Barcelona overcome shaky defensive display to top Malaga
MALAGA, Spain -- Three quick thoughts from La Rosaleda as Barcelona defeated Malaga 2-1 in Saturday afternoon's early La Liga clash.
1. Messi wins it after Luis Enrique corrects initial mistakes
A Barcelona team with half of their regular starters missing for a variety of reasons rode their luck in Saturday afternoon's La Liga game at Malaga, but in the end goals from Munir El Haddadi and Lionel Messi were just enough to put Barca top of the table overnight.
With defensive leader Gerard Pique suspended and in-form attacker Neymar not risked because of a reported small hamstring problem, Luis Enrique left other regulars Dani Alves and Ivan Rakitic on the bench. The patched-up team struggled for long periods, and things only really went right for Barca when the initial selection mistakes were rectified.
The selection did not seem to be much of an issue when Munir put the visitors ahead after 65 seconds. Messi's through ball found Luis Suarez, who got behind his marker, Weligton, and his cross from a narrow angle squirmed under Malaga goalkeeper Carlos Kameni. Neymar's backup had the simple task of tapping in from 2 yards for his first La Liga goal since his debut back in August 2014.
Malaga being forced to come out and attack seemed ideal for Barca to be able to sit deep and hit the Andalusians on the break. But instead the visitors were unable to deal with the high-energy and tactically smart approach of Javi Gracia's side, who poured forward, made chance after chance and were unlucky not to be in the lead by half-time. The Catalan side were lacking their usual intensity -- as if recent Copa del Rey exertions against Espanyol and Athletic Bilbao had taken a toll on starters, such as the less-dependable-than-usual Sergio Busquets.
Luis Enrique made his first substitution at the break, replacing the very poor Thomas Vermaelen with Jeremy Mathieu. And Barca started the second half well, with Messi soon volleying in Adriano's cross. Almost immediately came a second substitution, with Munir replaced by Rakitic, and the Croatian's athleticism was put to good use in midfield. Two changes before the hour mark looked an admission that the Blaugrana coach had got his selection wrong.
Barca's concerns were shown by some much more physical than usual challenges, with even Messi going into the book for arriving late on Malaga's excellent midfielder Nacho Camacho. The 90 minutes had not gone at all to plan, but in the end these were three huge points ahead of next weekend's looming clash with also-high-flying Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou.
2. Vermaelen has a shocker
Juanpi's equaliser just past the half-hour mark was the first goal that Barca goalkeeper Claudio Bravo had conceded in 575 minutes of action. That was when playing mostly with a first choice back four in front of him -- and especially with Pique leading the defence.
The Spain centre-back was missing here after picking up an apparently "convenient" yellow card last week so he could serve his suspension on Saturday and be sure to face Atletico on Saturday. His direct replacement was Belgium international Vermaelen, who had a horrow show first 45 minutes. Vermaelen's first intervention was almost slicing a cross into his own net, and it did not get much better from there.
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Just before the half-hour mark, the ex-Arsenal man's airshot led to his needing to be bailed out by defensive partner Javier Mascherano. Soon afterward Vermaelen was nowhere to be seen as Malaga wide midfielder Juanpi equalised from his left-sided centre-back area. A yellow card for taking out centre-forward Charles completed a nightmare first half, and his contribution was ended at the break as Luis Enrique sent on Mathieu for the second period.
Vermaelen had not played well, but the fault was not entirely his. He was given a rare start in a back four in which Aleix Vidal at right-back and Adriano at left-back are also far from fixtures. Both full-backs were targeted by the visitors, and the latter in particular looked very rattled before he was forced off injured. Utilityman Sergi Roberto finished the game at left-back.
Meanwhile, on the bench, Marc Bartra must have wondered why he cannot get a look in. This was a day to forget for the Barca backup defence.
3. Malaga can play too
Malaga have earned a reputation over 18 months under Javi Gracia as being a very difficult team to score against, especially for the big sides. Barca had only managed one goal in their past three meetings, while Los Boquerones got a 0-0 at Real Madrid in September and beat Atletico Madrid 1-0 with a late goal at La Rosaleda before Christmas.
Munir's early goal here meant a change was required from their usual plan of keeping things tight and defending in well-organised numbers. Malaga had to "change the chip" as the Spanish say, and they did, thrilling the 30,000 home crowd in their "Rose Garden" stadium with some excellent attacking football.
The remainder of the first half brought chance after chance, with Bravo tipping a Chory Castro shot onto a post, and Charles being very unlucky to be booked for a dive in the penalty area as the home fans howled for a penalty.
Juanpi's well-taken goal -- his first in La Liga -- was the least they deserved. And it came straight from a typically brave "high press" up the pitch. Mascherano was corralled in close to his own goal, had to hoof the ball into no-man's land, and seconds later the 21-year-old Venezuelan had equalised.
After Messi had put Barca back in front after just after half-time, Malaga pressed again immediately, and Bravo did well to scramble away a Castro cross-shot. The Chilean keeper also saved well from Camacho as the Andalusians kept searching for an equaliser. In the end it never came, but this showed Gracia's Malaga know more than one way to play.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan