Barcelona opened up a five-point lead at the top of La Liga after a perfect weekend saw them take a 2-1 victory from a tough trip to Getafe, following on the heels of other favourable results including another loss for Real Madrid.
It wasn’t a classic performance from Ernesto Valverde’s men in the suburbs of Madrid but first half goals from – who else? – Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were enough to seal three valuable points which put the Blaugrana in a formidable position.
Let’s review the main talking points from the conclusion of a fabulous weekend for the reigning title holders.
BARCA GET LUCKY
Barca really should have fallen behind early on, when an angled left-wing cross from Vitorino Antunes was volleyed home at the far post by unmarked Getafe striker Jaime Mata. But referee Guillermo Cuadra controversially disallowed it, ruling that another home team forward, Angel Rodriguez, had pushed Clement Lenglet as the ball came into the middle.
The ‘push’ looked close to non-existent even on close-up television replays, and there certainly looked to be much less contact than another early incident when visiting midfielder Arturo Vidal appeared to nudge Nemanja Maksimovic as another cross was delivered. But Cuadra strangely refused to use VAR for either incident, so Barca survived with the scoresheet intact and took full advantage when Messi opened the scoring just a few minutes later.
And coming on the same day that nearest rivals Sevilla and Atletico Madrid both dropped points in a 1-1 draw while Real suffered a shocking 2-0 home loss to Real Sociedad – during which they were denied a seemingly clear penalty by another confusing non-use of VAR – the dice are certainly falling Barca’s way in the opening stages of the new year.
MESSI AND SUAREZ MAKE THE DIFFERENCE
Despite that let-off Barca still had to go on and win the game, and once again their superstar strike duo of Messi and Suarez did just that with a pair of superbly taken first half strikes which ultimately proved to be enough for the points.
The goals were very different in nature but both required exquisite technique, firstly as Messi ran onto a half-saved shot to convert from a very narrow angle, making it look easy as he ran at full pace to squeeze his shot inside the posts. Then Suarez watched a dropping ball just outside the area and waited patiently before swiveling to thunder a magnificent right-footed volley which flew past Getafe keeper David Soria, completing a one-two punch with his captain.
The gulf in finishing quality was laid bare in the second half, when home team striker Mata embarked upon a mazy dribble which took him past Marc-Andre ter Stegen to create a glorious chance, but he ruined it by awkwardly slicing his shot high and wide.
Messi and Suarez would have almost certainly scored from the same position, and the presence of those two formidable goalscorers is by far the biggest reason for Barca’s comfortable position at the top of the table.
VALVERDE HAS BREATHING ROOM TO ROTATE
The favourable results encountered this weekend have given Barca boss Valverde the perfect opportunity to practise full-scale squad rotation over the course of the next few weeks, which will be packed full of non-stop fixtures assuming his team continues to progress in the Copa del Rey.
Ter Stegen can be relieved at times by Jasper Cillessen in goal; new signing Jeison Murillo (and, when he’s fit, Thomas Vermaelen) can deputise for Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet at the back; Sergi Roberto and Nelson Semedo can share playing time at right-back; Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic can do likewise in the midfield pivot; Rakitic, Roberto, Arturo Vidal, Carles Alena and Arthur can take turns in midfield; Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Malcom can swap in and out on the wings.
The only players who really cannot be replaced, and will have to play more games than most, are Suarez, Messi and Alba. Barring any moves in the January transfer market – which certainly should be considered in the left-back position, there are no decent back-ups within the squad for any of those players, although Coutinho and Dembele could occasionally both start to relieve one of the front two.
A full-blown rotation policy would be risky and could result in some points being dropped, but Barca have those points to play with and it’s unlikely that either Sevilla or Atletico – and certainly not Real – will string together a long winning run.
Even with 19 games still remaining, the league is now half-won. So Valverde should look further ahead and start planning for the resumption of the Champions League, when he will need his players to be refreshed and focused, rather than tired and jaded. It’s time to be bold and show full faith in the whole squad.
Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were the predictable goalscoring heroes as Barcelona squeezed past hard-fighting Getafe with a 2-1 victory at the Alfonso Perez Coliseum on Sunday night.
It was far from easy for the reigning champions and not everybody covered themselves in glory, but the job got done…just about. Here is how all the players rated.
Soria 8. Made a series of good stops, denying Messi, Suarez and Pique to keep his team in it. Unlucky with the opener.
D Suarez 6. Had his hands full with Dembele and Alba but stuck to the task. Unlucky to inadvertently ‘assist’ Messi’s opener.
Djene 7. Held his team together with a strong performance full of tenacity and anticipation. So hard to shrug off.
Cabrera 5. Blocked a Suarez shot well and came close with a header, but was weak defensively and booked for an awful lunge.
Antunes 8. Came forward to good effect, playing some good crosses from the left, and was solid at the back. Excellent showing.
Foulquier 6. Gave Alba trouble down the right but he had problems defensively and was replaced in the second half.
Maksimovic 5. Remarkably only had 18 touches in the whole game as Barca controlled the middle and Getafe focused on wide areas.
