Camp Nou, Barcelona – This was a match in which Barcelona were pushed to the limit. It was one of the toughest tests of their credentials so far this season, and there is the feeling that such tests will only become more frequent as the season reaches its climax. Valencia were more than a match for their hosts and quickly asserted themselves on the La Liga leaders. This was an occasion that brought the best out of both teams.

And yet there was one story from the match that dominated the morning’s sports pages: “Thigh injury could rule Messi out of El Clasico” was Mundo Deportivo’s headline whilst Marca said “Messi faces race to be fit in time for Wednesday’s El Clasico in the Copa del Rey.” Despite all of the enthralling football that was played, there was a sense that Barcelona came out worse from Saturday’s clash. Leo Messi picked up a thigh injury that didn’t require a substitution but certainly affected him later in the game. And it was also two dropped points which presents an opportunity for their challengers to make ground.

Barcelona did show spirit though to come from two goals down to even manage a point albeit there was a heavy reliance on Messi but nevertheless he – and his teammates – delivered. It would not be unfair to say that Valencia were the better side at the Camp Nou; they were quick out of the blocks and were well worth their two first-half goals. “Brave Valencia opens up La Liga title race,” claimed Diario AS and Marcelino’s men were the closest to the three points out of the two sides.

This was the seventh time this season that Ernesto Valverde’s side have come from behind to avoid defeat and it’s further evidence that they are not finding it easy to refresh for each match especially during this exceptionally busy part of the season. They came from behind to eliminate Sevilla from the Copa del Rey in midweek to set up a semi-final against Real Madrid, who may still have a big say in the final third of Barcelona’s season.

The dropped points here though increase the pressure on Barcelona and diminish the leeway that Valverde has in terms of squad rotation. For a time it did appear that there was going to be a serene possession to the La Liga title, with all of Barcelona’s challengers wasting opportunities to apply the pressure. How Barcelona react and apply themselves in not only the league but also the Copa and the Champions League will be interesting, there has been a noticeable drop in fitness levels since the winter break and even last week’s win over Girona wasn’t problem-free.

There are questions surrounding Philippe Coutinho who is not having the same impact as other attackers such as Ousmane Dembele whose ability to conjure up a piece of brilliance was missed. At times it has felt that La Blaugrana have assumed first position through default; but now with Real Madrid finding form under Santi Solari and Atletico rediscovering their ruthless best, there will be challenges from now until May.

What this match also confirmed was that Valencia continue to improve after their recent struggles. They also find themselves in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey and with Europa League football returning for them in the coming weeks, there is greater optimism around Los Che than a few months ago. This was another performance that Marcelino can look back on and take positives from, not only did they breathe yet more life in the La Liga title race but they also strengthened their own position just outside the European places.

It was Valencia’s creativity that was so striking in the first half especially on Saturday; they cut their opponents up time and again. It has been Valencia’s finishing when in front of goal that has let them down this season and has seen them draw to many matches either 0-0 or 1-1. This draw was different and showed that Rodrigo Moreno – albeit not on the scoresheet here – is back to his best having struggled to find the form that set him apart last season.

Kevin Gameiro scored Valencia’s first and led the line with the dynamism and energy that Marcelino demands from his attackers. But it was Dani Parejo – scorer of Valencia’s second from the penalty spot – who shone the brightest. If there was one player for Los Che who could fit straight into the Barcelona team, it would be Parejo. His rather ill-fated spell with QPR now seems a lifetime ago and presently he is one of the classiest yet hard-working players in the league. He epitomises the team spirit that Valencia are aiming to create and which worked well for them here.

Amidst the busy schedule, there were plenty of changes to Valverde’s side and the unfamiliarity between combinations was evident from the start. Valencia nearly had the game’s first goal before most supporters had settled into the seats; Parejo’s quick-fired shot forced Marc-Andre ter Stegen into a responsive save before Denis Cheryshev struck the post from the rebound. There was urgency and intent from the visitors and soon enough it bore fruit. Parejo dispossessed Messi near halfway and it led to a speedy counterattack by Rodrigo who slipped a pass into Gamiero and the Frenchman produced a fine finish to open the scoring.

