Lionel Messi came off the substitutes’ bench and ensured Barcelona’s unbeaten run dramatically remained intact after the runaway La Liga leaders fought back from two-goals down to draw 2-2 at Sevilla.
The iconic Barca forward had failed to feature for Argentina during the international break because of a hamstring complaint. With this and Wednesday’s quarter-final opener against Roma in the Champions League in mind, head coach Ernesto Valverde chose caution.
This approach appeared to have ended the club’s unbeaten run in the top flight at the 36-match mark on Saturday when Italy attacking midfielder Franco Vazquez slotted in on 36 minutes and Colombia forward Luis Muriel struck from a rebound shortly after half-time.
Further chances then went begging for Sevilla before the visitors’ stellar late salvage act. Uruguay striker Luis Suarez – who earlier struck the post – acrobatically volleyed home in the 88th minute following a corner and then Messi swept in a ferocious left-footed strike from 25 yards just seconds later.
Here are the talking points:
STOP MAKING A MESSI OF IT
There has been no greater trump card to play in the history of football.
The Blaugruna were shapeless and error prone before Valverde looked to his bench on 58 minutes. Off went exasperating France winger Ousmane Dembele after a team-high four dispossessions and on came five-time Ballon d’Or winner, Messi.
The early signs weren’t promising as the great man slowly got back up to speed after two weeks without match action. But a sighter from outside the penalty box that curled narrowly wide of Sergio Rico’s goal should have set alarm bells ringing.
When the ball fell to him again moments after Suarez’s flexible intervention, you just knew a first-time shot with that legendary left boot would find the bottom corner.
‘Messidependencia’ is alive and well. In March alone, he’s proven the difference against opponents such as Atletico Madrid, Chelsea and now Sevilla.
This latest episode marked a memorable 36th goal in 44 run-outs this term. It also moved him level with compatriot Paulo Dybala of Juventus with the most strikes – seven – from outside the area in Europe, as well as make it a La Liga-high 17 points rescued from losing positions this term by Barca.
Real Sociedad’s landmark 38-match unbeaten top-flight spell from 1979-80 was ended by Sevilla. In January 2017, Real Madrid’s 40-match run in all competitions went the same way at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.
They didn’t have Messi to throw on.
7 - No other player has scored more goals from outside the box than Lionel Messi in Europe’s top five leagues this season (level with Paulo Dybala). Rescuer.— OptaJose (@OptaJose) March 31, 2018
UMTITI’S A WORRY
Before the winter break, Samuel Umtiti could do no wrong.
The France centre-back was second behind only Messi for the consistent excellence of his contribution to the Barca cause. Amid an ongoing wrangle about a contract extension, he’s slipped from this exalted position.
The 24-year-old was all over the place at Sanchez Pizjuan. You could have parked a double-decker bus in the gap between him and Gerard Pique for Vazquez’s opener, while his slow reactions in the scramble for Muriel’s second ensured he could only deflect the shot past Germany goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Even worse was to come. A rash attempt to win the ball – in an incident that bore hallmarks of his error for Russia’s consolation against Les Bleus last Tuesday – put Jesus Navas clean through in an incident from which any hope of a Barca recovery should have been killed off.
Similar errors have been seen against Girona and at Las Palmas. This is not the way to go about securing an enormous wage rise.
🔵🔴— Samuel Umtiti (@samumtiti) March 31, 2018
Belle réaction de l’équipe! Un point de plus pour notre objectif.
Buena reacción del equipo! Un punto más hacia nuestro objetivo. pic.twitter.com/qbdADHgHlY
VALVERDE’S LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
If the rumours are true, the current Barca supremo would have taken some convincing to hand a sixth La Liga start to €105 million (Dh475.5m) summer buy Dembele.
A near hour of fitful interventions then followed from a 20-year-old who still appears out of step with the Barca machine.
This performance will be the main takeaway headed into the midweek continental clash.
Dembele’s performance wasn’t without its positives. An early dart and fine pass sent Suarez through for an effort that just skimmed wide.
The ex-Borussia Dortmund and Rennes prospect also completed three dribbles and his only shot was on target. But as a reference point, Brazil playmaker Philippe Coutinho – ineligible on Wednesday – completed two more dribbles and was dispossessed just once.
Spain veteran Andres Iniesta made it to four dribbles within his 80 minutes and didn’t lose the ball once.
Can Dembele be trusted to start against Roma? Such faith was rewarded with a goal against Chelsea, so the decision isn’t an easy one.
Similarly, Valverde must hope Sergio Busquets is back in time from a broken bone in his foot to anchor the midfield.
Brazil international Paulinho continues to run out of steam. From the 42nd appearance of his debut campaign, he made one tackle, zero interceptions and zero clearances in the same role.
A leading pass accuracy of 97.1 per cent also led to no key passes. Plus, he had no attempts on goal.
Food for thought with Roma in mind.
17 - Barcelona have won more points from losing positions than any other side in La Liga this season. Power.— OptaJose (@OptaJose) March 31, 2018
“We are taking care of Messi, because he has a minor annoyance,” Valverde told a press conference. “We have to see how (Friday’s) training is going.”
Messi is determined to be injury-free as Barca embark on a hectic April fixture schedule.
Valverde’s side face seven games in 22 days, including their two-legged Champions League quarter-final against Roma and the Copa del Rey final against Sevilla on April 21.
“We are where we wanted to be,” Valverde said. “We have players to face the final stretch of the season. It will be a decisive month.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) March 30, 2018
“(Saturday) is a key game. A victory would mean a lot in order to be able to win the title.”
Both sides will have one eye on the first leg of their Champions League ties on Tuesday, when Sevilla take on Bayern Munich at the Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium and Barcelona face Roma at the Nou Camp.
“I expect a Sevilla without many rotations, although they have a Champions League game. There are three important points to win (on Saturday),” Valverde added.
“We plan to not think too much about the game against Roma. We first focus on Sevilla.”
Valverde confirmed injured midfielder Sergio Busquets will definitely miss out, but is expected to return in time to face Roma.
Sevilla boss Vincenzo Montella, who will be without suspended midfielder Pablo Sarabia, has no intention of adapting his side’s style of play for Barca’s visit.
“We’ll play our own way, with our characteristics,” the former Italy international said. “We’d go crazy if we changed our way of playing.
“We’ll try and have as much possession as possible because if they have it, it could be more complicated.”
Sevilla, who qualified for the Champions League by finishing fourth in LaLiga last season, are 14 points adrift of the side which currently holds that spot, Valencia.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) March 30, 2018
Provided by Press Association Sport
Not only have their maintained the best defence in the league but they also boast the most prolific attacking record, scoring 74 goals so far, one more than perennial rivals Real Madrid.
However, they could’ve had so much more this term if not for the frame of the goal.
Incredibly, the Catalans have hit the woodwork a whopping 29 times in the league alone this season. That figure doesn’t just surpass that of any other team in Europe’s top five leagues, it does so by miles!
The other teams to hit the woodwork most often are Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich, Ligue 1 leaders Paris Saint-Germain and Serie A outfit Inter Milan – all doing so 17 times each.
Barcelona have every right to feel aggrieved as that means they have struck the frame of the goal a massive 12 times more than any other big European team.
Lionel Messi has been responsible for a few extra coats of paint by himself around Spain. The division’s leading scorer with 25 strikes would’ve been out of sight in the Pichichi race had he not hit the woodwork 11 times on his own in the current league campaign.
Meanwhile in the Premier League, Manchester City and Liverpool have endured their fair share of misfortune in front of goal having been denied by the woodwork 16 times each.