been underwhelming. On Saturday, he was incisive with his passing and running, providing a useful partner for Messi in launching Barcelona attacks.
Sergio Busquets – 6/10
As always, Sergio Busquets had an understated game, keeping his side in shape in his role as Barcelona’s fulcrum. Was nowhere for either Celta goal, which will disappoint him, although there wasn’t much he could have done for either.
Andres Iniesta – 7/10
Iniesta hasn’t ever quite had a dip in form, but he’s certainly been playing better over the last few games than he was earlier in the season. On Saturday, he helped Barcelona control the game for large spells of the first half.
Paulinho – 7/10
Another all-action display from the summer’s most surprising successful signing. It was Paulinho who provided the assist for Messi’s goal, and the Brazilian should have gotten on the scoresheet himself, passing up a couple of good opportunities in either half.
Lionel Messi – 8/10
Messi’s goal drought is over. The Argentine slipped in a neat finish through Ruben Blanco’s legs to draw Barca level after Celta had taken a shock lead, and then started the move that led to the team’s second goal. For any other player, we would call this a brilliant display, but by Messi’s standards this was run-of-the-mill.
Luis Suarez – 7/10
Suarez is slowly finding form, and it showed with the way he took his goal to give Barcelona the lead. It was a simple enough finish, but his movement was key. Surprisingly passed up the opportunity to shoot just minutes later, when a slightly more confident Suarez would have backed himself to score.
Denis Suarez – 6/10
Suarez linked up well with his midfield, adding impetus to Barcelona’s attack as they chased a winner. Was just unable to provide that telling moment
Thomas Vermaelen – 6/10
It’s good for Vermaelen that he’s getting some gametime after his injury struggles, even if Barcelona would prefer that the Belgian’s appearances weren’t a result of an injury or suspension for someone else. Still, he showed what he brings to the table with a solid cameo against Celta.
Paco Alcacer – 6/10
Missed a glorious chance to win the game in injury time, heading over the bar from point-blank range from Messi’s cross. Alcacer is brought on to make sure such chances are created and converted, so it was a glaring miss. His general play during his short time on the pitch was ineffective.
Barcelona's Samuel Umtiti could miss as much as two months due to injury, according to multiple reports in Spain pic.twitter.com/OSmAxTbkqe— B/R Football (@brfootball) December 2, 2017
Ruben Blanco – 7/10
Looked shaky on occasion dealing with crosses, but otherwise had an impressive outing in which one moment stood out – a stunning save from Lionel Messi’s header in the second half which would have made it 3-1 to Barca. That save went a long way towards earning Celta their draw.
Daniel Wass – 7/10
If it weren’t for the star turn of Iago Aspas, Wass’ performance would have earned his team’s man of the match honours. He missed a good chance to put Celta up 2-1 at the end of the first half, but other than that, he was nearly flawless, marauding up and down the right flank.
Sergi Gomez – N/A
An unfortunate outing for the young defender, who had to be subbed off just four minutes into the game.
Andreu Fontas – 6/10
Fontas had a solid outing at the back, and there wasn’t much he could have done for either Barcelona goal. Celta were simply hypnotised by Barca’s passing for both of those moves – and that’s happened to plenty of defenders before.
Hugo Mallo – 7/10
Mallo was a rock at the back, in a game where a performance like that is a must. He picked up a late, avoidable yellow card, but that’s almost to be expected for an all-action defender against Barcelona. Stood up to the likes of Suarez and Messi throughout.
Brais – 6/10
The young attacker didn’t seem to be overawed by the occasion, which is a good sign for the future. Brais, who generally plays as an attacking midfielder, was more of a winger on Saturday and didn’t have as much of an impact as he would’ve liked, but avoided any fatal mistakes and offered as much of a threat as he could.
Stanislav Lobotka – 6/10
Lobotka had a bright game, providing attacking impetus when he could and showing deft touch in midfield. He carried out his primary responsibility – breaking up Barcelona attacks – as well as he could have been expected.
Jozabed – 6/10
Jozabed just about held his own against Barcelona’s midfielders, which is an achievement in itself. Rakitic and Iniesta had one of their best games so far this season, making the Celta midfielder’s job even harder, but he acquitted himself well.
Pione Sisto – 6/10
Sisto is capable of being a thorn in the side of any defence, but he didn’t have one of his better games on Saturday. He was wasteful in possession and generally failed to offer a threat – which can happen when you’re an attacking player playing against Barcelona.
Iago Aspas – 8/10
A goal and an assist at the home of the mighty Barcelona. Aspas always seems to rise to the occasion, saving his best for Celta’s biggest games, and Saturday was another example.
Maxi – 7/10
Maxi’s understanding with Aspas has been crucial to Celta Vigo’s attack this season, and it was on show again at the Nou Camp. Scored a crucial goal to level the scores when Barcelona were threatening to run away with the game.
Gustavo Cabral – 7/10
Pressed into action as an early substitute, Cabral held up well against Barcelona’s attack. There was little he could do with either goal, as Barca’s quick passing bewitched the entire Celta defence both times.
Facundo Roncaglia – 6/10
Came on as a substitute and promptly picked up a yellow card with a silly challenge. However, his entrance allowed Wass the freedom to attack even more, which was crucial in helping deal with the Barcelona pressure.
Pablo Hernandez – N/A
On as a late substitute, Hernandez had little time to make a telling impact. He made sure Celta’s midfield solidity remained as Barcelona chased a winner.
Although it has got lost in the debate over Messi’s non-awarded ‘ghost goal’, Barca were absolutely excellent in the opening period of Sunday night’s game at Valencia.
The hosts were coming into the game full of confidence and in superb form after stringing together a run of eight consecutive wins, and their atmospheric and noisy Mestalla stadium is renowned as one of the most uncomfortable environments for visiting teams when Valencia fans are in the right mood.
In that context, then, the fact that Barca utterly dominated their high-flying hosts more or less without interruption from the opening whistle until the half-time interval was even more impressive.
All over the pitch, the Blaugrana were infinitely superior to Valencia during that opening 45 minutes. Samuel Umtiti marshalled the defence imperiously; Sergio Busquets made the task of running the midfield look easy; Andres Iniesta shone with magical flicks and tricks; Paulinho blended brawn with brain, and Messi masterminded virtually every attacking move.
But it wasn’t really about individuals: this was a true team performance, with the eleven moving parts appearing to move as one, almost as though they were connected by an invisible string which prevented them from ever becoming drawn too far apart.
The home team just couldn’t get their foot on the ball – and on the few occasions they did manage to gain possession, they were quickly harried into losing it almost immediately by Barca’s fierce pressing.
The second half was a much more even contest, as Valencia upped their intensity and the game started to open up. But even then the visitors remained largely on top, and finished the game making 753 passes to Valencia’s 328, while also restricting the hosts to just one attempt on target.
The nature of Barca’s most important touch was also telling, with Jordi Alba running onto an outrageous lofted through ball from Messi to volley home and secure a point which was the very least the visiting team deserved.
Last season, Alba would not have scored that goal – the space that he ran into would instead been occupied by Neymar, who along with Messi and Luis Suarez executed the overwhelming majority of the team’s attacking movements.
Now, though, Neymar has gone and Barca have been forced to rethink their approach. Rather than relying on MSN they have been forced to find other solutions, and along with the arrival of a pragmatic new coach in the form of Ernesto Valverde, that has resulted in a more controlled and structured style of play.
Notably, there was only one change in personnel from the front six that started most games last season, with Neymar’s place being taken by another Brazilian – albeit one with an extremely different skill set: Paulinho.
The move from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 with a showboating winger replaced by a muscular midfielder neatly encapsulates the change undertaken by the team in the last few months, and there have been definite improvements in the overall shape.
Last season Barca at times resembled two teams within a team, with MSN responsible for nearly all the attacking and everyone else playing a supporting role in the background. This season, however, has seen the introduction of a far more collective approach: Paulinho has as many league goals as Suarez; Alba has as many assists as Messi.
The fruits of this greater balance, as Messi described it, has been a much more solid team defensively, with Marc-Andre ter Stegen only conceding five goals in 13 league games and spending large periods of time mainly focussed on his excellent distribution skills in the ‘sweeper-keeper’ role.
That improvement was plain to see during Barca’s outstanding first half in Valencia – but so too was the other side of the coin.
As Messi admitted, the departure of Neymar has also taken away a great deal of the team’s firepower, and despite all their dominance over Valencia it was notable that Barca struggled to create clear chances – even the first half ‘goal’ they scored only came through a gross goalkeeping error.
As time ticked on and the ageing Iniesta was forced to retire, Barca’s lack of creativity was increasingly obvious. With Suarez delivering another poor performance, only Messi looked capable of fashioning a breakthrough – as he eventually did – with the rest of the team showing calm control but a lack of imagination.
This is where Ousmane Dembele should enter the picture. The €150 million summer signing was obviously recruited as Neymar’s replacement, and his long absence with a thigh injury has deprived the team of one of their most dangerous attacking forces.
In particular, Dembele possesses one specific quality which the team otherwise badly lacks: pace with the ball. Even Messi, for all his greatness, is never going to break down a defence by speeding past them, and neither are any of his teammates with the possible exception of Alba.
So a lot will rest on Dembele to provide the penetrative spark which the team has been badly missing so far this season.
The good news is that he the young Frenchman is only a couple of weeks away from returning to training, and could be fit in time for the Clasico trip to Real Madrid in four weeks’ time.
The bad news is that he is still very much unproven and lacking familiarity with his new teammates after spending so little time on the playing or practise field with them, so he could need at least a few weeks before he starts to become effective.
But if he does click, using his pace and direct running into the penalty area to provide an ingredient which is currently missing, Barca might well find themselves with the perfect balance.
Here, Press Association Sport looks at how the Argentina forward fared at the Mestalla.
DENIED A CLEAR GOAL
Messi had a perfectly good goal chalked off after 30 minutes when his drive from the edge of the area was fumbled by Valencia goalkeeper Neto, with TV replays showing the ball clearly crossed the line. But since goal-line technology is not available to officials in LaLiga, Valencia were let off the hook.
Messi found his opportunities limited against a well-organised Valencia defence in the first half but did cause a few scares when he ran in behind, with his speed and trickery making him a handful. But in the second half, Messi’s superb ball into the box was turned into the net by Jordi Alba as Barca found a late equaliser.
There were a few neat one-twos with Andres Iniesta as Messi was involved in some of Barca’s best build-up play in both halves. But the 30-year-old was guilty of a number of sloppy passes which saw Valencia win back possession when they were 1-0 up.
Messi spent a fair amount of time in the middle of the park, looking to carry the ball forward using his pace and skill. But he did cause problems on the few occasions he managed to work his way into the box.