Barcelona strengthened their grip on the 2017-18 Liga title at Camp Nou on Saturday with a 2-1 victory over Valencia, who did their best to prise at least one claret-and-blue finger from the trophy but ultimately were thwarted by an excellent display by Marc-Andre Ter Stegen in the home goal.
Marcelino sent his side out to attack and in the early exchanges Barça’s back five were rattled by the pace and incisiveness on the left of Gonçalo Guedes, who gave Sergi Roberto the run-around for the opening 45 minutes. The visitors zipped into more tackles and hit more shots than the hosts but the Germany international was in inspired form, denying Guedes in the third minute but it was the home side who found the net first, against the run of play, when Philippe Coutinho matched Luis Suárez’s expert run with an inch-perfect ball that the Uruguayan could hardly fail to hit low past Neto.
Valencia continued to press and Ter Stegen made a flying stop to turn Rodrigo’s effort onto the bar a few minutes later. Guedes also went close when his goal-bound shot glanced off Sergio Busquets for a corner but despite the visitors carving the home defence open at will, the Barça number one held his nerve and maintained his side’s advantage until half time.
Barça's unstoppable momentum challenged by Valencia's guile
After the break Valencia came out with their guns blazing afresh and should have equalized four minutes after the restart. Samuel Umtiti, who was otherwise flawless all afternoon, slipped in his own half and Valencia threaded the ball swiftly to Rodrigo, who looked certain to score when he beat the onrushing Ter Stegen. But Gerard Piqué had read the situation and was on hand to make a clearance off the line.
Umtiti then extended Barcelona’s lead with a towering header from a Coutinho corner, which temporarily sucked the wind out of Valencia’s sails. Both the Brazilian and Messi went close to making it three, the Argentinean with an aesthetically wonderful volley that flashed just over Neto’s goal. Andrés Iniesta, who delivered another midfield master class, forced the Valencia keeper into a smart stop from Messi’s cross with a volley that had the Camp Nou on its feet but the visitors weathered the storm.
Barça were made to pay for not putting the game out of reach earlier when substitute Ousmane Dembélé committed a rash challenge in the area to concede a penalty in the 86th minute. Valencia captain Dani Parejo duly stepped up and hit possibly the weakest penalty of his career but somehow Ter Stegen conspired to guess correctly, smother the ball and then watch helplessly at it inexplicably eluded his entire frame and dribbled over the line.
Both sides had their chances to hit the net again in the final exchanges, Denis Suárez firing straight at Neto after being played in by Messi and Simone Zaza failing to fully connect with a header from two yards out.
Barça won’t face many sterner tests at home this season as they aim to claim the Liga crown and become the only side to end a campaign unbeaten in Liga history. In the meantime, Saturday’s victory handed Ernesto Valverde the distinction of beating Real Sociedad’s long-standing Spanish record of 38 consecutive top-flight games without defeat as his side moved one step closer to regaining the title.