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.
Lionel Messi’s penalty was enough for Barcelona to take the points from a hard-fought game against Real Valladolid at Camp Nou on Saturday night, but that was a rare bright spot in a largely poor performance.
Even Messi struggled to shine in this La Liga clash, having another penalty saved, and the three points from the 1-0 win were largely thanks to a strong defensively display – as revealed by our full player ratings.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen 6: Had little to do as Valladolid wasted their occasional chances with wayward finishing. Solid enough.
Sergi Roberto 6: Always a willing runner coming forward but was suspect defensively, with many attacks coming down his side.
Gerard Pique 9: Flawless in defence and found time to bound forward and win the penalty for the opener. In majestic form.
Thomas Vermaelen 8: Outstanding at the back alongside Pique, showing decisiveness and a sureness of touch in everything he did.
Jordi Alba 6: Much less effective than usual going forward as Barca toiled, but did a determined job at the back.
Arturo Vidal 6: Did good work defensively and tried to time runs forward into the box, but lacked quality on the ball.
Sergio Busquets 6: A so-so performance in midfield, failing to establish full control over the encounter as Barca struggled for rhythm.
Carles Alena 7: Continued his rapid development with another confident and mature display, a few loose touches notwithstanding.
Lionel Messi 5: Crunched home a perfect penalty in the first half but saw his second saved to typify a remarkably off the pace display.
Kevin-Prince Boateng 4: Had a low early shot saved and wasted another chance by delaying. Struggled to look the part in a Barca shirt.
Ousmane Dembele 7: Bright and lively on his first start for four weeks, playing his way back to fitness with some dangerous bursts.
Luis Suarez 4: Replaced Prince after an hour and somehow squandered three great chances, looking clumsy and off the pace.
Philippe Coutinho 6: Came on for Dembele with 20 minutes remaining and looked sharp, winning the second penalty with a dazzling run.
Ivan Rakitic N/A: Introduced for Alena for the last quarter of an hour and did a calm and unfussy job, without really shining.
Jordi Masip 8: Former Barca keeper made a remarkable save from Messi just after the break and later saved his second penalty.
Joaquin Fernandez 7: Made an excellent early challenge on Dembele to prelude an alert and rigorous display on the right of the back three.
Kiko Olivas 7: Read the game brilliantly and broke up countless attacks with sharp anticipation, but fouled Coutinho for the second penalty.
Fernando Calero 7: Highly rated defender delivered another calm and composed display, keeping his cool despite Messi’s regular dribbles at him.
Antonito 6: Did well to block an early strike from Dembele and worked hard to cut out Alba’s threat, but rarely got forward.
Anuar Tuhami 6: Tried to link midfield with attack and was occasionally successful, but couldn’t find a killer ball to break open the defence.
Michel 7: Visiting skipper sat in front of the back four and did a diligent job but conceded the penalty for the only goal.
Nacho 6: Delivered some decent crosses but wasted a glorious counter-attacking chance with a poor cross just before the goal.
Daniele Verde 6: Bright and busy, showing good movement and unlucky to be substituted midway through the second half.
Enes Unal 5: Booked for an early aerial challenge on Busquets and offered little threat before being replaced 15 minutes from time.
Sergi Guardiola 6: The man with a famous namesake led Valladolid’s line well, showing skill on the ball, but lacked penetration.
Toni Villa 6: Only lasted a few minutes before his night ended in despair as he was forced off through injury.
Stiven Plaza N/A: Came on to make his debut in attack and looked strong and fast, but Pique and Vermaelen handled him well.
Keko N/A: Patrolled the right wing after being introduced and worked hard without offering much end product.
Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde said it was an “easy decision” to sign a contract extension with the Spanish giants.
The former Blaugrana player has committed his future to the club for another season, with an option for a further year, which would take him to four years in charge if he remains until the summer of 2021.
“I had good rapport with the club and everything went in a natural way,” Valverde said ahead of Barca’s game with Real Valladolid on Saturday.
“As for the team, I feel we are all on good terms and the decision was easy for me.”
Valverde’s men go into Saturday’s game leading rivals Real Madrid by six points in La Liga with 15 games to go.
Victory would be a welcome way to celebrate Valverde’s new contract, particularly given Barca’s recent dip in form.
They are also searching for momentum with the Champions League last-16 tie with Lyon and the Copa del Rey semi-final second leg against Real looming.