Travelling to the small Basque city of Eibar is always a spectacle for Barcelona. Seeing Barça’s stars taking to the field at the hostile atmosphere of the Ipurua is an interesting sight, and the team of superstars are always expected to roll the little team over, but Eibar’s quick growth into La Liga battlers has made sure that they are anything but pushovers.
Eibar started that game by far the better side, pressing Luis Enrique’s team high and limiting Barça to minimal ball possession in their own half of the pitch and not allowing them to dominate possession like they usually do. The whole Eibar team were working their socks off to make sure FCB’s never before used centre-back pairing of Samuel Umtiti and Jérémy Mathieu had no time on the ball, forcing them and Marc-andré Ter Stegen to play long balls towards Suárez and company.
The one thing that is always key with a pressing tactic is persistence. It is very difficult, in a game where only three substitutes are allowed, to consistently use a high press without being picked off.
Barça rode the first few waves of the Eibar press without giving away any major chances, but the press saw Sergio Busquets a casualty after a very poor challenge from Gonzalo Escalante which somehow escaped the awarding of a free-kick let alone a booking. It was clear that after Busquets came off Barça struggled even more against Eibar’s frantic play style.
Barça gradually started to get into the game and after Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez had a couple of chances go begging, Denis Suárez, who came on for the injured Busquets, saw the ball perfectly set up for long shot after a few deflections and took up the chance to score his first goal for the club, hitting a first time effort into the bottom left corner and giving Barça what they needed after struggling for the majority of the half.
After breaking the deadlock Barça still weren’t convincing and failed to really get a grip of the game, but Messi, despite reverting back to a normal hairstyle, still stood out. The Argentine was floating around the pitch playing the most ridiculous through passes, but the players given the gift of a Messi through ball failed to convert the chances and FCB went into the break 1-0 up.
Going into the second 45 minutes and it was interesting to find out whether José Luis Mendilibar’s side could keep up their solid performance from the first half, but just five minutes in Messi finished off a brilliant cross by Suárez, caressing the ball on the bounce underneath Eibar ‘keeper Yoel Rodríguez for the second.
With Messi well and truly in the mood, Barça looked like scoring a few more before returning to Catalonia. And that’s what they did.
18 minutes after Messi made it 2-0, Suárez added the third. The Uruguayan pressed Eibar left-back Florian Lejuene, stole the ball from him bundling him over in the process and with a clean run on goal slotted home his 15th goal of the Liga season.
With the Copa del Rey second leg against Real Sociedad coming up for Barça in the week, Enrique saw the chance to give some players a rest. Aleix Vidal replaced Sergi Roberto before the third goal, and a Paco Alcácer on the hunt for his first Liga goal of the season replaced Suárez with 15 minutes to play.
A tired looking Eibar side continued to try to give their fans something to celebrate but were mostly limited to snapshots inside the box and long-range efforts. Ter Stegen had a relatively quite evening, contributing to the attack more than making saves, with his biggest threat being a swerving strike by Pedro León which the German saved fairly comfortably, adding a bit of a dive for the cameras.
In the closing minutes of the game Neymar got his first La Liga from open play since September after Aleix Vidal sent in a teasing cross which Alcácer kindly left for the Brazilian who tucked home into the bottom left corner.
Despite beginning the game poorly, failing to retain or circulate the ball, Barcelona eventually breezed past a valiant Eibar in a performance that some call the performance of champions, not playing too well but securing the points comfortably, and with a somewhat rotated line-up, this is a good win for Barça during a busy period of the season.
Luis Enrique’s men will now go into the Copa tie at the Camp Nou with Gerard Piqué fresh after being rested, Andrés Iniesta back from a minor injury, and a squad confident that they can see out the tie with their 1-0 advantage from the Anoeta.
The only question that everyone is wanting the answer to is: who will replace Busquets? It looks like the defensive pivot will be out with an ankle injury for at least a few weeks, so it will be interesting to see who Enrique will pick to fill that void.