Neymar, Pedro secure vital Barcelona victory
Barcelona achieved a crucial 2-0 victory against Real Sociedad at the Camp Nou in matchday 36 of La Liga. Neymar and Pedro Rodriguez scored the goals for the Blaugrana, who enjoyed 66 percent of possession, created 15 goal-scoring chances and attempted 13 shots, eight on target.
As expected, manager Luis Enrique rotated the team in order to give key players much-needed rest ahead of their decisive Champions League trip to Munich on Tuesday. With up to five regular starters missing, the hosts found it hard to control the match in the commanding manner Cules have become used to in recent times.
However, the Catalans managed to step up a gear after the break by making a more conscious effort to run the bylines and make risky passes into spaces more often. Their more dynamic, direct approach resulted in Neymar breaking the deadlock five minutes after the half-time break -- a decisive goal that could end up being worth its weight in gold at the end of the season. Although Real Sociedad looked more energetic as the game progressed due to Barcelona showing signs of fatigue in the final minutes, the Blaugrana managed to pull through and secure the crucial victory thanks to an outstanding overhead kick courtesy of late substitute Pedro.
The race toward the title continues -- if the Spanish football federation and the players' association reach an agreement regarding the future distribution of TV rights and decide to call off the strike that is threatening to boycott the competition altogether, that is.
Player Ratings (1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating):
GK Claudio Bravo, 7 -- Not the hardest day at the office for the Chilean international, who managed to keep his seventh consecutive clean sheet in La Liga after being forced to make only one save in the whole match.
DF Dani Alves, 6 -- His determination was evident as he chased every loose ball and pushed forward when needed, but the truth is that the Brazilian international did not look as fresh as he did in his stellar performance against Bayern in midweek. However, his focus and relentless desire to win ensured he completed the game at a decent standard.
DF Marc Bartra, 6 -- Despite not being an automatic choice at centre-back yet, the 24-year-old showed signs of being mentally ready for the challenge when given the chance. An early mistake when building from the back could have granted the opener for Real Sociedad, but fortunately for him, Bravo was there to prevent any danger.
DF Gerard Pique, 7 -- The Catalan centre-back seemed unbeatable once again, especially in the air. His clever positioning and constant awareness helped him stamp his ground even when faced against Carlos Vela's blistering speed, which is a clear improvement from the last time these teams met.
DF Adriano, 6 -- The 30-year-old Brazilian performed in his usual manner: reliable, effective, no-nonsense. Although he clearly lacks Jordi Alba's ability to surprise opponents time and time again, Cules can be satisfied with yet another professional performance.
MF Javier Mascherano, 6 -- Deployed as a holding midfielder in the absence of Sergio Busquets. Contributed toward the team's victory with well-timed tackles and simple passing across the park which kept the Blaugrana pushing forward continuously. Dropped back alongside Pique in the later stages of the game after Busquets' late inclusion.
MF Xavi Hernandez, 7 -- Given the keys to the Blaugrana engine in his return to the starting 11. As usual, did not disappoint and provided several passes into space which should have resulted in a more favourable score line for the hosts. If his more-than-likely departure is confirmed at the end of the season, it would certainly be a shame -- especially knowing that he is still capable of performing at this level.
MF Rafinha Alcantara, 6 -- Added much-needed physicality and freshness to the Blaugrana midfield, becoming a great complement for Xavi. Although Alcantara's influence decreased as the game went on, the La Masia graduate can be proud to have delivered yet another consistent performance. Given his efforts this season, expect him to have an even bigger role after the summer.
FW Neymar, 8 -- The Brazilian forward took full advantage of his immaculate momentum in terms of fitness and confidence, finding the net for a sixth consecutive game thanks to his innate ability to suddenly appear in the right place at the right time. His connection with Lionel Messi, visible on the pitch but mainly built on the trusting relationship both stars have off it, is one of the key reasons for Barca's visible improvement this season.
FW Luis Suarez, 6 -- Despite his best efforts to get constantly involved up front, the No. 9 was often let down by either his first touch or slightly inaccurate finishing. Cules definitely breathed a sigh of relief after seeing him play the full game without getting a fifth yellow card, which would have banned him from the crucial upcoming away game against Atletico Madrid.
FW Lionel Messi, 7 -- Although many would argue that the Argentinian captain decided to take a day off after finding the net twice in each of his last three matches, the undeniable truth is that both goals on Saturday were scored thanks to his influence. If it wasn't for his inch-perfect cross that lead to Neymar's opener when Barcelona needed it the most, Cules could have been left ruing a wasted opportunity at the end of the game.
MF Sergio Busquets, 6 -- Substituted Bartra after 61 minutes, slotting well into his preferred position at the heart of midfield.
MF Andres Iniesta, NR -- Replaced Xavi with 17 minutes to go, ensuring that Barca kept enough possession to secure a favourable result until the final whistle.
FW Pedro Rodriguez, NR -- Introduced for Rafinha after 81 minutes. Sealed the home victory with a jaw-dropping bicycle kick that demonstrated his undeniable talent.