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Thomas Vermaelen leads Barcelona with surprising winner vs. Malaga

In Week 2 of La Liga, Barcelona achieved a narrow yet deserved victory against Malaga at the Camp Nou. Defender Thomas Vermaelen scored the only goal for the Blaugrana, who enjoyed 73 percent of possession, created a whopping 22 goal-scoring chances and attempted 19 shots, 13 of them on target.

Manager Luis Enrique fielded his strongest possible XI against a team that has been traditionally tough to crack at the Camp Nou, due to their unashamed defensive focus. That approach is helped by having one of the most decisive players in La Liga: goalkeeper Carlos Kameni. As expected, the hosts struggled to break through for the majority of the game, especially given the referees' inability to see not one but two clear fouls inside Los Boquerones' penalty area.

With the visitors clearly spurred on by their defensive success and Kameni living up to his reputation as one of the great goal-stoppers in Spanish football, with 12 saves, it took a surprising goal by Vermaelen to break the deadlock in just his fourth appearance for the Catalans. The unlikely hero succeeded where Lionel Messi and many stars around him had so frustratingly failed and showed how unpredictable the game of football can be.

Although still far from the mesmerizing football Barcelona fans have been spoiled with in recent years, Luis Enrique would certainly be more than happy to take the three points against one of the most traditionally difficult visitors at the Camp Nou.

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Player Ratings (1-10, with 10 the best. Players introduced after 70 minutes not rated):

GK Claudio Bravo, 6 -- Although the Chilean international was only forced into making one save, this was quite a busy match for him. The clean sheet he secured was at risk several times. Twenty minutes in, Juan Carlos' threatening effort from the visitors' own half went over the crossbar, and in the last minute, there was a clear chance that Jordi Alba single-handedly saved in the Catalans' favour.

DF Sergi Roberto, 7 -- He started as right-back in the place of the injured Dani Alves after his stellar showing Sunday at the San Mames. He responded to the manager's trust with yet another solid performance when defending and making meaningful, incisive runs toward the byline when pushing forward.

DF Javier Mascherano, 6 -- He should have scored his first goal for the Catalans, but his clear header spectacularly hit the crossbar instead. Although his passing was generally accurate, rivals intercepted his long-range efforts more often than usual.

DF Thomas Vermaelen, 9 -- With Gerard Pique still suspended, he was trusted with his second consecutive start at the heart of defence. Although the hosts were always going to miss Pique, it is reassuring to see the Belgian international performing so confidently after such a long spell away from competitive football.

He smashed the ball into the back of the net with a technically perfect shot late in the second half in the key moment that unbalanced the game in the Catalans' favour. It was a night to remember for the player, who has endured an unimaginable amount of suffering due to injury in the past year.

DF Jordi Alba, 7 -- This was another spirited performance from perhaps the most influential unsung hero in the Blaugranas' squad. He was an indispensable factor at both ends of the pitch on Saturday. It not for Alba's challenge on Charles with only seconds on the clock, Barcelona would not have a perfect record and be sitting at the top of the league table right now.

MF Sergio Busquets, 7 -- He distributed the ball well across the park and supported with efficient, early tackles as soon as he was dispossessed. Once again, the glue ensured Barca's formation remained cohesive enough defensively that others could focus on chasing the opponents' net.

MF Andres Iniesta, 7 -- Without a doubt, he was the most creative playmaker on the pitch, as he once again confirmed his place as Barca's midfield leader after Xavi's departure. He threw several inch-perfect passes into the path of his forwards and linked particularly well with Luis Suarez. An astute run between Malaga's centre-backs allowed him to cut back into space, but his final delivery was easily intercepted on the play.

MF Ivan Rakitic, 5 -- This certainly wasn't the most inspired display by the Croatian international. Although he remained as committed as ever to defensive duties, he struggled to combine with enough fluency when building forward. More and better is expected the next time around from one of the most consistent players in Luis Enrique's squad.

FW Neymar, 6 -- He returned to Luis Enrique's XI after weeks away while recovering from mumps. Although the Brazilian was eager to get involved, he lacked sharpness and composure in the final third. He should have been given a penalty after one of his trademark dribbles resulted in Miguel Torres' clearly handling the ball inside the area.

FW Luis Suarez, 7 -- He must be utterly frustrated after taking four clear shots inside the area and finishing the game empty-handed. However, his admirable work rate kept his markers on their toes throughout the game. Although he failed to score, that was due more to Malaga's defensive brilliance than the Uruguayan star's lacking either inspiration or composure in front of goal.

FW Lionel Messi, 7 -- The Argentinean genius was constantly denied by Kameni, despite attempting a mixture of short- and long-range shots, diagonal passes across the park and dribbling slaloms into space. It simply wasn't to be. That said, the way the undisputed best player on the planet continued to persevere despite his disheartening lack of success in front of Kameni was admirable.


MF Rafinha Alcantara, 6 -- He replaced Rakitic after 63 minutes and celebrated his recent call-up for the Brazilian national team with a solid performance in his preferred role as creative interior midfielder.

FW Sandro Rodriguez, n/a -- He substituted for Neymar with four minutes to go. He did not have enough time to make an impact, but it was at least significant that he was picked ahead of Munir El Haddadi for the late inclusion.

DF Jeremy Mathieu, n/a -- On for goal-scorer Vermaelen after 89 minutes, he slotted well alongside Mascherano at the heart Barca's back line.

Francesc Tomas is a freelance Catalan columnist who writes for, WeLoveBarca and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @TomasESPN.


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