Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, Sevilla – There were two minutes left to play. Real Madrid had tried, so had Atletico, Valencia and Juventus too. Eibar had been a struggle whilst they left it late at Espanyol and Stamford Bridge. Perhaps the most surprising was at home to Alaves when they were behind for almost an hour but came good in the final 20. However, here – in Sevilla – the match had seemingly got away from them. In the stadium that is considered the fieriest in all of Spain, the atmosphere, as ever, was proving hard to quell. It had been a poor performance by Barcelona standards – to say it was the worst of the season would be no exaggeration. For the first time they had looked ordinary. And for the first time this season, a Barcelona defeat was only two minutes away.
Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele were all on the pitch, Paco Alcacer and Leo Messi came off the bench. If Sevilla had just been leading by one goal, then there would always have been a chance. But to get two? No chance. It was all but over and most knew it. Was this result going to affect the destiny of the league title? No. But it would mean that the long-standing unbeaten run record in La Liga would not be matched and the ‘invincibles’ they would be not.
The match had started at a fast pace…and mainly in Barcelona’s half. There have been times this season when Barcelona have not sparkled and shined quite as brightly as in recent seasons but it was clear from the first whistle that this was going to be a tough test. Sevilla – who have knocked out Manchester United in the Champions League this season and also set up a Copa del Rey final tie against Barcelona in three weeks time – created the majority of the chances in the opening period.
Jesus Navas was heavily involved on the right side. The former Manchester City winger laid off Steven N’Zonzi who played the ball across the penalty area to Joaquin Correa who found himself in plenty of space on the right edge of the area but his rather tame goalbound shot was blocked. Correa continued to threaten the Barcelona defence with his pace and trickery. He strode forward with the ball and an exuberance that Sevilla have all to often lacked this season. Luis Muriel supported him, received the ball and shot wide from a tight angle. Navas – once again showing his energy – kept the ball in on the far side and crossed for Correa but his header went wide past Marc Andre Ter-Stegen’s post.
Barcelona struggled to get out of their own half; they were pushed back by the Sevilla attack and the noise of the crowd. The decibels were raised even higher 10 minutes before half time when Navas crossed deep from the right to Correa who controlled well and played a neat one-two with Sergio Escudero. The ball was pulled back towards Franco Vazquez in the penalty area and his scuffed attempt at goal found its way past Ter-Stegen and into the Barcelona net. It was a fine move but the finish itself was scruffy to say the least but the home crowd didn’t care. Samuel Umtiti and Gerard Pique squabbled between themselves; they were unaccustomed to conceding such a tame effort.
Walking down the steep red steps of the Sevilla tunnel at half time, Valverde and his side should have counted themselves lucky that they were only the one goal down. But the home side started the second half as they had finished the first – creating chances and limiting the influence of Andres Iniesta and denying any meaningful service to Luis Suarez. The rather maladroit action in the Barcelona area continued to have the Sevilla fans on the edge of the seats – Correa somehow founded the ball at his feet with only Ter-Stegen to beat but the Argentine’s shot was straight at the Barcelona goalkeeper. The ricochet however fell kindly to Muriel who took a composed touch before stroking a shot towards the bottom right corner of the net. A slight deflection off Umtiti’s leg took the ball further into the corner and beyond Ter-Stegen for Sevilla’s second.
Barcelona looked out of sorts and out of stars, much to the delight of Vincenzo Montella, who had spent the majority of the first half puffing his cheeks at the chances that his Sevilla side had spurned. La blaugrana had gone behind nine times in La Liga this season and come back to draw or win on every occasion. They had only conceded twice in a match in any competition this season two times and hadn’t conceded a single goal since the 1st of March. It was clear that this particular game on Saturday evening was proving to be different to most that have gone before this season.
35 minutes left.
In an attempt to save the unbeaten record, Valverde sent on Messi – the Barcelona manager said that the plan had always been to bring Messi on, but surely he didn’t imagine that it would be in such circumstances. And sure enough he had barely been on the pitch a matter of minutes before he started to create openings. Suddenly the link between the midfield and attack was there. With half an hour still to play, the game was far from over and the visitors’ chances started to rack up. Jordi Alba played a teasing ball into Suarez but the sliding Uruguayan could only push the ball into the side netting.
25 minutes left.