Barcelona tried to find a sure footing but were lacking coolness when amongst Valencia defenders. They looked shaky and Los Che were willing and capable to exploit it. Sergi Roberto – deployed on the left in place of Alba – foolishly shoved Daniel Wass in the penalty area and referee Senor Undiano Mallenco could only point at the spot. Parejo stepped up and converted to double Valencia’s advantage and propel the few hundred travelling supporters situated high up in the gods the rest of the way to heaven.

With half time fast approaching, Barcelona upped their urgency and were given a lifeline when Toni Lato brought Nelson Semedo down in the area. Messi halved the deficit as he sent Neto the wrong way with a slotted finish. Valverde’s team were eager to level prior to half time and looked like a completely different side. Ivan Rakitic, in a deeper midfield position, threaded the through balls and one sent Messi on his way but uncharacteristically the Barcelona captain couldn’t hit the target with his left foot. Roberto fired a rocket off the post but Valencia still led at the break.

The first 20 minutes of the second half were dominated by Barcelona, with Alba on for Semedo, the tried and trusted partnership on the left side was back in operation. The first attack of the second period came within seconds of the re-start as Neto had to sprawl to his left to stop Messi from scoring a second. The pressure was seemingly never-ending but Valencia’s defence was structured and composed and capable of launching counters when needed. Ter Stegen was required on more than one occasion to be decisive when Valencia had a numerical advantage during their surges upfield.

But as is so often the case, when Barcelona need a moment of magic it comes from their own magician. Messi received a rather non-descript pass about five yards out of the Valencia area, positioned the ball on his left side and curled an equaliser around a pair of Valencia defenders and Neto. It is rare to see Messi celebrate a goal with such emotion; he scrunched his fists and yelled at the turf, it only highlighted how much Barcelona had had to work for this draw and what it meant to the La Liga leaders.

Los Otros Puntos

And so it seems that Jan Oblak can save everything accept Sergio Canales penalties. As a consequence, Atletico Madrid were unable to take advantage of Barcelona dropping points. Playing with a rather blunted attack – despite new-signing Alvaro Morata starting – Diego Simeone’s side struggled to create openings and resulted to whipping long crosses to try and salvage a point to little effect. Real Betis have now beaten Atletico and Barcelona, although they haven’t been as entertaining as last season, they are not lacking in terms of results.

Alvaro Odriozola to Mariano and bang! 3-0. Can it be said that this Real Madrid are becoming quite exciting to watch? Currently, Santi Solari is getting a fine tune from this group of Real Madrid players with the younger and possibly hungrier, members such as Dani Ceballos, Odriozola, Mariano, Vinicius and Reguilon putting in consistent performances. Alaves were unlucky to lose by three and, for the first hour at least, were more than in the match, but as has been the case on a few occasions this season, Aberlado’s side lost by a margin that their performance didn’t warrant – whether that is a positive or negative is debatable.

As Willian Jose struck a sweet shot past Iago Herrerin into the top corner to double Real Sociedad’s lead in the Basque derby, those in the Anoeta could not believe what they were seeing. This was a victory against Athletic Bilbao that was forged by Geronimo Rulli in goal and Mikel Oyazarbal and Willian Jose up front. But it was that curling strike which everyone was talking about post-match. Real Sociedad’s fortunes have improved of late and winning both derbies against their old rivals along with sending Gaizka Garitano to his first league defeat as Athletic boss will only heighten the mood around the Txuri Urdin.

Not many saw that coming from Huesca!

Whilst it’s same old at Villarreal who have not only hired the same head coach that they fired 50 days ago, but also let a two-goal lead slip in disappointing fashion against Espanyol. They are deep in relegation trouble and, in truth, bringing back Javier Calleja only adds to the uninspiring fight that Villarreal continue to show.

What a result for Celta Vigo who should that they can still win football matches without the need for Iago Aspas to be on the pitch. Sevilla offered rather little, but this was Celta’s evening and their win which took them out of the relegation zone.

Los Resultados

Huesca 4-0 Valladolid

Levante 0-0 Getafe

Real Sociedad 2-1 Athletic Bilbao

Barcelona 2-2 Valencia

Celta Vigo 1-0 Sevilla

Villarreal 2-2 Espanyol

Real Betis 1-0 Atletico Madrid

Eibar 3-0 Girona

Real Madrid 3-0 Alaves

Rayo Vallecano – Leganes to be played on Monday

La Clasificación

La Liga Analysis