Barcelona moved second in La Liga with a win over Almeria thanks to goals from Alexis Sanchez, Lionel Messi, Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez.
Barca went into the game looking for three points to jump above Atletico Madrid and move a point behind leaders Real Madrid following the 2-2 draw in the Madrid derby.
The result may have been what Los Cules wanted but the performance left something to be desired, featuring little of the rip-roaring attacking and ruthless finishing that destroyed Rayo Vallecano less than a month ago.
Tata Martino watched the game from the Camp Nou stands as punishment for being sent off at half time against Real Sociedad last week.
Sanchez’s early goal and Messi’s free-kick gave Barcelona a 2-1 lead by half time, only for Alejandro Trujillo to net when Barca failed to defend a set-piece.
Alexis pounced when Esteban could only parry Cesc Fabregas’ shot from inside the penalty area, slotting the ball past the despairing Esteban. The goalkeeper had barely any better chance saving Messi’s free-kick, getting a hand to the ball as it flew into the net.
The trajectory of Messi’s effort almost beggared belief, the ball moving well outside the post before bending wickedly back and powerfully beating Esteban.
Trujillo pulled a goal back not long after Messi found the net as Barca’s set-piece vulnerability reared its head again. The defender found space from a corner and Victor Valdes appeared in two minds, eventually getting caught out of position as the ball flashed into the back of the net.
Martino chose to reintroduce Carles Puyol for this game and it was the captain who lost Trujillo, Barca not for the first time struggling to defend dead balls. But Puyol eventually sealed the victory with a late goal from close range after Messi’s header hit the crossbar.
Barca looked to the flanks to break down Almeria with Dani Alves causing particular problems on the right wing throughout the first half. His compatriot Neymar was also prominent in the opening 45 minutes but the forward’s end product was lacking.
Neymar could take a lesson or two from Alexis, who is enjoying his most prolific season at Barca, with 16 League goals and 18 in all competitions.
Alexis and Messi nearly combined to give Barca a third goal before the break, Alexis darting into the Almeria area, meeting a cross and teeing up Messi, but the Argentine had to stretch to meet the ball with his head and could only put it wide.
Neymar had the first sight of goal of the second half when he was released by Xavi Hernandez but the Brazil international’s shot was tame and didn’t cause Esteban any bother.
Fabregas had the next attempt at extending Barca’s lead but his shot was only fractionally more powerful than Neymar’s, Barca dominating the game but not establishing a commanding score.
Almeria worked arguably the best chance of the second half up to the hour mark with a neat passing move, pulling Barca’s defence out of position until Aleix Vidal stung the palms of Valdes.
Barca picked up the tempo following Vidal’s well-struck effort and the crowd responded in kind. To that point the game had been played in an atmosphere reminiscent of a pre-season friendly.
Pedro and Andres Iniesta called for in place of Alexis and Fabregas as Barca looked to wrap up the points and Pedro went close, thumping a shot at Esteban that the goalkeeper pushed behind.
From the resulting corner Messi powered a header against the bar and Puyol followed up to net, the score line finally reflecting the amount of possession Barca had if not their effectiveness with it. Xavi then added emphasis with a placed-but-powerful effort from just outside the penalty area.
Barcelona 4-1 Almeria
Scorers: Alexis 9 (FCB), Messi 24 (FCB), Puyol 84 (FCB), Xavi 89 (FCB); Trujillo 27 (UDA)
Barcelona: Valdes; Alves, Mascherano, Puyol, Adriano; Busquets, Xavi, Cesc (Iniesta 79); Alexis (Pedro 72), Messi, Neymar (Tello 88)
Almeria: Esteban; Rafita, Trujillo, Torsiglieri, Dubarbier; Verza, Azeez (Suso 79), Corona (Tebar 71); Zongo, Aleix, Rodri (Barbosa 62)