Barcelona pulled within one point of La Liga leaders Real Madrid with a 4-1 victory at home to Almeria on Sunday evening at the Camp Nou.
Alexis Sanchez opened the scoring for Barcelona in the ninth minute, before Lionel Messi doubled the lead with a brilliant free kick midway through the half. Angel Trujillo pulled a goal back for Almeria shortly after Messi's strike, but Barca wrapped up the points with late strikes from Carles Puyol and Xavi.
With the win, Barcelona moved into second place with 63 points, one behind Real Madrid, who drew, 2-2, at rivals Atletico Madrid earlier Sunday. Atletico are third with 61 points.
Almeria are 17th, three points above the relegation places.
Barcelona manager Tata Martino watched from the stands as he served a one-match suspension after being sent off at half-time of Barcelona's loss to Real Sociedad last weekend.
The Spanish title race has been closely contested all season and likely will remain tight throughout the spring. A potential turning point could come March 23, when Barca will travel to the capital to play Real Madrid in the second Clasico of the league season.
Then, on the final day of the season, Barcelona will host Atletico Madrid in what could be a title decider. First, though, was the business of facing lowly Almeria on Sunday. But even after taking a quick two-goal lead, Barca met tough resistance from the visitors for much of the match.
"We need to win again and move closer to the leaders, but we need to keep working because things are very even at the top of the table," Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said, per TomConn of Inside Spanish Football. "There were good things and there are things that we must improve...It wasn’t our best game and we lacked a spark, but at least we’re still in the fight."
Barcelona settled quickly and had a chance in the sixth minute after Xavi picked out Dani Alves on the right. Alves managed to shoot on target, but Suarez Esteban made a fine save to keep the score level.
It remained level only three more minutes, though, as Alexis put Barca ahead in the ninth minute. Cesc Fabgregas forced a save with a shot from the edge of the box, but Alexis was on hand to turn the ball into the net for a 1-0 Barcelona lead.
The hosts then settled into their trademark style, controlling possession and slowing the pace.
Xavi created another chance in the 15th minute, picking out Neymar with a long pass. But Rafita made a timely intervention to block Neymar's shot. Four minutes later, Sebastian Dubarbier blocked from Dani Alves after the Brazilian had completed a one-two passing combination with Messi in the box.
Messi took his first shot in the 20th minute, a low, weak effort that Esteban saved comfortably. Four minutes later, the little Argentine doubled Barca's lead with a vintage effort.
After drawing a foul outside the box in the 24th minute, Messi curled his superb free kick into the top corner to make it 2-0 midway through the first half.
The hosts seemed to be in complete control, but moments later, Almeria pulled a goal back.
First, Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes tipped over Miguel Angel Corona's shot in the 26th minute. One minute later, as Valdes came off his line in an unsuccessful attempt to collect the resulting corner, an unmarked Trujillo headed in to make it 2-1.
"We have to try and improve on set-pieces," Busquets said (via Inside Spanish Football). "Every team has their own brand and ours is one without a lot of height and we suffer, it’s not our forte."
Barca responded well, and Neymar whipped a shot off target from Puyol's pass in the 35th minute. Three minutes later, Messi headed just wide from Sanchez's knock-down.
Leading 2-1 at half-time, Barcelona went back on the attack after the break. Xavi picked up where he had left off in the first half, setting up Neymar in the 50th minute with a defence-splitting pass on the left. But Neymar's scuffed shot went straight at Esteban.
Almeria offered a threat of their own as well, and Aleix Vidal nearly pulled the visitors level in the 63rd minute. But his shot was too close to Valdes, who saved well to maintain Barca's lead.
The next chance fell to Barca after Messi and Sanchez combined in the 66th minute to set up Neymar. The Brazilian had plenty of space on the left, but his wasteful shot flew well wide of the target.
Messi had a shot blocked in the 68th minute as Barca continued searching for the third goal. Almeria then had another chance to equalise 11 minutes later when Sundy Zongo Jonathan sprung the offside trap. But his attempted cross, aimed at Helder Barbosa, was too close to Valdes.
Barcelona finally found their third goal in the 83rd minute. Messi hit the woodwork with a header from a corner, but Puyol powered in the rebound to make it 3-1.
Xavi then rounded out a fine overall display with Barca's fourth, curling into the bottom corner in the 89th minute to seal the victory.
|Barcelona Player Ratings vs. Almeria|
|Pedro (for Sanchez, 72')||6.9|
|Andres Iniesta (for Fabregas, 79')||6.4|
|Cristian Tello (for Neymar, 88')||6.0|
Barcelona play at Real Valladolid next Saturday. Almeria host Sevilla next Sunday.