Sevillan nerves were tested further when Sergio Rico dropped a somewhat easy catch and the ball fell at the feet of Suarez but Rico’s defence bailed him out by swooping in to clear the ball. The momentum of the game had changed. Muriel did have two further chances to extend Sevilla’s lead but they came against the run of play. The sense of frustration whenever Muriel received the ball in the area showed that it will take more than the odd goal to win over the Sanchez Pizjuan faithful.
Five minutes left.
Messi, once again, found space in and around the Sevilla defence but his attempt went straight into the side netting. But, with the finish line in sight and a two-goal advantage in hand, the home crowd believed they had done it. The manner in which the chances fell also supported that line of thinking that it was just going to be one of those evenings for Barcelona. Alba crossed, Ivan Rakitic provided a deft touch but the effort was pushed onto the post by Rico. Messi shot – and fiercely – but straight into the chest of Nolito.
Two minutes left.
Scarves were being swung, songs sung. It was over all but in name. However, there was a corner on the left. Denis Suarez delivered the ball, it was flicked on by Rakitic’s head towards the back post. Luis Suarez arrived and guided the ball into the goal. No sooner had it gone past the line, was Suarez picking it up again. Surely not.
One Minute left.
Alba passed to Coutinho, who then played a rather non-specific ball towards the edge of the D of the penalty area. Denis Suarez approached the ball and shaped to shoot but then he head a shout. He hesitated and stepped aside. And then the ball was struck from 25 yards out past Rico and into the bottom corner… by Messi.
Mundo Deportivo – the Spanish newspaper – proclaimed ‘Otro milagro de Leo’ [More magic from Messi], whilst AS announced ‘Messi lo cambio todo’ [Messi changes everything]. It now felt like a defeat for Sevilla and a victory for Barcelona. The quotes from the Sevilla players all carried the same tone; Rico: “It leaves us with a bitter taste,” Navas: “It was a great match that escaped us,” Montella: “It was painful but I’m proud of my team.”
Valverde, in his own clear and calm style, managed to sum it all up as perfectly as ever: “We took a chance, things were not going that well for us. In the first half, despite them creating chances, we also had some as well. It was fairly even, but they went into the break with an advantage and then scored a second just after half time. They had the chance then to play on the counter-attack and when they did that we had to come back but you know what can happen.”
“However, if you have faith you can keep playing. We were looking for the goal to get us back into the game, we did and then we got the second. If there had been five more minutes, I don’t know what would have happened. This will be great for the spirit of the team because we know how important the game was to keep that unbeaten run going.”
Los Otros Puntos
- ‘Bale books his ticket for Turin’ ran the headline on Marca’s front page on Sunday morning. It kind of summed everything up. Real Madrid’s match against Las Palmas was an audition for many – Cristiano Ronaldo, Toni Kroos and Marcelo were amongst those rested – the game in the sun-drenched Estadio Gran Canaria was a mere formality and a precursor to the main action in Italy on Tuesday. Gareth Bale scored two of Real Madrid’s three – one following a fine Luka Modric through-ball and another from the penalty spot shortly after half time. Las Palmas, as ever, played a high defensive line and made it easy for los blancos. Karim Benzema got his goal – also from the penalty spot – but it was to be Bale’s evening, he had staked his claim for a starting shirt on Tuesday.
- Not many away fans travel to Eibar. Real Sociedad, however, are a side that do bring a relatively large following to Ipurua. It’s therefore a shame that they had to sit through a turgid affair on Sunday afternoon.
- “El escudo no se toca!” was the shout from the Atletico Madrid fans. There was a little protest against prospect of a new club badge. All this modernisation – new badge, new stadium – is coming to quickly for some Atleti supporters. They’ll therefore be quite content that it was a time-honoured characteristic 1-0 win for their side against Deportivo.
- Malaga won!! The victory over Villarreal represented their first three points in 15 matches and their first win at La Rosaleda since November, and just their third at home all season.
Girona 1–1 Levante
Athletic Bilbao 1–1 Celta Vigo
Las Palmas 0–3 Real Madrid
Sevilla 2–2 Barcelona
Espanyol 0–0 Alaves
Leganes 0–1 Valencia
Eibar 0–0 Real Sociedad
Malaga 1–0 Villarreal
Atletico Madrid 1–0 Deportivo
Getafe – Real Betis to be played on Monday
El Jugador de la Semana: Gareth Bale (Real Madrid)
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