Neymar spares Barca blushes

Barcelona’s blushes were spared at Las Palmas as Neymar’s first-half finish secured a narrow 2-1 victory for the lacklustre Catalans on Saturday.

Gerard Pique was rested in light of Barca’s Champions League last-16 first leg against Arsenal next week, while Sergio Busquets was banned for accumulating a fifth yellow card of the season at Sporting Gijon on Wednesday.

The pair were replaced in the XI by Jordi Alba and Andres Iniesta, with Dani Alves, Javier Mascherano and Sergi Roberto also coming into fold, albeit at the expense of Aleix Vidal, Adriano and Ivan Rakitic.

The two sides’ last meeting – an edgy 2-1 win for Barca in September – infamously saw Lionel Messi break down with a ligament tear, which would rule him out for the following two months, and the trend continued in the rematch at Gran Canaria.

Nonetheless, Barca needed just six minutes to break the deadlock, Iniesta’s eye-of-a-needle pass releasing Alba down the left and the left-back’s square ball into the box being tapped home by Suarez for his 25th League goal of the season.

However, Las Palmas deservedly got the equaliser just four minutes later thanks to Willian Jose’s slotted finish after Jonathan Viera had found the striker with the deftest of back-heels from a long ball, despite Barca’s protestations that the pass was offside.

The islanders continued to apply plenty of pressure and showcased imagination in their attacking play, while remaining firm at the back, but the champions would restore their lead before the break through Neymar, who swept home a rebound from Lionel Messi’s parried shot.

Without Pique to command the defence or Busquets to dictate the tempo in the middle of the park, Barca were a shadow of their usual selves, although Suarez’s poor finishing saw him send a free header wide at Varas’ back post, before somehow poking Neymar’s angled cross wide from a couple of yards out.

Both deficiencies gave Las Palmas encouragement to push for a second equaliser, but ex-Real Madrid youngster Willian could only manage the side-netting, despite being unmarked when meeting the rebound from Jonathan Viera’s curled strike, which Claudio Bravo parried.

Suarez may have ended the game as La Liga’s Pichichi, but he continued to misfire as he failed to lift Alba’s flighted pass over Varas, while ex-Barca loanee Sergio Araujo came off the substitutes’ bench to shave the Barca upright with a first-time, looping effort from the D.

Las Palmas were relentless in attack, with chances being churned out at will, yet Araujo came the wrong side of Bravo’s far post away from pulling one back as he dragged a close-range effort wide, before Thomas Vermaelen made a goal-saving clearance with his head to intercept Tana’s chipped ball across goal.

Willian was then presented with a glorious opportunity in added time to seal the deal for the islanders, but his side would remain third from bottom after he slid a one-on-one with Bravo wide of the target, also extending Barca’s lead atop La Liga to nine points.

Las Palmas 1-2 Barcelona

Willian Jose 10 (LP) Suarez 6, Neymar 39 (B)

Las Palmas: Varas; Garcia (Nili 87), Aythami, Bigas, Garrido; Roque; El Zhar (Araujo 76), Tana, Viera (Lemos 66), Momo; Willian Jose

Barcelona: Bravo; Alves, Mascherano, Mathieu, Alba; Arda (Rakitic 46), Sergi (Vermaelen 70), Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar

Referee: Del Cerro Grande