Barcelona’s title hopes have taken a blow after they fell to a 1-0 defeat against dogged and well-drilled Granada.
Yacine Brahimi put the home side in front after a quarter of an hour, a makeshift Barca defence being split open by a Fran Rico through ball and Brahimi springing a poorly-constructed offside trap, beating Jose Pinto at his near post.
Barca went into the game a point behind leaders Atletico and two clear of Real Madrid. With both capital clubs to play this weekend – Madrid tonight, Atletico tomorrow – the result leaves Barca struggling to make up ground on their title rivals.
Granada meanwhile were looking for three points to aid their fight against the drop. The unexpected but deserved win against the champions puts Lucas Alcaraz’s side a lot closer to safety.
Tata Martino named Sergio Busquets next to Javier Mascherano and particularly for Brahimi’s goal, the pair looked very much like two central midfielders deployed into the back four. The lack of protection from midfield was also telling.
Granada had Orestis Karnezis in goal for a rare appearance with an attacking XI led by Brahimi, Piti and Yussef El-Arabi.
Barca started with a handful of changes from the side dumped out of the Champions League in midweek by Atletico. Dani Alves, Marc Bartra, Jordi Alba and Xavi Hernandez dropped out for Martin Montoya, Alex Song, Adriano and Pedro.
Most of Barca’s chances in the first-half came from crosses, perhaps not an ideal tactic for a side without a genuine centre-forward. Montoya and Neymar both went close with headers as Granada funnelled Barca’s play down the flanks.
When Barca did get through, such as Montoya’s pull-back that found Cesc Fabregas, Granada’s defending was committed. Granada’s defence was busier as the half wore on with Barca finding more space to work the ball into the area.
Mascherano survived a penalty claim and while the award of a spot kick would have been harsh, the Argentina international’s defending against the athleticism of El-Arabi left a lot to be desired.
Neymar needed treatment after running into Manuel Iturra on the edge of the penalty area off the ball, and the pair had a further set-to later in the game. Neymar, despite appearing in extreme discomfort, was able to carry on unhindered.
Granada almost had a second when Pinto spilled Piti’s long-range effort but the assistant referee’s flag went up as El-Arabi pounced on the loose ball, getting the goalkeeper out of trouble.
The half ended with a spell of Barca pressure but no equaliser. The second started in the same manner, Barca bossing the ball but unable to draw level. A nicely cushioned Neymar header teed up Cesc but Karnezis produced a good save.
Immediately after Rico put Brahimi behind the Barca defence again, with a desperate Montoya lunge needed to prevent the striker getting a shot away at the exposed Pinto. Neymar also failed to test Karnezis, dragging his shot wide of the goalkeeper’s far post after the ball fell kindly.
Karnezis was tested by a Lionel Messi free-kick that was heading for the top corner but at full stretch the Greek made a fine stop. Karnezis then stopped a goalmouth scramble from the resulting corner with a point-blank block as Barca pushed for an equaliser.
Frustration was creeping into Barca’s play, though, with Messi picking up a yellow card for dissent and Andres Iniesta air-kicking a volley that, while difficult, was a presentable chance for a player of his class.
A spectacular volley attempt from Neymar went well wide before Martino made an attacking change, taking off Busquets for Alexis Sanchez. Song, largely anonymous in the match, went into defence.
Little truly changed. Granada’s defending remained resolute and Barca still struggled to create a clear-cut chance. Messi dropped increasingly deep to get the ball and as such wasn’t in a position to really trouble Granada’s defence. When Karnezis was beaten, Tiago Illori was on hand to stop the ball crossing the line.
El-Arabi had a golden chance to put the game to bed with a handful of minutes remaining but Pinto stood up to the forward, rescuing Barca after more questionable defending, this time from Song.
Granada spent much of the game in their own half – penalty area, even – especially after going behind, but their approach and the stubborn way in which it was executed produced a fine defensive performance and a telling result at both ends of the table.
Granada 1-0 Barcelona
Brahimi 16 (G)
Granada: Karnezis; Nyom, Ilori, Murillo (Mainz 91), Foulquier; Iturra, Fran Rico, Recio; Brahimi (Bravo 65), Piti (Coeff 73), El Arabi
Barcelona: Pinto; Montoya, Busquets (Alexis 74), Mascherano, Adriano (Alba 68); Song, Cesc, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Neymar