Games against Valencia at the Mestalla always seem to cause trouble for Luis Enrique’s Barcelona. Since Lucho took charge of the Blaugrana in the 2014/15 season, Barcelona have scraped two wins and drawn once at the 55,000 seater stadium, and every time, despite the frequent change of managers, Los Che have always gone into the games in an aggressive nature – not to mention the fans, who now have a record of two bottles thrown in the three Mestalla meetings since 14/15.
Saturday’s afternoon kick off was no different to previous meetings at Valencia’s ground. There was reckless tackling, strange refereeing, deafening noise from the stands, and overall a complicated game of football.
Both teams barely had a chance to settle into the game when, in the 12th minute, Enzo Pérez’s hard but fair (kind of) tackle left Andrés Iniesta on the floor as his knee jerked into an awkward position. Iniesta injured his lateral collateral ligament in his right knee and will be out for six to eight weeks.
After the injury to Iniesta, it was clear that the midfield was going to miss some kind of creative spark with André Gomes starting his career in Barcelona colours in a somewhat reserved fashion, and substitute Ivan Rakitić not really being of the creative mould. The game was calling out for someone to take control, for someone to provide a decisive moment.
Rakitić attempted to side-foot the ball to Luis Suárez from the right-wing, but after a few bounces off of players in white, the ball fell back to the Croat, who naturally gave the ball to Lionel Messi. Messi, surrounded by five Valencia players smashed the ball towards Diego Alves’ near post, beating the ‘keeper and making it feel like the game could turn into an exhibition against a struggling side.
As the half continued, it was clear that Valencia weren’t going to roll over for Barcelona, as they continued to press every ball, and go at the players with aggression and toughness, especially on Sergio Busquets. It’s obvious to the majority of coaches now that almost all of Barcelona’s play flows through the gangly legged Catalan, and as that becomes general knowledge throughout the league, teams are starting to focus more on pressing him and attempting to stop his every move, and, for Valencia, it even got to a point where they were trying to get Busi sent off by going down softly in every duel.
Barça arrived at the half-time break in front but not totally in control, with Valencia having some late chances before a spectacular Neymar overhead kick went over the bar. Enter Barcelona loanee Munir el Haddadi.
Just seven minutes after replacing familiar face Martín Montoya, Munir hit a sweet first time left-footed strike past Marc-André Ter Stegen to make the game 1-1 and gave Valencia what they probably deserved. Munir walked away after scoring, with beIN Sports commentator describing the moment: ‘Every Valencian in the world is happy right now, apart from one, Munir’.
Munir’s strike seemed to stun Barcelona, and as we have seen on a few occasions this season, the defence imploded and before you knew it Rodrigo Moreno latched onto a beautiful Luis Nani looped pass to make the score 2-1 to Valencia.
Despite being down, even after the second Valencia goal, it always felt like Barcelona would come back, and six minutes into Valencia’s lead, Luis Suárez popped up to level the game once again with a slightly deflected shot flying past Diego Alves after a great save from a Rakitić header.
After the equaliser, it felt like another game where Barcelona would fight until the end for a late winner, throwing everything forward to get the three points, memories of Busquets’ late winner a few years ago at the back of their minds. Lucho threw on Denis Suárez in place of the fairly ineffective Gomes as Cesare Prandelli’s side got behind the ball in attempt to salvage a point.
Despite their efforts, Valencia were cut open by a brilliant one-two between Neymar and Messi, who then looked for Suárez who was chopped down by Aymen Abdennour, who had a brilliant game at left-back after replacing injured José Gayà, and the referee pointed to the spot. But still, you could be forgiven for not feeling confident at the awarding of the penalty considering the situation at Barça, as well as Diego Alves’ superhuman ability to save penalties.
Messi stepped up, kept his cool as Alves attempted to distract the Argentine by delaying the penalty, and fired a powerful penalty past the Brazilian ‘keeper, and showed passion and maybe even cockiness as he celebrated and punched the air in front of the Valencia fans, who resorted to their bottle throwing abilities as the team celebrated together.
Despite causing trouble again, playing Valencia at the Mestalla made for yet another La Liga blockbuster, full of fast-paced football, brilliant goals, frantic attacking, suspicious defending and, of course, questionable refereeing. La Liga’s times of craziness can make you feel like you’ve just played the 90 minutes when the final whistle is blown, but that’s what makes it great.
Barcelona are now sat on top of the table with Atlético and Real Madrid, who are one point behind, and Sevilla, who are 2 points behind, yet to play. The squad can now take a needed midweek off, before a seemingly simple game next weekend against a struggling Granada, and then onto the big game at the Etihad Stadium.