With lethal forwards Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez among those put on the substitutes’ bench because of Saturday’s Copa del Rey final against Sevilla, France flyer Ousmane Dembele, 20, took advantage of a start to expertly produce his first Spanish top-flight goal.
But twin errors from the sinking Portugal midfielder Andre Gomes led to left-back Jonny Castro’s deserved, close-range leveller a minute before the interval.
Ernesto Valverde’s visitors then went ahead through stand-in striker Paco Alcacer’s tap-in on 64 minutes. But a 26th league win of 2017/18 was controversially denied when Spain forward Iago Aspas bundled home – with the help of his arm – little more than 10 minutes after Roberto’s red card for a tug back.
COPA IS KING
Head coach Valverde was good to his word – and then some – at Estadio Municipal de Balaidos.
Pre-match comments about the need for changes after a draining recent run and with the weekend showpiece in mind led to eight alterations from Saturday’s nervy, record-breaking 2-1 victory against Valencia. Gaining silverware was prioritised over protecting a historic 39-match unbeaten run in the top flight.
One of the most-star-studded substitutes’ benches in the history of the game featured the likes of Argentina icon Messi, Uruguay predator Luis Suarez (who was so animated when no one shared his instincts to follow in Paulinho’s header which crashed against the post), France centre-back Samuel Umtiti and Spain left-back Jordi Alba.
The XI that started had never been utilised before – and it showed in a predictably disjointed display.
Spain forward Denis Suarez ran into blind alleys on his old stomping ground. France left-back Lucas Digne contributed one accurate cross.
They will be among the number lucky to survive the summer.
Goal scorer Dembele and the execrable Gomes had contrasting nights.
Barca had to thank one of three established starters for protecting their unblemished standing. Germany goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen was utterly outstanding and made eight saves against opponents who boasted the better chances.
GOMES MISERY CONTINUES
There is a cruelty to watching Gomes’ continued presence in the Barca set-up.
The harrowed Portugal centre midfielder experienced yet another nadir with Celta’s leveller.
His under-hit pass into the middle played Dembele into trouble. This error was then compounded by a piecemeal recovery challenge as Uruguay bulldozer Maxi Gomez skipped past him to fire across goal for Jonny Castro to gleefully tap-in a merited equaliser a minute before the interval.
The first part of this horror reel was particularly unforgivable.
We are talking about a 24-year-old midfielder who has won Euro 2016 with his nation, previously played for sizeable clubs in Benfica and Valencia, plus been coveted by Real Madrid prior to a potential €55 million (Dh250m) switch to the Catalans. Such suicidal passes should not be played by someone of this experience.
There is something more than ability at play here. The drain on confidence searingly revealed by the player himself last month must remain an issue to be solved.
Overall, he contributed no key passes from 87.1-per-cent pass accuracy and just one tackle.
When Gomes was sacrificed on the hour mark with the scores level, this was an act of mercy.
OUS SHOWS HE CAN BE THE MANE
The main takeaway from this display was not Ter Stegen’s redoubtable nature or Gomes’ enduring torture in a Barca shirt.
A sign of better times came in the 36th minute. Within seconds of a woeful cross-field ball from Castro being intercepted, Dembele was finding the bottom corner on the bounce with his left foot and celebrating an opening La Liga strike at the 13th attempt madly with his enamoured team-mates.
The joy on the faces of all involved could not be disguised as the 20-year-old raced to international colleague Umtiti, before being subsequently mobbed.
Faith and belief in Dembele, clearly, remains high in the dressing room, despite the unflinching outside scrutiny.
Every kick and dribble by the €105 million (Dh462m) summer buy from Borussia Dortmund has been poured over, discussed and dissected. This comes with the territory when you join Barca – let alone as an emergency replacement for Brazil superstar Neymar.
A serious hamstring injury has not helped the assimilation. Neither has his relative inexperience or flamboyant approach that jars with the power of the Barca collective.
Dembele’s is a rare talent. And one that requires refining, especially when his undulating 78 minutes on the pitch are judged in total.
But his fine goal at Balaidos further proved what was already known.
