FC Barcelona may have been conserving energy, but they remained far too strong for lowly Elche CFon Saturday evening at the Estadio Manuel Martinez Valero, dismantling the side from Alicante for the fourth time this season in a comfortable 6-0 win.
For a while at least, it appeared as though Elche were going to challenge the Blaugrana but after opening the scoring through a Gerard Piqué volley, Barça cruised to victory with a brace apiece from Lionel Messi and Neymar, followed by an injury-time strike by Pedro only serving to emphasis the gulf in class between the two sides.
Shots on Target
So close, but yet so far. For a while it appeared as though FC Barcelona might be kicking off with a chance to climb to the top of La Liga as Real Madrid struggled against Cordoba CF, alas a late Gareth Bale penalty secured the victory for Los Blancos and now Barça could merely hope to maintain the gap. They simply couldn’t afford to lose ground, and even with a difficult trip to the Vicente Calderon to contend with on Wednesday, Luis Enrique named a strong starting line-up.
Yes, there were changes – Martin Montoya, Marc Bartra, Xavi Hernández, Rafinha Alcântara and Pedro all rotated into the line-up compared to last weekend’s win over Deportivo La Coruna, but Lionel Messi, Neymar, Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba and Gerard Piqué remained in the starting XI. If the kids could claim an easy victory at the Estadio Manuel Martinez Valero, surely this selection would coast to a win, right?
Cordoba nearly claiming a point against Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester City crashing out of the FA Cup, Saturday afternoon had already produced a few surprises and FC Barcelona were keen not to be added to the list. They started the match against Elche well; in spite of the changes, they settled into their usual rhythm relatively quickly, utilising the pace and trickery of Neymar on the left-wing to give the home defense an early test or two.
To their credit, Elche held firm. They were perhaps close to "crossing the line" in terms of their physicality and aggression in the tackle, but really there was nothing wrong with their approach. It gave the Blaugrana a sense of the challenge they were up against; Elche might not have the quality of an Atletico Madrid, but they could still employ similar tactics in hope of picking up a result.
And in doing so, they forced Barcelona out wide and away from goal. Perhaps it was the loss of Luis Suarez, but Barça weren’t looking quite as dangerous and were a little more predictable in their approach. Longer passes were being played by Javier Mascherano as opposed to the usual shorter, snappier passes played by Sergio Busquets and Elche’s defense wasn’t really being stretched or tested in any way.
When it appeared as though they might, Elche quickly stepped into the challenge and often left their mark on the Barcelona frontline; the visitors tried to make the most of the dead-ball chances, but they were often from a wider position which made it harder to make an impact. A smart play from the training ground created a chance for Jordi Alba on the volley from our first such free-kick, before Messi went for goal from our second free-kick. Both efforts were close, but ultimately off-target.
Elche on the other hand were coming closer with their chances on the counter-attack. Jonathas was playing well in attack, holding the ball up where appropriate and feeding his teammates who were anxious to race forward in support. One such move ended in a shot on goal, the first of the match, which was well parried by Claudio Bravo. The second followed moments later from a free-kick by Fayçal Fajr again, who nearly found the bottom corner from distance, only for Bravo to again spring to one side and palm the ball out of danger.
Half an hour played in Alicante and Elche were in control. Of course, Barça had more possession but they had had fewer chances and few could argue that the tempo of the match was favouring the hosts.
But then Elche lost their concentration; Barcelona, with a set-piece no less, capitalised. It was a bad challenge from Sergio Pelegrin on Pedro that earned the free-kick, and in a moment of brilliance, Xavi took it quickly. Pelegrin was yet to get back in position and even worse, wasn’t in line with his colleagues. He was playing Gerard Piqué onside at the far post, and Xavi’s well-directed cross found Piqué in space, with time to chest the ball down and volley at goal. It took a deflection, but no-one could keep it out and Barça were ahead.
Just like that, normal service had been resumed at the Estadio Manuel Martinez Valero.
All of a sudden, Elche’s "smart" tactics were looking awfully stupid; by half-time, half of their outfield contingent had earned themselves a yellow card and the complete lack of tempo was now only playing into Barcelona’s hands. It was far from vintage, but with that one-goal lead, Barça were cruising at half-time.
The second-half was a mere formality on paper, and indeed it turned out like that in reality as well. Barça weren’t at their best, but were still far too good for Elche. Neymar’s skill was too much for the defense to handle and in one particular run into the area, the Brazilian was tripped by Pelegrin, who was having a terrible night in defense. The referee duly pointed to the spot and mercifully kept his cards in his pocket when a second yellow could have easily been produced.
So, Messi stepped up after his penalty miss in midweek and dished out the punishment himself; cool and composed, he sent Tyton the wrong way with a superb finish and this game was now as good as over. Two goals down, Elche were dead and buried. Then it got worse. The referee may have been merciful earlier with Pelegrin, but he was in no mood for a repeat when minutes later, Fayçal Fajr made a clumsy, late challenge on Rafinha. A second yellow card was shown and Fajr was on his way down the tunnel.
Pedro nearly added a third around the hour-mark as Barça established their superiority but as ever this season, Tyton was in fine form in the Elche goal to help keep the score down. Momentarily at least. Sometimes though there is nothing that even Tyton can do to keep Barcelona at bay. Neymar had been in impressive form all game long and after taunting Damian Suarez with a few skills, he played a one-two with Messi, was clean through on goal and coolly slotted the ball into the far corner of the net.
Impossibly good football by two of the best players in the world, and with the third, Luis Enrique started to make some changes: Adriano Correia and Sergio Busquets were on, Jordi Alba and Javier Mascherano were off to rest their legs with the Calderon in mind.
Not that the changes impacted the flow of the match too much; Messi and Neymar were at it again. Is there a duo in world football better than these guys? Probably not, at least on the evidence of this second goal for Neymar. A pass into Messi, who instinctively knew to lift the ball over the Elche defense first-time; Neymar ran into space and onto the pass, finishing with aplomb. Two goals in two minutes for Neymar. A fourth of the evening for FC Barcelona.
Sergi Roberto entered the match in the following break of play, replacing Xavi as Enrique looked to close the game out with some fresh legs in midfield, reuniting Roberto with Rafinha for the first time since they tore Elche apart a week and a half ago.
Barça slowed the tempo of the match even further with that change, and one might have been forgiven for thinking that the scoring was over. Not with Lionel Messi on the field. A simple pass from Marc Bartra found Messi, and after a shimmy of the hips, he was past his man and of course, the finish was pure perfection.
Still, Barça weren’t done yet. It was injury-time and the game was coming to a close, yet still Barcelona pressed forward in search of another. In fairness, Elche were making it easy for them as Neymar somehow managed to dribble into the final third virtually unopposed before selflessly squaring it to Pedro for a tap-in. A professional performance, and six goals to boot. This was another great night for FC Barcelona.
Next up, FC Barcelona travel to Madrid for the second-leg of their Copa del Rey quarter-final tie with Atletico. After a tense 1-0 win in the first-leg on Wednesday, this one promises to be a cracker – don’t miss it! Until then, Visca el Barça!