A Lionel Messi brace and Antoine Griezmann goal were enough to earn Barcelona a thrilling 3-2 victory over Valencia on Sunday night, maintaining the pressure in the La Liga title race.
Javi Gracia’s decision to play five at the back and match Barcelona’s system worked wonders in stifling La Blaugrana’s creative edge in the first half, although Ronald Koeman’s men did come agonisingly close to breaking the deadlock through Pedri and Ronald Araujo before the interval.
It was the hosts, however, who managed to find the opener five minutes into the second half. Gabriel Paulista powered a header home from a corner and, despite the visitors demanding a free kick for a foul on Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Valencia wheeled away in celebration.
Barça found a reply quickly, though, after Toni Lato handled in the box from Messi’s cross in the 57th minute. The Argentine saw his spot kick saved by Jasper Cillessen but, after a goalmouth scramble, managed to convert from close range.
Koeman’s men wasted no time in moving into the lead, scoring their second in the 63rd minute. Frenkie de Jong’s header was brilliantly saved by Cillessen (how unlucky can you get?), only for Griezmann to lash home the rebound into an empty net and make it 2-1. Messi then secured his brace six minutes later, deliciously converting a free kick from around 25 yards out and, this time, giving Cillessen absolutely no chance.
Gracia’s side pushed for goals late on, and managed to pull one back through Carlos Soler seven minutes from time. The midfielder got on the ball around 30 yards out from goal and unleashed a wonderstrike that rocketed into Ter Stegen’s top corner.
Despite the late pressure, La Blaugrana held on for a vital victory which moves them level on points with Real Madrid and just two behind leaders Atletico, who they play next weekend – now that’s a title race.
Here are your Barcelona player ratings.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen (GK) – 6/10 – Made a couple of decent saves but was weak from the corner the led to Valencia’s goal, going down way too easily under the pressure of Thierry Correa and couldn’t do anything about Soler’s effort.
Ronald Araujo (CB) – 7/10 – Was left vulnerable by his wing-back at times, but was very strong and composed to contain the threat of Jose Gaya. Also provided a threat from set pieces and was the width of Cillessen’s bicep away from putting his side ahead in the first half.
Gerard Pique (CB) – 7/10 – Was always Barca’s last man and covered his colleagues well when Valencia launched the ball forward. Stayed tight to the likes of Maxi Gomez and Gonçalo Guedes throughout and towered over them, winning six aerial battles.
Clement Lenglet (CB) – 5/10 – You’d be forgiven for mistaking him for a central midfielder at times as he stepped up to help spread play, but he couldn’t really produce any penetrative passes. Was weak to lose Gabriel in the box for Valencia’s opener, and failed to close down Soler for their second.
Sergino Dest (RWB) – 5/10 – Found himself in some promising areas up the right flank but never looked likely to make an impact. Was left wanting defensively, failing to track back quick enough and leaving Araujo isolated at times.
Frenkie de Jong (CM) – 8/10 – Provided his usual dynamism all over the field and was crucial in the final third. His movement caused real problems for the opposition back line, applying the pressure to win the penalty for his side’s first and forcing the save out of Cillessen for the second with brilliant darts into the box.
Sergio Busquets (CM) – 8/10 – Another defensively aggressive performance, making the majority of his eight ball recoveries well inside the opposition half and sustaining attacks with his efficient recycling of the ball.
Pedri (CM) – 7/10 – Visibly energised by his rest in midweek, and was a menace to the Valencia back line. Continuously found pockets of space and linked with teammates fantastically around the area.
Jordi Alba (LWB) – 6/10 – Always provided an option out wide and made good runs to get in behind. Delivered quality into the box sporadically, notably putting in the cross that led to his side’s second.
Lionel Messi (ST) – 9/10 – Wasn’t electrifying by any means but was still his side’s hero by bagging a brace to inspire them to a massive win – of course he did. That’s 28 La Liga goals for the season.
Antoine Griezmann (ST) – 8/10 – Worked tirelessly off the ball and showed excellent movement and vision to help create opportunities in the final third. Got his reward for an influential outing with a simple tap-in to make it 2-1.
Ilaix Moriba (CM) – 6/10
Sergi Roberto (RWB) – 6/10