Messi and Suarez quiet in Barcelona’s low-key response to Champions League woe
Barcelona took a step towards getting over their disastrous Champions League elimination by beating third-placed Valencia 2-1 on Saturday, setting a league record of 39 games unbeaten in the process and moving to within seven points of lifting the title.
Fewer than 70,000 supporters turned out on a rainy day for the first game since the shock 3-0 defeat at Roma and there appeared to be little enthusiasm for the match, although the mood was lifted when Luis Suarez met Philippe Coutinho’s wonderful pass to give Barca an early lead.
Samuel Umtiti headed in the second goal early in the second half and the fans and players grew more animated as the game went on, although Valencia pulled a goal back from the penalty spot with three minutes remaining.
As coach Ernesto Valverde remarked the day before, you would have been laughed out of town for suggesting Barca would be as far ahead as they are in the title race with six games remaining and this win, coming after a difficult week and against one of the best teams in the division, takes the team closer yet to winning a 25th title.
There were a number of nervy moments across the pitch and Valencia might have got more than their one goal had they pounced on Barca’s many errors.
Manager rating out of 10
6 — Despite many of his players badly needing a rest, both mentally and physically, Valverde picked his strongest starting XI available. The narrow scoreline suggests he was right to do so as Barca picked up another win, but if the team do not win next week’s King’s Cup final against Sevilla more questions will be asked about his unwillingness to rotate his squad.
Player ratings (1-10, with 10 the best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Marc-Andre ter Stegen, 7 — His careless footwork reared its head again when his pass out was intercepted in the area by Rodrigo but he recovered by tipping the Spaniard’s shot on to the bar. Made an impressive left-handed save to thwart Goncalo Guedes in the opening minutes. The German was also desperately close to saving Parejo’s penalty, which squeezed under his body.
DF Sergi Roberto, 6 — Returned to right-back after playing in midfield at the Stadio Olimpico and was given a testing afternoon by Valencia’s Guedes but did enough to prevent the lively Portuguese from scoring or getting an assist.
DF Gerard Pique, 6 — Had a mixed performance, making a vital early block on Geoffrey Kondogbia and clearing Santi Mina’s shot off the line, but also gifted a clear shot to Rodrigo which needed to be tipped behind by Ter Stegen.
DF Samuel Umtiti, 6 — Made an acrobatic block in the first half, diving to get in the way of a shot from Rodrigo then had an untimely slip in the second half which allowed Valencia to attack two vs. one but fortunately Pique saved his bacon. Doubled Barca’s lead by rising to meet Coutinho’s corner, scoring his first league goal of the season.
DF Jordi Alba, 7 — Was Barca’s most dangerous player for a large section of the game and made some important defensive contributions against his former club.
MF Philippe Coutinho, 8 — The Brazilian was lively and incisive throughout the game and found Suarez in limited space for the opening goal, later coming close with a thumping long-range strike. Got a second assist by delivering the corner from which Umtiti headed home. If only he hadn’t been cup-tied in the Champions League.
MF Sergio Busquets, 6 — Barca’s anchor looked to be feeling the after-effects of his foot injury and would probably have rested had Ivan Rakitic not been unavailable, but he still managed to exert control and balance from his base in midfield and got forward occasionally.
MF Paulinho, 5 — The Brazilian did a decent enough job in defence but offered little going forward due to some imprecise passing.
MF Andres Iniesta, 7 — The captain dictated the pace of the game and was desperately unlucky not to score when his stinging volley was beat away by Valencia goalkeeper Neto.
FW Lionel Messi, 6 — More influential than against Roma but still had a quiet game by his usual standards. The Argentine came alive in the second half as Valencia chased the game, setting up Iniesta’s volleyed attempt and twice coming close to scoring, first when he volleyed Busquets’s cross narrowly over the bar and later when he ripped his way through the visiting defence but thrashed just wide of the near post.
FW Luis Suarez, 6 — Missed a clear chance when the game was only a few minutes old but made amends with an expert first-time finish from Coutinho’s pass.
MF Ousmane Dembele, N/R — Replaced Coutinho with 13 minutes left but had little joy in attack and then showed his inexperience by conceding the penalty by hauling over Jose Luis Gaya on the left hand side of the box when he posed no goal threat.
MF Denis Suarez, N/R — Came on for Iniesta and showed some spark in attack but really should have added a third goal when he raced clean through against Neto but shot straight at the Brazilian.
DF Nelson Semdo, N/R — On for the final seconds to waste time.
Richard Martin covers FC Barcelona for ESPN FC. Twitter: @rich9908.