Valencia and Barcelona settle for draw in controversial top-of-the-table clash
VALENCIA, Spain -- Three quick thoughts from Barcelona's 1-1 draw at Valencia on Sunday at the Mestalla.
1. Valencia, Barcelona play out thrilling draw
The tussle for top spot in La Liga took several turns on Sunday as the top two -- Barcelona and Valencia, respectively -- played out an entertaining and controversial draw.
Rodrigo opened the scoring, cashing in on a Jose Gaya cross in the second half, but only after Barca had been left fuming by the referee's failure to award a Lionel Messi goal in the opening period. Messi's shot was straight at Neto, but the Brazilian goalkeeper fumbled the ball over his own line. A late Jordi Alba goal eventually rescued a point for Ernesto Valverde's side, keeping them four clear of Valencia, but they will still feel hard by.
So clear was it that Messi's shot had crossed the line that Barca players were already in the corner of the Mestalla pitch celebrating what should have been the opening goal. Even Valencia stopped at first. Then they continued, racing up the other end of the pitch, where nine-goal Simone Zaza struck wide. Barca's goal had not been given.
It would have been the goal that Barca deserved. The Mestalla was in fine voice. It always is when Barca or Real Madrid are in town, but the players on the pitch were not at their best. The Catalans were dominant, albeit without carrying a huge threat in the final third. Neto had already been tested, though, by the time Messi thought he'd opened the scoring. The goalkeeper then made a smart save from Luis Suarez before Messi saw a shot blocked.
Valencia, somehow, got to the break goalless.
They came out a different side, though. Goncalo Guedes, once again, was particularly brilliant as the home supporters began to smell a win. The pressure was growing when Guedes found Gaya on the overlap, let go by Ivan Rakitic. The left-back's cross was turned home by Rodrigo, who had manoeuvred across stand-in left-back Thomas Vermaelen, making his first appearance in La Liga in 624 days due to the absence of Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano.
It was just the fifth goal Barca have conceded in La Liga this season. It was only the third time they'd gone behind in a game. And on all three occasions now, they have come back to get at least a point. Valencia still carried a threat on the break, but Barca were pushing. Suarez had just seen a shot palmed clear by Neto when Messi, who orchestrated the game but often lacked his usual quality, created a chance for Alba. The former Valencia star gobbled it up, his third goal in his past four starts for club and country.
There was almost a late Valencia winner in stoppage time. Substitute Andreas Pereira fired into the side netting, and Zaza bounced one over the bar, but both teams seemed happy enough with the draw. There was certainly a buzz among the raucous home support. Valencia get away with a point despite conceding twice; Barca show their steel in coming from behind. Both teams, too, maintain their unbeaten records. Neither have lost in La Liga this season, and Barca are without defeat in 19 games.
Over in Madrid, Real and Atletico will have been reasonably happy, too. After their wins on Saturday, they're both back within eight points of Barca and four of Valencia, last week's derby draw wiped out.
2. Barca robbed by lack of technology
Barcelona will be frustrated not to have extended their lead at the top of the table given what went on in the first half. There was no excuse for the match officials missing Messi's goal. Replays weren't really necessary, but they did confirm what most people inside the ground already knew: Messi's goal was in.
It's the second time this calendar year Barca have been stung. They also had a goal against Real Betis, at the tail end of last season, ruled out when the ball had clearly crossed the line. It will open the debate about the need for goal-line technology and VAR (Video Assistant Referees) in Spain.
VAR is already in use in Germany, Italy, Portugal and the U.S. In England, there is goal-line technology to determine whether a ball has crossed the line. La Liga president Javier Tebas has confirmed VAR will be gradually introduced in Spain next season -- goal-line technology was rejected because of the cost -- and this was another example of why it can't come soon enough, even if the officials should carry a large part of the blame here.
Despite those complaints, though, Barca will also be relieved to leave with their unbeaten record intact. They could and should have been ahead by half-time, with some of the exchanges, especially between Messi and Andres Iniesta, very tasty. But they were on the rocks at times in the second half and had to work hard to come behind to get a point.
3. Valencia can compete for the crown
Jaime Orti Ruiz, the Valencia president when they last won La Liga in 2004, was celebrated before the game at Mestalla after he died this week. And then the current crop of players showed that maybe, just maybe, Valencia once again have a group capable of challenging for the title. Rodrigo, who scored the game's opening goal, even celebrated by wearing a curly, orange wig given to him by a fan, a nod to Orti's celebrations when Valencia ruled Spain under Rafa Benitez.
For 45 minutes, that did not look to be the case, though. Valencia were slow in the first half, outplayed by a more experienced Barca side. But the second half was a different story. The pace and excitement and the pulsating counter-attack that have been themes of their season were all on display.
Valverde singled several Valencia players out as threats before the game, one of them being Guedes. It wasn't a warning that Nelson Semedo heeded, mind. The Barca right-back simply couldn't deal with his Portuguese compatriot and was eventually replaced by Aleix Vidal. Even before the goal, he was notably struggling.
But it wasn't just Guedes. Rodrigo, Dani Parjeo and Carlos Soler all impressed in spells, while even the half-fit Zaza caused the occasional problem for Barca's defence. This is a result that will fuel Valencia's belief that they can compete with Barca and Madrid for the title this season.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.