Barcelona flying high but need to pace themselves and save the best for last

Andy West 23/01/2018
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Barcelona’s 5-0 romp against Real Betis on Sunday night left no room for doubt that the Catalan club are currently in a fine place, and are surely the team to beat in the Champions League as well as La Liga.

If any nerves had been set jangling by the midweek Copa del Rey loss against near neighbours Espanyol, those doubts were dispelled with a genuinely awesome performance at the Estadio Benito Villamarin.

The most impressive aspect of Barca’s win on Sunday night was that it was initially hard-earned, no matter what the final scoreline might suggest.

Betis are a good team with a clear tactical plan, and they headed into the contest high on confidence after an excellent run of form since Christmas, including the ultimate morale-booster of a 5-3 local derby win at Sevilla.

And in the opening stages, Betis’s confidence was plain to see. Manager Quique Setien surprised Barca by giving his team a new formation, playing with three at the back and moving captain Joaquin – usually a winger – into a central position where his man-marking job on Sergio Busquets was just as important as his creativity.

And Betis started the game very well, fashioning the first opportunity which Andres Guardado fizzed wide of the post and generally more than matching their illustrious visitors, who struggled to escape Betis’s determined pressing to gain any time on the ball and were unable to get key man Lionel Messi involved.

But Barca buckled down, weathered the storm and gradually came more into the game after manager Ernesto Valverde made a tactical tweak by moving Sergi Roberto into a more central position, evening up the numbers in that part of the pitch and freeing Messi.

The outcome is plain to see, with Barca getting their noses in front with a well-worked goal for Ivan Rakitic and then never looking back, running rings around the tired hosts for the final 30 minutes and looking capable of scoring every time they came forward. But it hadn’t been easy.

The game was a tactical triumph for Valverde, who can be delighted that his team can win in a variety of ways.

Jordi Alba, for example, did not really feature as an attacking force in this game despite having been a key outlet and collaborator with Messi during many recent contests. And although Luis Suarez ended up with two goals, on this occasion he was just as important as a creator, dropping deep to link up play and doing so to great effect by slicing open the Betis defence for Rakitic’s opener.

All things considered, Barca are looking extremely strong. They are solid at the back, have options in midfield, Suarez is back to his best and Messi…well, Messi has somehow managed to out-Messi himself in the last few weeks.

Lionel Messi was at his sublime best against Betis.

Lionel Messi was at his sublime best against Betis.

What’s more, there’s reason to believe that Barca can get even better, with skipper Andres Iniesta missing Sunday’s game and new signings Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele – a mere £300 million-worth of talent – recovering from injuries.

The one note of caution, however, is the fairly straightforward observation that it is January and, as the cliché goes, you don’t win any titles in January.

That’s not strictly true, because Barca have more or less wrapped up the league title already, but their main objective now must be regaining the Champions League crown – an even more attractive proposition after Real Madrid took that prize two years in a row.

To see off the likes of Chelsea, Madrid, PSG and Manchester City on the European stage, Barca will need to keep on performing at their current level, and sustaining this kind of form over the next four months will be close to impossible.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde looks on.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde looks on.

That’s not to suggest that Barca should deliberately allow their form to dip so they can then improve for the run-in, but they need ensure that both mentally and physically, their season peaks in May rather than February.

This is exactly what Madrid achieved last season, when they blasted through the last two months of the season looking as unbeatable as Barca do right now. But Madrid also offer a cautionary tale because we’ve seen this season just how easy it can be, even for the very best teams, to suddenly suffer a serious dip in collective and individual form.

So Barca can be delighted with their current performances, but there’s still a very long way to go.

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Barcelona defender Thomas Vermaelen out for two weeks with hamstring injury

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Barcelona defender Thomas Vermaelen will be out for a fortnight with the hamstring injury that forced him off in the first half in Sunday’s win at Betis, the club said on Monday.

Vermaelen pulled up having hurt his left hamstring and had to come off four minutes before half-time, with Samuel Umtiti taking his place as Barcelona went on to win 5-0.

Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi both scored twice after Ivan Rakitic put the Catalans ahead, allowing Ernesto Valverde’s side to move 11 points clear of Atletico Madrid at the top of La Liga.

Barcelona host Espanyol on Thursday in the second leg of their Copa del Rey quarter-final looking to overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit.

Provided by AFP Sport

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Barcelona player ratings as Luis Suarez nets a 9 and Ivan Rakitic shines in midfield during thrashing of Real Betis

Andy West 22/01/2018
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Suarez was instrumental in the victory on Sunday night.

Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez produced a finishing masterclass as Barcelona launched a second-half blitz at Real Betis to extend their lead at the top of the LaLiga table to 11 points.

Ivan Rakitic started the ball rolling as the hour-mark approached while Messi and Suarez joined him on the scoresheet within the next 10 minutes.

The Argentina international saved his best for the last 10 minutes, adding a superb individual effort and then setting up Suarez for his second in similar fashion to help Barca claim a sixth successive league win courtesy of a 5-0 romp.

Here are the ratings:

Marc-Andre ter Stegen: Had little to do but did it with assurance, and used the ball with his feet more than usual. 6

Nelson Semedo: Occasionally conceded too much space down his flank by getting out of position, and still doesn’t look quite the answer at right-back. Plenty of attacking intent but the other side of his game looks lacking. 6

Gerard Pique: Imperious in defence, mopping up everything Betis threw at him around the edge of the box, and outstanding in possession, always choosing the right pass to keep his team moving. 8

Thomas Vermaelen: Performed solidly enough until his injury jinx struck again, pulling up with a hamstring strain towards the end of the first-half. 6

Jordi Alba: Bundle of energy down the left wing but less of an attacking threat than usual in recent weeks. Still perfectly solid though. 7

Sergi Roberto: Excellent. Started on the right of midfield but soon moved more centrally and had Barca’s first chance by striding forward to shoot over. Continued to take the game to Betis, showing greater confidence in his playmaking skills, and is maturing into an outstanding performer. 8

Sergio Busquets: Kept quiet by the attentions of Joaquin for the first 50 minutes, but he gradually became a stronger presence and did brilliantly to win the ball and release Messi for the decisive second goal which effectively broke the game. 7

Ivan Rakitic: Fine all-round performance. Did a good job defensively, regularly breaking up dangerous Betis attacks early on, and later on showed attacking threat by sending a long-range shot too close to Adan before later storming forward to net the opener. Also delivered an excellent cross for Suarez’s goal. 8

Andre Gomes: A regular outlet in midfield, showing his class with some smooth touches. Didn’t always use the ball well but seems to be finally finding his form and growing in confidence. Replaced by Paulinho after the second goal. 6

Lionel Messi: Well shackled early on but grew into the game and showed his increasing influence by shooting into the side-netting after 30 minutes. Settled the outcome with a crunching finish before adding a brilliant second, and then rounded off a stunning second-half with a glorious assist for Suarez. At times it looks like he’s playing an entirely different sport to everyone else. 8

Luis Suarez: Brilliant demonstration of centre forward play. Turned assister for Barca’s first two chances with nice passes to Roberto and Messi. Continued that role by delivering an excellent through ball for Rakitic’s opener, before netting himself with a fine volley and completing the scoring with a crunching finish. 9

Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (R) challenges Real Betis' Moroccan defender Zou (L) during the Spanish league football match between Real Betis and FC Barcelona at the Benito Villamarin stadium in Sevilla on January 21, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / CRISTINA QUICLER (Photo credit should read CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images)

Messi netted a brace at the Benito Villamarin stadium.

SUBSTITUTES:

Samuel Umtiti: Came on for Vermaelen just before the break, returning to action after six weeks out, and looked like he’d never been away. Solid and serious. 7

Paulinho: Came on at the perfect time after Barca went two-up, and he had an easy task in overpowering a desperately tiring home team midfield. 7

Gerard Deulofeu: Appeared for the final ten minutes and had little impact. Maybe his last game for the club? 6

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