Alexis Sanchez struck his first hat-trick for Barcelona to lead his side to an impressive 4-0 victory over Elche and move back above Atletico Madrid on goal difference at the top of La Liga. Ahead of the top two’s highly anticipated meeting next weekend, this was the perfect preparation for Tata Martino’s side. With Lionel Messi’s return imminent and Neymar remaining on the bench until late on at the Camp Nou, Barcelona showed that they have plenty of talent besides their two superstars.
Not least in Sanchez, who has finally adapted to life at Barcelona and took his tally for the season to 11 goals. The former Udinese forward opened the scoring after just seven minutes against an Elche side that looked to match their illustrious opponent’s passing style, but were left crudely exposed. Pedro, who continued his recent fine vein of form, grabbed the second less than 10 minutes after the first. While Xavi missed a penalty and other chances went begging from open play, Sanchez gave the score-line a deserved level of one-sidedness when first tapping home Pedro’s pass and then curling in a sublime free-kick.
The smile on the face of Martino was broad after the final, glorious strike, and particularly noticeable because of the heavy burden and the wealth of critics of the team’s style his face has often betrayed since taking charge. While Barcelona’s results have remained strong, the manner of them has often been decidedly less pleasing on the eye than in recent seasons. But the Catalans kicked off the new year with their famed passing and movement close to its glorious best, with Andres Iniesta also at the heart of much of it and Xavi and Cesc Fabregas playing their part too. For Martino, his biggest worry in the coming days may be how to incorporate Messi and Neymar back into the starting lineup for the crucial tussle with Atletico.
Against an Elche side, in their first season back in the Primera Division and on the back of three successive defeats, it always looked a comfortable way for Barcelona to begin 2014. And that view appeared to be confirmed as the home side went in from early on. After a sublime pass out wide from Xavi, Jordi Alba swung in a teasing cross from the left that evaded a series of Elche defenders as they faced their own goal before being met by a controlled finish by Sanchez.
While Barcelona were producing some delightful passing moves, Elche produced one of their own to come within inches of getting back on level terms in the 14th minute with what was to prove their only genuine threat on goal throughout. It ended with Fidel Chaves cutting in from the left and feeding a precision ball through the Barcelona defense for Richmond Boakye, but the striker on loan from Juventus smashed a left-footed effort against the outside of the near post.
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Within two minutes, Elche’s renewed optimism had been wiped away. Capitalizing on a static defensive line from the visitors, Fabregas threaded a ball through to Pedro and the man who scored a hat-trick last time out against Getafe easily took the ball past the stranded Elche goalkeeper, Tono, before rolling the ball into the unguarded net.
In truth the score-line could have been far more emphatic at the break, with Barcelona in the mood and cutting through their game but undermanned opponents almost at will. Pedro was left disappointed to have curled just wide after Fabregas’s pull-back, while Xavi failed to take advantage of an indirect free-kick in the Elche box and Sanchez shot into the side netting.
Within two minutes of the restart, Barcelona were given the chance to put the result beyond any doubt. Fabregas got a touch to Pedro’s exquisite pass ahead of defender Cristian Sapunaru, who could only succeed in bringing the midfielder to the ground with a desperate lunge, giving the referee a simple decision to point to the spot. There was a sense of disbelief when Xavi, always so precise with his placing of the ball, put it a yard wide of the post.
Pedro soon missed another opportunity by curling wide of the far post, but in the 63rd minute, Barcelona ensured there was to be no such profligacy as they all-but walked the ball into the Elche net. A defense-splitting pass this time from the superb Iniesta, got Pedro in behind and the Spain international unselfishly rolled it to his left to the just onside Sanchez for the simplest of finishes.
The Chilean showed he can find the net from far greater range too, just six minutes later to complete his hat-trick. Having won a free-kick 25 yards from goal, Sanchez stepped up to the ball and sent it curling with power into the side of the net, again leaving Tono with no chance.
Barcelona should have had another penalty late on following a challenge on Iniesta after a clever flick from Neymar, but the decision could not dampen what was a encouraging way to celebrate the New Year.