Arambarri 5. Tried to link midfield with attack but spent a lot of time chasing Arthur, and had little impact going forward.
Portillo 5. Started on the left wing before moving to the right but exerted little influence in either position, failing to impress.
Mata 6. Pulled a goal back after earlier having one controversially disallowed but missed a sitter to level the score.
Angel 6. Blasted two reasonable chances over the top and dragged another effort wide, but set up Mata’s goal.
Molina 6. Introduced around the hour mark and was a handful with his physical presence but had no real chances.
Saiz 5. Entered the action for the final 20 minutes and threatened to cut inside from the left but was well contained.
Ibanez 5. Came on for the latter stages but with almost no effect, barely touching the ball.
Ter Stegen 7. Made a flying second half save to preserve his team’s lead and gathered a few dangerous crosses well.
Roberto 5. Back in action after injury and looked below the pace, with much of Getafe’s threat originating down his flank.
Pique 7. The lynchpin of his team’s defence, reading the game well to snuff out danger. Nearly scored with a first half snapshot.
Lenglet 5. Not his finest game. Looked vulnerable in the air and was sometimes too uncertain and tentative in the challenge.
Alba 6. A game of two halves in positional terms. Struggled defensively, especially against crosses, but a threat going forward
Vidal 6. An aggressive and energetic performance in the centre of midfield, but lacked precision and was replaced.
Rakitic 6. Operated deeper than usual and was initially very smooth but lost control after the break and changed position.
Arthur 7. Controlled the first half tempo with an excellent range of passing. Struggled early in the second half but finished strong.
Messi 7. Pounced on a half chance to open the scoring and produced several superb moments, but missed a decent chance at 2-1.
Suarez 7. Made it 2-0 with a stunning volley from outside the area. Worked hard without gaining any more reward.
Dembele 6. An electric early burst preluded a bright display, regularly threatening to breaking through but never quite doing it.
1⃣ One very good reason to go to sleep happy tonight 😘 pic.twitter.com/S7yJlfDd0f— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) 6 January 2019
Busquets 6. Introduced for the final 20 minutes to regain control. Slow to find the pace of the game but then settled.
Coutinho 5. A late replacement for Dembele, but made little impact and didn’t offer the same penetration.
Alena 6. Came on for Arthur with just three minutes to play and helped shore things up in the centre of the field.
Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde says talks over a contract extension at the club will be conducted later in the season amid speculation he could leave the club at the end of this campaign.
The Spaniard’s original contract is for two years, with an option to extend by another year. That deal will run out at the end of the season, and so far no decision over the extension has been taken.
However, speaking ahead of the La Liga leaders’ trip to Getafe on Sunday, Valverde said simply that he and the club will “discuss it later”.
“It is true the contract was for two years plus one and at the end of the season it is necessary to decide,” Valverde said on Saturday.
“We will discuss it later, we are not even halfway through the season. There has always been a good relationship. If you lose one game, you are in trouble here but I have a contract with Barca.”
Barcelona currently hold a three-point lead atop the league table, ahead of second-placed Atletico Madrid, and are looking to win the league for the second season running.
However, Valverde knows his spell will be judged on European success, especially after the way his team threw away a three-goal advantage in last year’s Champions League quarter-finals against Roma.
Barcelona last won Europe’s biggest club trophy in 2015, with arch-rivals Real Madrid winning it every year since, a run of three consecutive titles that had never been done before in the modern era. That spell of success has stung at the Camp Nou, with regaining the Champions League trophy now bordering on an obsession.
Madrid are enduring a transition season this year and will struggle to make it four in a row, but Valverde is not taking Barcelona’s fiercest rivals lightly, even saying that Los Blancos are title rivals despite being seven points behind.
“We still consider Madrid a candidate for the title,” said the Barcelona manager. “Sometimes the gaps seem great but they are not so much, just two and a half games, and we see them as one of our rivals.”
“This year La Liga is tighter, everything is more compressed. But always it is better if we are first.”
Meanwhile, Valverde revealed that defender Samuel Umtiti could resume training this month as he continues to recover from a knee injury that has restricted him to just eight appearances this season.
“We think that in a couple of weeks he can start training again with the team, we’ll see how things are going,” Valverde said.
“I always try to be optimistic and I would like that to happen. I think he has positive feelings, let’s see.”
Barcelona are going through an injury crisis at the back, with Umtiti’s fellow centre-back Thomas Vermaelen having also missed most of the season, leaving Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet as the only fit players for the position. La Blaugrana were forced to sign Jeison Murillo on loan from Valencia in order to shore up the defensive ranks, a move Valverde expects to pay off.
“Our idea was that Jeison would be available as soon as possible and he knows the league,” Valverde said. “He’s going to have to play and we hope to see the best of him,” he added.
Apart from Umtiti and Vermaelen, only midfielder Rafinha, who has a long-term injury, will miss Sunday’s game, with Sergi Roberto and Malcom available again after recovering from injuries of their own.