This breakthrough could spark him into flourishing during the decisive final weeks – and the many seasons to come.
33 - Barcelona haven't lost in the first 33 league games (W25 D8), the best starting without defeat in La Liga ever (surpassing to Real Sociedad in 79/80, 32). Record pic.twitter.com/3obn1Ryq81— OptaJose (@OptaJose) April 17, 2018
A second-string Barcelona managed to extend the runaway leaders’ record-breaking unbeaten run in La Liga to 40 matches during an entertaining 2-2 draw at Celta Vigo.
With the likes of Argentina legend Lionel Messi watching on at the start because of Saturday’s Copa del Rey final against Sevilla, the under-strength visitors went ahead on 36 minutes against the run of play when France flyer Ousmane Dembele expertly dispatched his first La Liga goal. Mistakes from maligned Portugal centre midfielder Andre Gomes then led to a 45th-minute leveller through Celta left-back Jonny Castro’s tap-in.
As their Germany goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen continued to pull of superb saves, Barca went ahead again just past the hour mark when reserve striker Paco Alcacer brushed the ball home at the back stick.
Usual right-back Sergi Roberto was then sent off as a substitute for a pull. This eventually led to the 10-men being denied a lucky victory when Spain forward Iago Aspas beat Ter Stegen to a cross and bundled in – possibly with his hand – on 82 minutes to send Celta up to eighth.
Here are our player ratings:
Marc-Andre Ter Stegen – 8: Provided the saviour on a night when a second string was played. Made a total eight saves, with his personal battle against Uruguay forward Maxi Gomez one to cherish.
Nelson Semedo – 7: The reserve right-back contributed far more than Digne on the opposite flank. Fierce centre was eventually tapped in by Alcacer. Should get more action after Roberto red card.
Yerry Mina – 6: January addition gives real presence in defence because of his size. Made share of tackles and clearances during second La Liga start, although looked exposed when dragged out wide.
Thomas Vermaelen – 6: Was left chasing shadows when Gomez shot straight at Ter Stegen in the 10th minute. Recovered composure from there
Lucas Digne – 6: Wild crossing and wild defending defined his night. But he made up for it in the 89th minute by being in place to compete the clearance from Lucas Boye’s goal-bound effort.
Andre Gomes – 3: This cannot be allowed to continue, for both player and club. Made rookie errors for goal despite his price tag and experience, plus had no positive impact on game. Didn’t make it past 60 minutes.
Paulinho – 7: In his 20th start of a tiring debut campaign, the Brazil midfielder was unlucky not to come away with a goal. Hit the post in the first half and was denied a tap-in by Alcacer in the second period.
Ousmane Dembele – 7: Became Barca’s first French goal scorer in La Liga since Thierry Henry with a gorgeous, left-footed half-volley. Provided an intermittent threat, but two of his three shots were on target when cutting inside from the right.
Denis Suarez – 6: A nondescript display at the ground he called home from 2009-11. Fizzed an early effort across goal as he chased a third La Liga goal in 2017/18.
Philippe Coutinho – 5: The €160 million (Dh707m) man had an undulating display. Was like an assassin when Celta made a loose pass for Dembele’s opener, but not much else came off.
Paco Alcacer – 6: The stand-in striker’s goal was the only highlight. Made the least touches (40) of any visiting starter not substituted.
Lionel Messi – 7: Always sets the example, no matter how much time he gets on the pitch.
Sergi Roberto – 3: Didn’t really need to make the foul which got him dismissed.
Aleix Vidal – N/A: Tried to fill the gaps in defence for the 10 men.
Ahead of the Catalan giants’ La Liga meeting with Celta Vigo tonight, Valverde spoke on the possibility that the 33-year-old midfielder will head to the Far East.
Iniesta has been a mainstay at Camp Nou and been part of eight La Liga titles, five Copa del Rey crowns and four Champions League triumphs.
“Regarding the possibility of Iniesta leaving, it’s not done yet,” Valverde said.
“There have been other players who left and the club still carries on. But I don’t know what is going to happen. I don’t want to talk about it becasue we are speaking about rumours and only he can make the decision.”