A much-changed Barcelona side bounced back from three defeats in their last four matches to claim a comfortable if uninspiring 2-0 victory over bottom of the table Deportivo La Coruna at Camp Nou.
With the crucial Champions League second leg to come with Milan on Tuesday, absent coach Tito Vilanova opted to make a host of changes against a Depor side that had taken just two points from the last 24 available in La Liga. Lionel Messi was given a rare rest, while the likes of Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets also started on the bench.
Having failed to make the most of a host of first-half openings, Barcelona finally went in front in the 38th minute through just a second league goal of the season from Alexis Sanchez. The second half was even less eventful than the first, but Messi enlivened proceedings off the bench to score for his 17th consecutive La Liga match with two minutes remaining.
The occasional burst of incisive passing, as well as a first clean sheet in 14 matches will provide Barcelona with confidence in overturning a 2-0 deficit against Milan, but they are still likely to have to up their game several levels.
After their recent poor form and with the unglamorous visitors likely a factor, the match was played in a subdued atmosphere at Camp Nou. And in the early stages Barcelona again struggled to lift themselves from a similar slumber.
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Yet with Depor offering nothing going forward, the match had the air of a training exercise as Barcelona tried to pick their way through the opposition defense. Early on the home side had little trouble getting in behind, but lacked a clinical edge when they got there.
Dani Alves, with little to occupy him defensively, was a chief instigator going forward. It was the full-back’s pass that found Cesc Fabregas in the clear, but the former Arsenal man lashed an effort high over the bar.
Thiago Alcantara was giving a good audition of his playmaking talents in the absence of Xavi and he twice provided delightful through balls for Cristian Tello, but on both occasions Daniel Aranzubia denied Barcelona an opening goal. Having first come out well to deny Tello a shot, the Depor goalkeeper then reacted brilliantly to turn the winger’s deflected cross onto the post.
It was David Villa that wasted the best of the early chances for the home side. Given a rare start through the mddle and looking to force his way into the starting lineup for Milan, the Spain international wouldn’t have done himself any favors as he dallied and then saw his little dinked shot blocked by Aranzubia when he was clear through on goal.
Barcelona were far from their best, but it still appeared a matter of time before they would break the deadlock and with seven minutes remaining in the first half they finally did just that.
Alves continued his fine game with a pinpoint cross for Sanchez to rise in the center of the box and head down into the ground and into the net, despite the desperate attempts by Aranzubia to keep the ball out.
The goal appeared to settle Barcelona and they started to show glimpses of the incisive passing and movement for which they have become so renowned. One such passage of play led to Villa again missing a good chance as he volleyed wide from Sanchez’s cross.
Barcelona perhaps should have had the opportunity to double their lead at that start of the second half. Veteran Juan Carlos Valeron appeared to handle the ball when rising to challenge Fabregas in the box, but no call was given.
Despite the introduction of Messi and Iniesta off the bench the second-half was petering out into a non event as Barcelona controlled the ball, but showed little impetus to do anything with it and Deportivo appeared to just accept their fate.
The period briefly sparked into life came as Messi looked to have gotten on the scoresheet having thumped the ball into the net after Iniesta’s shot had been parried out, but the Argentianian was correctly adjudged to be in an offside position.
However, Messi was not to be denied the continuation of his incredible scoring run as he pulled out some magic to get the fans inside Camp Nou on their feet for one of the few occasions.
The brilliant Argentinean dribbled across the field 25 yards from goal before shifting the ball out to the right for Sanchez and then meeting the return ball with a sumptuous dink with the outside of his left foot over Aranzubia to end the evening on a high.