A scintillating second-half display saw Barcelona come from behind to claim a 2-1 victory over La Liga leaders Valencia and move above them into top spot, albeit for a couple of hours. The victory came courtesy of a goal from captain Carles Puyol after Andres Iniesta had cancelled out Pablo Hernandez’s opener.
The hosts welcomed back midfield maestro Xavi and captain Puyol after injury, while star forward David Villa also returned from suspension. Winger Pedro took a place on the bench after a quicker-than-expected recovery from his hamstring strain. For the visitors, key midfielder Ever Banega returned from injury, but winger Joaquin was still out. Valencia boss Unai Emery employed a more conservative approach as Aritz Aduriz and Juan Mata were left on the bench in favour of more defensive options.
Valencia began the brighter, and came close to taking the lead after seven minutes as Jeremy Mathieu’s fine ball across the face of goal was only inches away from the outstretched Roberto Soldado. The opening exchanges belonged almost exclusively to the visitors as they controlled possession and showed exactly why they entered the game at the top of the table.
Barca’s first real chance came after 19 minutes, as David Villa broke the offside trap to get on the end of Dani Alves' clever pass. Villa cut the ball across goal from the right-hand side looking to give Carles Puyol a tap-in, but the ball was cleared. The clearance fell to Villa who volleyed back across goal, where the ball was once again cleared to safety. The hosts seemed to have hit their stride now, as three minutes later Xavi produced a clever nutmeg and a curling 20-yard effort that was well saved by Cesar in the Valencia goal.
Soon after, however, the visitors regained control of the game, and it wasn’t long before they opened the scoring. Valencia made their breakthrough in the 37th minute, as the impressive Mathieu broke down the left once again and cut back from the byline for Hernandez to side-foot home a deflected effort. Valencia very nearly doubled their lead as a swift counter attack released Soldado to square for Hernandez on the edge of the box, but with the goal at his mercy the Valencia winger shot straight at Valdes.
On the stroke of halftime Barca came close to an equaliser as Messi played in Alves, with the Brazilian’s low cross evading Cesar’s grasp and falling to Messi, but a great block from Bruno saved the day. Seconds later and Barca had a penalty claim as Villa’s header appeared to hit Hernandez’s arm, but the appeals were waved away.
Soon after those chances, the first half ended, and Valencia left the field with a well-deserved one-goal lead at the break. Whatever was said at halftime by Barca boss Pep Guardiola, it seemed to have a real impact as Barca were back on level terms almost instantly.
In truth, the goal owed more to the supreme talent of Xavi and Iniesta than any tactical shift, with the two displaying their almost telepathic connection to produce a goal of the highest quality. Iniesta received a pass from Seydou Keita just into the Valencia half, carried the ball towards the edge of the area and produced a clever pass with the outside of his foot that found Xavi.
As four Valencia defenders watched on, Iniesta continued his run and got on the end of a fine return pass from Xavi and side-footed past Cesar with consummate ease.
As much as the first half belonged to the visitors, the second was completely controlled by Barca, with a host of chances being created soon after the equaliser. First, a Maxwell cross was met by Keita, but the midfielder lost his footing at the vital moment and failed to get a full connection. Next up was David Villa, whose dangerous cross was turned over his own bar by Jordi Alba.
Soon after, Alves played the ball inside to Messi, who returned the favour with a first-time pass with the outside of his foot which released Alves into the box. Alves dinked a cross to the far post, where it was met by a powerful header from Villa that was clawed away superbly by the outstretched Cesar.
It seemed only a matter of time before Barca found another goal, a goal which inevitably came in the 63rd minute. Receiving the ball out wide, Xavi swung a pinpoint cross in from the right, where it was met by a bullet header from Puyol, the Barca captain giving Cesar no chance as he found the top corner in emphatic fashion.
Barca were now rampant, and a dazzling run from Messi saw him jink one way and then the other as he left the Valencia defence for dead, but saw his near-post shot saved by Cesar. Another chance came soon after as Villa was put through on goal by a fine Iniesta through ball, but the forward chose to try and take the ball round Cesar, with the Valencia keeper equal to Villa as he won the ball with an outstretched glove.
Valencia were struggling to contain their former forward, and soon after Villa cut in from the left and fired in a fierce shot that was beaten away by Cesar, with the rebound somehow evading both Messi and Iniesta before Manuel Fernandes cleared. Messi also saw a late effort ruled out for offside, while at the other end Victor Valdes was a virtual passenger for the entire second half as the game finished 2-1.
The victory, and particularly the second-half performance, sounded a warning shot to the rest of La Liga’s top sides that Barca are simply untouchable on their day. The combination of Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Villa was breathtaking throughout the second 45 minutes, with Maxwell and Alves also providing continual threat with their overlapping runs out wide.
The result saw Barca move above Valencia courtesy of goals scored, although their place at the top of La Liga was soon taken by Real Madrid. Both Barca and Valencia now have 16 points from their seven games, with a trip to Zaragoza next up for Barca and the visit of Mallorca next for Valencia, although both sides have Champions League ties in midweek first.
Barca welcome group leaders FC Copenhagen to Camp Nou, while Valencia travel to Glasgow for the first of a double-header with Rangers.