Barcelona got back into winning ways after a three-game drawing streak with a 1-0 home victory over Real Valladolid on Saturday night, but it was far from pretty as the league leaders stumbled their way through an error-strewn performance.
With a brutal run of fixtures coming up, a more convincing display and scoreline would have been much preferable, but perhaps this below-par outing was merely an indication that their priorities lie elsewhere.
Let’s review the action with our three key talking points:
Pique reaches the peak
In a largely underwhelming performance full of loose touches and misplaced passes, at least one Barcelona player reached his full potential: Gerard Pique was simply marvellous, defending with poise and authority to repel Valladolid’s threat, repeatedly making important interventions as his team sealed the points with a clean sheet.
And that’s not all, because the experienced defender also played a key role in the only goal of the game, recognising that Valladolid were short in numbers at the back following a counter-attack and striding forward to spark a break, then continuing his run to win the decisive penalty after Lionel Messi’s shot was blocked.
Pique made a slow start to the season with several individual errors proving costly, but now he has put that behind him to string together an outstanding run of form, and his defensive presence bodes well for the major tests that lurk around the corner in the coming weeks.
It was also notable that Pique received very solid support from fellow centre back Thomas Vermaelen, who would surely have become a key figure in the backline if his Camp Nou career hadn’t been blighted by injuries. Whenever he can be called upon, the Belgian remains an excellent partner for Pique.
Valverde rings the changes
With a daunting run of fixtures coming up – starting with Tuesday’s Champions League trip to Lyon – Barca manager Ernesto Valverde decided to rotate his squad by resting regular starters Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Clement Lenglet, giving starts to Vermaelen in the centre of defence, Carles Alenya in midfield and a home debut for January signing Kevin-Prince Boateng.
Valverde has regularly been criticised in the past for not rotating enough, but the determined seriousness with which Barca are treating the Champions League was made plain by this team selection.
It also provided an example of why such changes can be dangerous because Barca desperately struggled throughout the game, as Valladolid maintained the stalemate with remarkable ease before the deadlock was broken with a needlessly conceded penalty and then stayed in contention until the final whistle.
The extent to which Barca’s slow start can be blamed on squad rotation is impossible to ascertain, and it’s easy to argue they were so poor because they already had an eye on their upcoming fixture list. But it’s certainly the case that they struggled to find their rhythm in this encounter and will have to improve markedly and immediately to avoid a first leg loss at Lyon on Tuesday.
Brave Valladolid pay the price
Although visiting Valladolid showed defensive discipline with a well-organised five-man backline, they still offered plenty of attacking intent by fielding three forwards – Sergi Guardiola, Enes Unal and Daniele Verde – who got upfield at every opportunity.
But Valladolid’s bravery proved their undoing in the main moment of the game towards the end of the first half, when the visiting team intercepted a stray pass from Messi and threw no less than six men forward in a rapid and dangerous counter-attack.
But when that ended with Nacho’s cross sailing harmlessly out of play, the ambition they had shown in throwing so many men in attack left them horribly exposed as Pique launched a quick counter, eventually forcing skipper Michel into conceding a penalty with a desperate challenge.
Coming so close to claiming a point at the Camp Nou but losing to a goal largely of their own making must have been hugely frustrating for Valladolid, who became the latest to be handed a lesson painfully learned by many Camp Nou visitors in the past: if you give Barca space, they can kill you.
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