Barcelona were forced to battle back from behind to earn a 3-1 win against relegation-strugglers Rayo Vallecano and maintain their seven-point lead in La Liga.
Real Madrid loanee Raul de Tomas’ driving run and artful low finish gave the capital side – who came in on a five-match losing streak – hope of a shock upset, plus an 11th top-flight strike for him of a productive campaign.
The champions remained undaunted at Camp Nou, however, and centre-back Gerard Pique nodded in a Lionel Messi free-kick to level on 39 minutes. They then took the lead on 56 minutes when Portuguese right-back Nelson Semedo was felled and the aforementioned Argentina icon marked his 443rd league run-out – going second on Barca’s all-time list – by tapping in a penalty-kick.
A ninth home win of the season was then secured through Uruguay striker Luis Suarez’s close-range effort on 82 minutes.
Here are the talking points from Camp Nou:
Nelson Semedo’s career under Ernesto Valverde has been one of extremes.
There’s no doubt that he provides a much greater threat from right-back than Sergi Roberto with the – occasional – Portugal international’s piercing pace seeing him consistently able to break lines.
But from a defensive perspective, he’s often been left exposed, particularly in the more important fixtures. Indeed, there’s been numerous occasions when the manager has hooked him at half-time and there’s always an underlying sense Valverde simply doesn’t trust him within this system.
There was to be another change on that right side in this game as well, but one which Barcelona fans can certainly get behind. France winger Ousmane Dembele was introduced at half-time and his partnership with Semedo is simply electric.
The pair charge each other. Semedo was a little isolated in the first half before Dembele’s entry and that slick combination created the burst which had been missing in the first half.
They connected quickly as the right-back was freed to storm into the box and earn a crucial penalty.
It’s an unexploited combination which hasn’t been seen too often and kind of mirrors the Messi-Alba bond on the opposite side.
After another dynamic display from the two, it’s one Valverde should certainly trust and consider more often, particularly in the Champions League.
MESSI AND WIDE FREE-KICKS
Of all Messi’s traits, it’s the one which is least talked about but is perhaps one of the Argentine’s most effective weapons – his free-kick delivery.
His possession of practically the entire range of skills required to be both an elite playmaker and goal scorer means that it’s easy to forget some of his other talents.
And even when it comes to dead-ball situations, thoughts turn to the fact that no other player scored more direct free-kick goals last season than Messi (six) and he’s second in Spain this term (three).
Yet, the 31-year-old showed that he’s one of the best in Europe when it comes to delivery from wide free-kick positions as well, by creating the equaliser for Pique.
Granted, the marking from the Rayo defenders was egregious after failing to adequately mark arguably Barca’s biggest aerial threat.
And the visitors had already been warned when on the opposite side, just prior to the goal which was delivered from the right, the Catalan defender directed wide when Messi had accurately supplied him.
However, the placement (often in between goal and the defensive line) the pace (always whipped in bending away from the goalkeeper) and height (sits right onto the target’s head) is so consistently precise it’s a surprise that this was his first free-kick La Liga assist of the season.
His 33 accurate deliveries rank him among the best in Spain, though.
Raul de Tomas was one of the key protagonists in Rayo Vallecano’s promotion from the Segunda and the Madrid loanee has certainly done his best in trying to keep his side in the division.
The 24-year-old opened the scoring with a quite sublime finish – albeit thanks to some lethargic defending as Samuel Umtiti backed up to allow the striker space as he raided down the left before curling into the bottom corner.
It was his 11th goal, almost half his team’s entire La Liga total this term, and makes him the joint highest-scoring Spaniard in the division.
Should Vallecano go down and Real decide against retaining him in their set-up, he won’t be short of suitors.
Know more about Sport360 Application