Real Sociedad blew the La Liga title race wide open as the curse of Anoeta condemned Barcelona to a second straight League loss on Saturday.
Claudio Bravo’s return in goal was the first of five new faces brought in by Luis Enrique as Rafinha started his first game since damaging knee ligaments last September, while La Real were without three of their four first-choice defenders.
The Catalans hadn’t beaten La Real away from home since 2007, during which time the latter had been relegated and promoted back to La Liga, although their 1-0 defeat in January 2015 served as the turning point in their treble-winning campaign.
Yet the defeat appeared to come back and haunt them after just five minutes as a high cross from Real’s right was met by teenage attacker Oyarzabal, who guided a looping header over former teammate Bravo.
With no Suarez to press the hosts’ backline or Andres Iniesta to pull the strings from deep, Barca’s movement on and off the ball was laboured, their passing too predictable, as Real committed numbers behind the ball but were highly organised and broke away at pace.
Such an approach led to Neymar’s selfishness almost being punished as David Zurutuza released Mikel Oyarzabal, who in turn found an unmarked Alberto de la Bella down the left, but the full-back’s shot after he cut into the penalty area was blocked.
Barca’s only meaningful chance, on the other hand, came from Arda Turan, whose overall game again fell short of the Catalans’ standard as he ended the first half with a booking but had a deflected volley pushed away by Geronimo Rulli.
The last time Barca came back from behind to beat Real at Anoeta was in 1930, and La Blaugrana could’ve gone some way towards ending their affliction, had Messi applied a finish from substitute Andres Iniesta’s square ball at the far post. However, the No 10 was left with his head in his hands as he erroneously thought he was offside and didn’t attempt the finish as a result.
Iniesta then unleashed a powerful drive from around 20 yards out, aimed for the top-left corner, but Rulli pulled off a reflex save to tip the ball over the bar, before the midfielder did find the back of the net, only for Neymar to have both hands on Asier Illarramendi’s back when climbing for the knockdown to feed his teammate.
The Albacete native’s introduction certainly gave Barca a welcome injection of guile, but it proved no more than a jolt as the visitors seemed jaded. Nonetheless, Gerard Pique possibly represented their Plan B as his knockdown for Messi in the box allowed the No 10 to have a pop at Rulli from close range, although his toepoke was pushed away by the goalkeeper.
Messi was criticised on social media during the game for continually dropping into midfield and not offering enough in and around the final third, and he was again denied by Rulli, who kept out the No 10’s powerful header down low, before the Argentine pushed away Iniesta’s shot from the penalty spot deep in added time.
The win was Real’s fourth at home against Barca in succesion, while Atletico Madrid’s win at Espanyol and Real Madrid’s triumph over Eibar earlier in the day cut Barca’s lead at the top to just three points.
Real Sociedad 1-0 Barcelona
Real Sociedad: Rulli; Elustondo (Zaldua 76), Reyes, Mikel, De la Bella; Prieto, Granero, Illarra; Oyarzabal (Hector 88), Vela, Zurutuza (Pardo 80)
Barcelona: Bravo; Sergi (Rakitic 70), Pique, Mascherano, Alves; Busquets, Arda (Alba 59), Rafinha (Iniesta 46); Messi, Munir, Neymar
Referee: Iglesias Villanueva