Barcelona's eight-match win streak in La Liga came to an end on Saturday after Valencia held the Catalans to a 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou, despite Lionel Messi's brace.
Kevin Gameiro and Dani Parejo gave the visitors a shock two-goal lead, courtesy of an excellent counter and a penalty. Barcelona hit back through a penalty of their own, and Messi got his second after the break.
The result was a big boost for Valencia's European hopes, reducing the gap to sixth-placed Deportivo Alaves in the standings. The Basque side will face Real Madrid on Sunday.
Defensive Struggles Highlight Importance of Busquets, Arthur
Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde was without the suspended Sergio Busquets on Saturday and understandably opted to rotate his side with the Clasico against Real on the horizon.
That meant Arthur also came out of the starting XI, with Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal and Carles Alena making up the midfield three.
Before the contest, many wondered how Rakitic would fare against Dani Parejo and the Valencia midfield unit in a revised role:
HEAD-TO-HEAD: Ivan Rakitic vs Dani Parejo With Sergio Busquets suspended, there is ample pressure on Rakitic to marshal proceedings in the midfield for Barcelona -- Will he successfully shoulder the burden? Full match preview -- https://t.co/ot5SdxnQVC https://t.co/lPw1LDrRgF
It quickly became evident Valverde's choices were far from ideal. Barcelona's transition defence struggled throughout the first half, with nearly all of Valencia's chances coming on the counter. Parejo was the key man for the first, dispossessing Messi and starting things off, while the penalty for the second was won after a swift move.
Arthur is Barcelona's best defender on the counter, and while Busquets doesn't offer much in terms of mobility, his calming influence usually stops the team from losing the ball in dangerous areas. Both were major issues against Valencia, leading to two goals and plenty of other defensive struggles.
Valverde should continue to rotate this season but keep in mind how badly his defence struggles when both Busquets and Arthur are on the sidelines. Resting one at a time is the way forward, rather than leaving both out.
Expect both to get the nod alongside Rakitic against Los Blancos, allowing the Croatian to focus more on attacking in a role that is far better suited to his strengths.
Alena had a solid outing and should receive more minutes in the coming months, providing he has Busquets playing next to him as cover. Vidal's energy and scoring ability are also great additions to the side, but his abilities are better used off the bench.
Barcelona face Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday and will return to La Liga action against Athletic Bilbao on February 10. Valencia's Copa adventure continues against Real Betis on Thursday, before a league clash with Real Sociedad on the following Sunday.