Lionel Messi’s first half hat trick was enough to guide Barcelona past Valencia, and remain top of the La Liga table.
Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino made two changes to the side that drew Atletico Madrid midweek, in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup. Pedro Rodriguez joined Lionel Messi and Neymar to form the attack in Martino’s 4-3-3. Andres Iniesta also returned to the side replacing Xavi, to form a midfield three with Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Busquets.
Miroslav Dukic made three changes to his starting lineup, after last week’s defeat to Espanyol. Sergio Canales and Dorlan Pabon joined Ever Banega in Valencia’s attacking three, replacing Jonas and Sofiane Feghouli. Andres Guardado started at left back in place of Jeremy Mathieu in Valencia’s back four, while Helder Postiga started as the lone striker.
Despite Postiga’s late first half goals, Barcelona took advantage of the space between the lines and was the dominant side, creating several chances throughout the match.
It’s normal for teams to drop off against Barcelona, based on their superiority in midfield, but what’s key is how you approach the match without the ball. Valencia took a naïve approach and chose to sit deep in a 4-5-1, as they chose to play a high-line.
Now there’s no issue with the way Dukic aligned his men – the main issue was the lack of pressure applied to the Catalan side when they had the ball, and the amount of space between defenders. Valencia allowed Barcelona to play the match with freedom, and they punished Dukic’s men with three first half goals.
One area that Barcelona got criticized for last season was their goal to keep a solid shape, opposed to pressing higher up the pitch when they lost the ball. Not only did it force Barcelona to defend for longer periods, but they also strayed away from a formula that was successful in the past.
But the arrival of Martino has seen the Catalan side revert back to their defensive strategy, when the opposition has possession. They worked hard to close down Dukic’s men when they attempted to play from the back, forcing the home side to concede possession. It was successful in the first half, and it led to Messi’s second goal of the night. Valencia won possession and looked to play out of their half through Banega, but Busquets pressed the Argentine and won possession. Fabregas picked up the ball and played a lovely pass to Messi, who calmly slotted his shot into the back of the net.
Martino’s men worked hard to retain possession with their pressure, forcing Valencia to concede possession in their own half, presenting them with legitimate goal-scoring opportunities.
Barcelona between the lines
One clear aspect to Barcelona’s dominance was the amount of space available between the lines. Dukic’s men often changed their shape without the ball – they went from two banks of four, to a bank of five ahead of the back four, and despite being organized, they were not compact.
Messi’s opener stemmed from the amount of space and time Fabregas received on the ball. Minutes prior to Messi’s goal, Fabregas played a defence splitting pass to Neymar, but the Brazilian was unable to make the most of the opportunity. Messi was different – despite being fortunate, the Argentine made an identical run behind the defence, but he got the ball past the keeper and tapped it into the open net.
But it wasn’t only Fabregas enjoying the abundance of space available, Messi also dropped deeper, and the Barcelona forward had a significant impact in the Catalan side’s dominance. Messi found pockets of space throughout the Valencia half and was combining with his teammates, spreading passes wide, and aiming to thread that decisive ball in the final third.
It was no surprise that Messi and Fabregas connected for Messi’s third goal – based on their dominance in the opening 40 minutes, it was just a matter of time. Messi dropped into midfield to receive the ball and he found Fabregas unmarked between the lines, waiting to receive the ball. Messi played in Fabregas, who then found Neymar out on the left – Neymar found an oncoming Messi who slotted the ball into the net.
The third goal highlighted the amount of freedom Barcelona was given when in possession, and Martino’s men deserved their three-goal lead.
The often-maligned Portuguese striker was signed by Valencia to replace Roberto Soldado, who made a move to Tottenham over the summer. Surprisingly, for all the negative reviews the Portuguese international gathers, he’s still managed to find the back of the net. And in the span of five minutes, Postiga pegged his side back into the match with two quality finishes.
Postiga provided an exquisite finish for his first goal, as Joao Pereira got into an advanced position on the right flank, and provided an outstanding cross for his countrymen. Minutes later, Postiga narrowed the lead to one, when the Portuguese striker made an intelligent near post run and flicked the ball into the far post.
Postiga’s goals provided moments of brilliance, which allowed Valencia back in the game, despite their shambolic performance in the first half.
Valencia got into dangerous positions in the final third, when they took advantage of the space provided in wide areas.
In the first half, Joao Pereira was allowed to push forward at will, with Neymar not instructed to track the Portuguese fullback, when he surged forward. Iniesta drifted over occasionally to nullify Pereira’s threat, and Mascherano was forced to on a few occasions as well – this didn’t bode well for Martino’s men as Postiga was then able to drop off and link play with Mascherano out of position. Pereira’s freedom out wide led to Postiga’s opener, and it was an element to their attack that was successful in the opening 45 minutes.
Dukic’s men took their focus to the opposite flank in the second half, looking to overload Dani Alves. In fairness, if Barcelona continued their high pressing that was so successful in the first half, this may not be an issue, but the Catalan side chose to get back into shape without the ball. When Barcelona lost possession, Banega and Pabon attacked the space behind Alves, creating a few opportunities. Banega and Pabon overloaded the left flank when Barcelona got into their shape, delivering dangerous balls into the box, but Valencia failed to find an equalizer.
Barcelona was exceptional in the opening 40 minutes, and although they missed several chances to put the game out of reach, the rapid decline in their intensity, allowed Valencia back into the match.
Valencia drops their second match in a row, conceding six goals in total, which is not impressive. Dukic’s men were fortunate not to lose by higher tally, based on how open they were throughout the match. With the Europa League about to kick off, it’ll be interesting to see how Valencia copes, but there are a few warning signs that are clearly being shown. The one positive is that Postiga has yet to look a downgrade to Soldado, and they’ll need the Portuguese striker firing if they intend on claiming a European spot this season.
Barcelona keeps their perfect record intact, and they may not have an easier away outing this season. More importantly, the front three are beginning to click and Neymar is slowly finding his groove in La Liga. The one worry for Martino besides signing a centre-back, will be the approach he adopts, once his men are unable to press higher up the pitch, as Barcelona look quite vulnerable when sitting off and keeping their shape. Nevertheless, Messi continued to display why he’s the best player on the planet, while Fabregas has given Martino belief that he can afford to rest Xavi.