Forgotten man Paco Alcacer nets twice as Barcelona survive stern Sevilla test
BARCELONA -- Three quick thoughts from Camp Nou on Barcelona's 2-1 win over Sevilla in La Liga.
1. Barca stretch unbeaten run to 16 games
Paco Alcacer outshone Lionel Messi on the Argentine's 600th Barcelona appearance as Ernesto Valverde's side made it 16 games unbeaten with a 2-1 win over Sevilla at Camp Nou on Saturday.
Alcacer scored a goal in each half on his first La Liga start since the opening day of the season to restore Barca's four-point lead over Valencia at the top of the table. Real Madrid, meanwhile, ahead of their game against Las Palmas on Sunday, are now 11 points behind the Catalan side.
There was a lot to take in before the game. Messi's 600th appearance was greeted with an almighty storm an hour before kickoff. Fortunately, the thunder and lightning had relented by the time the ball began moving, but waterproof ponchos were still needed by those who decided not to hover at the back of the stands in an attempt to dodge the rain.
Once again, politics and sport also mixed. Barca unveiled a huge Catalan flag and the word "Justice" before the game in reference to the arrest of 10 Catalan politicians and social activists in the wake of Oct. 1's unilateral independence referendum. If the club's message was designed to be at least slightly low key, the message from the supporters wasn't. "Free all political prisoners" and "Europe shame on you" were two of the large banners held up behind one of the Camp Nou goals.
With all that to take in, you'd have been forgiven for missing everything going on on the pitch. And there was a lot going on there, too, as Barcelona made a fast start. Messi won and fired an early free kick into the wall; he then dribbled past three opposition players and drew save from David Soria, earning a corner. From that corner, he set up Sergio Busquets, whose shot was blocked on the line. That's the first three minutes covered.
Luis Suarez then had a chance, but once again this was not to be his night. Given the way the game had begun, it was no surprise when Barca took the lead. Suarez's diagonal pass appeared to have been cut out by Sergio Escudero, but the Sevilla defender only succeeded in deflecting the ball into Alcacer's path. Alcacer showed a cool head to slot the ball past Soria and open the scoring.
Barca risked wasting all their good work in the first half when they let Sevilla back into the game. With the rain still coming down, Eduardo Berizzo's side grew into the game. They'd already began to threaten when Guido Pizarro headed them level.
The response from Barca was immediate, though. Alcacer got in front of his marker to prod home a brilliant Ivan Rakitic cross and seal another three points for Valverde's men, who now have 31 from a possible 33 in La Liga.
2. Alcacer shows Suarez how it's done
It's hard to watch Suarez at the moment. While he still works tirelessly, his lack of goals is slowly catching up with him. Against Sevilla, you could see his self-confidence draining out of him. He has scored just three times this season in all competitions and is now on a run of 451 minutes without finding the back of the net -- his longest drought since he joined the club in 2014.
Valverde has stuck with him throughout his dry patch, but there will be increasing calls for Alcacer to be given a run of games as the central striker in the coming weeks after the former Valencia forward produced his most important performance in a Barcelona shirt.
Starts have been few and far between for Alcacer, but after his brace on Saturday his record now reads nine goals in his past nine starts for the club. Opta's succinct, one-word summary pretty much nailed it: productive. Something which cannot be said for this season's version of Suarez.
In defending Suarez, Valverde has often spoken about that word: confidence. After the international break, he will have to decide whether to stick with Alcacer, who will now be brimming with it. And it doesn't have to be at Suarez's expense, as Saturday proved. Although maybe it should be.
3. Sevilla expose Barcelona's weaknesses
Berizzo had success against Barcelona previously as Celta Vigo coach, and at times it looked like he may replicate that success here with Sevilla. There was no doubt that the home side were the better, more dominant side -- that will nearly always be the case at Camp Nou -- but the visitors had their moments.
Luis Muriel showed that Samuel Umtiti's not quite the complete player yet by robbing him of the ball in the first half and firing over Marc-Andre ter Stegen's goal. In the second period, Sevilla grew more into the game. Barca's defence was absent when Pablo Sarabia was sent clean through. Only the pace of Nelson Semedo, nicknamed the motorcyclist for a reason, prevented a goal. Gerard Pique was found wanting at the resulting corner, though, as Pizarro headed home an equaliser.
Of course, Barca aren't going to be bulletproof throughout 90 minutes of every game, but it adds to the theory that their numbers this season are a bit misleading.
Pizarro's goal was just the fourth they've conceded this season in the league, but they've been let out of jail in other matches. Ter Stegen was responsible for the clean sheet at Athletic Bilbao last week, and both Getafe and Girona could have scored more against Valverde's side.
But Barca keep finding a way to win, which is perhaps notable. It's something which will always be put to the test more in the run up to Christmas, too. After the international break, they have upcoming away games against Valencia, Villarreal and Real Madrid.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.