Gerard Pique was Barcelona’s match-winner as the Catalans made it 34 games unbeaten with a slender 2-1 victory over Sevilla in La Liga on Sunday.
With their midweek trip to Rayo Vallecano in mind, the Catalans made five changes from the team which defeated Arsenal 2-0 in the Champions League, starting with Claudio Bravo for Marc-Andre ter Stegen in goal.
Sevilla old boys Dani Alves and Ivan Rakitic were dropped to the substitutes’ bench for another ex-sevillista in Vidal and Arda Turan, while Jeremy Mathieu took the place of Javier Mascherano in central defence and Andres Iniesta was rested for Sergi Roberto.
Sevilla, the last team to beat Barca all the way back in October, on the other hand, made nine alterations from Thursday’s 1-0 loss to Molde, with Timothee Kolodziejczak and Vicente Iborra the only survivors.
Despite Barca dominating possession in the first half, their defence looked suspect more times than not, and their high line was badly caught out when Benoit Tremoulinas broke down the left and clipped a cross into the box for Vitolo to strike past Bravo on the half-volley.
The Andalucians, in contrast to their opponents, gave the impression of a settled team as they were happy to soak up pressure and hit their opponents on the counterattack, and it could’ve got even better for them had Kolo hit the target from a yard out after the ball bounced in front of him in the Barca box.
Nonetheless, Messi had a close-range strike saved by Sergio Rico, who then rushed off his line to deny Neymar one-on-one, yet the Argentine eventually came to his side’s rescue, 15 minutes before the break, as he curled a free kick into the top-right corner of the goalkeeper’s net.
Barca then wasted no time in finding the winner, just three minutes into the second half, as Luis Suarez raced onto Messi’s through ball down the right and had his low cross turned home by Gerard Pique, although the defender may have been marginally offside.
Sevilla, however, were by no means out of the game at any point, and they ought to have equalised when Kevin Gameiro sprung off the last Barca defender to set up a one-on-one with Bravo, but the striker’s shot was beaten away by the goalkeeper.
At the other end, Rico was kept on his toes by La Blaugrana, the custodian having somehow denied Neymar from point-blank range, before he tipped Sergio Busquets’ curling effort wide of the right-hand post.
Barca’s decision to reshuffle their pack, coupled with their hectic schedule of late, only exacerbated their profligacy, but the introductions of Iniesta and Rakitic allowed the League leaders to wrestle back control.
They then should’ve capped off the victory through Suarez, who was slipped in behind by Messis perfectly-weighted through ball down the right and dragged the ball across his marker to make a yard for himself, yet his chipped cross for Neymar was punched clear by Rico.
The result left Barca eight points clear atop La Liga, including 12 of arch-rivals Real Madrid, and unbeaten for a record-equalling 34th game, while Sevilla’s winless run away from home continued.
Barcelona 2-1 Sevilla
Messi 31, Pique 48 (B) Vitolo 20 (S)
Barcelona: Bravo; Vidal (Alves 55) Pique, Mathieu, Alba; Busquets, Sergi (Rakitic 75), Arda (Iniesta 64) Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Sevilla: Rico; Coke, Rami, Kolodziejczak, Tremoulinas; Cristoforo (Konoplyanka 63), N'Zonzi; Vitolo, Iborra (Munoz 75), Krohn-Dehli; Gameiro
Referee: Jaime Latre