Barcelona cruised to an impressive 3-0 victory over Malaga at the Camp Nou to ensure they end yet another round of games on top of La Liga. A first-half strike from Gerard Pique and goals after the break from Pedro and Alexis Sanchez mean that Barcelona remain level on points with Atletico Madrid and a point ahead of Real Madrid as they followed their title rivals in claiming maximum points this weekend.
It was a fine performance from Barcelona against the struggling visitors and one that should help to alleviate some of the troubled skies over the club following the stepping down of president Sandro Rosell earlier in the week due to allegations involving the transfer of Neymar.
The Brazilian remained absent with injury on Sunday, alongside Andres Iniesta, but the Blaugrana produced some scintillating attacking play. Indeed, if their finishing had have been more clinical in the opening half the score-line would have been far more emphatic. Lionel Messi’s record of having not scored in the league in 2014 continued, yet there is unlikely to be undue concern about that unfamiliar drought. In recent weeks the Argentine appears to have taken on more of a playmaking role, dropping deeper into midfield. And, after setting up all three of Cristian Tello’s goals against Levante in midweek, Messi was instrumental in two more goals against Malaga.
Time and again in the opening half Barcelona got in behind the Malaga defense but just lacked that clinical touch in front of goal. Sanchez had the first opportunity when being found by a superb slide-rule pass from Cesc Fabregas, but the Chilean’s dink struck the far post from an admittedly tight angle.
Despite his modified role, Messi did still have one good chance to break his duck. However his first touch was unusually poor, allowing Willy Caballero to come out and pose a formidable obstacle and lead Messi to chip wide of the post. Pedro was having a less than ruthless day in the box as well. Having had a shot saved by Caballero and a header cleared from in front of the line, he also slipped as the ball fee invitingly into his path in the area.
Malaga, meanwhile, were showing just why only two teams have scored fewer goals than them in La Liga this season. Bernd Schuster’s side committed precious few players forward on the rare occasion when they had any kind of concerted possession. There were none the less still the odd sign of some defensive fragility on Barcelona’s part. With Malaga having a man over after winning the ball on halfway, a better pass from Roque Santa Cruz, who was soon to be taken off with an injury, might have spelled danger for the home side. Victor Valdes was forced into action too when Barcelona’s marking from a set-piece was exposed and they were left fortunate that Marcos Angeleri’s header was directed straight at their goalkeeper.
But a Barcelona goal was becoming an ever increasing probability when they finally broke the deadlock five minutes before the break. And it was to prove Malaga’s lax set-piece defending that proved costly. Sanchez flicked on a Xavi corner at the near post and Pique was left completely free to chest and strike low into the net with the coolness that shows why he is often thrown forward when needs must.
Pique’s threat in the opposition box so nearly led to a second goal nine minutes into the second half. His header from another corner was text book, down and back across goal, but Malaga were once more saved by their post.
It was to prove a most temporary reprieve for Malaga. Moments later Barcelona got the goal that all but sealed the three points. Breaking through the middle, Dani Alves knocked the ball square to Messi who quickly slipped it into the path of Pedro, and the often under-appreciated winger showed sublime close control to manufacture the space to curl the ball with the utmost precision into the far corner of the net.
In the opening minutes of the second half, Malaga had come as close as they would to an equalizer when Jordi Alba was forced into a fine challenge to prevent two Malaga attackers turning the ball in from close range. But there was now no way back for the visitors. With Messi an increasingly influential figure, Barcelona were tearing their opponents apart, almost at will, and they now had the finish to match.
Messi was again pivotal in his side’s third goal, just past the hour mark. This time he performed a delightful turn away from a defender before again finding Pedro in the box, who this time elected to slide the ball across goal where Sanchez arrived at the back post for the simplest of finishes.
With coach Gerardo Martino taking the chance to rest some his starters, Barcelona’s tempo predictably dropped off in the later stages. Still, while there wasn’t another goal for the Camp Nou faithful to cheer, there was a warm ovation for the introduction of Ibrahim Afellay in the dying minutes as the Dutch winger made his first appearance for the club since the final day of the 2011-12 season due to a wretched run of injuries. For Barcelona, it was a welcome positive story to being to an end a tumultuous week.