Lionel Messi bags a brace, Barcelona hold on to beat Real Sociedad
Barcelona came through a nervy affair to beat Real Sociedad 3-2 at Camp Nou on Saturday, with four of the goals coming in the final nine minutes of a thrilling first half. Lionel Messi opened the scoring in the 17th minute with a great strike from outside the area. He then added his second of the night 20 minutes later, prompting a goalfest to end the opening period.
First, La Real pulled a goal back, with Inigo Martinez's shot deflected in off Samuel Umtiti, only for Barca to go straight up the other end and restore their two-goal advantage thanks to Paco Alcacer. That was in the 44th minute, and in the 45th the visitors were back within a goal when Xabi Prieto capped a wonderful move.
There was less drama in the second half, although there was plenty of tension among the home supporters as Luis Enrique's side held out for what may prove an important win.
After back-to-back defeats the most important thing was the win. It didn't matter how it came. The three points keep Barca within three of Real Madrid and a win in the Clasico next weekend will take them to the top of the table, albeit having played a game more than Zinedine Zidane's side.
With defending like this Barca can forget turning things around against Juventus -- even if their supporters ended the night singing "yes we can" in reference to Wednesday's game. Real Sociedad created chance after chance in the first half and perhaps the only surprise was they scored only twice. They continued to press after the break, although they were unable to create too many serious chances. There's huge scope for the Blaugrana to improve in defence.
Manager rating out of 10
5 -- Luis Enrique's decision to play four at the back again managed to have Barcelona looking even more suspect in defence. Was slow to react to La Real dominating the second half, too. Either that or he didn't know how to change the flow of the game.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Marc-Andre ter Stegen, 6 -- Forced into several first-half saves, although mainly from shots from distance. Not at fault for either of the goals and got away with some tricky footwork in the second half.
DF Sergi Roberto, 7 -- Created some really good chances, notably for Alcacer, Andre Gomes and Messi. None ended in goals, though. Was a menace all game going forward and one of Barca's best players, although he's not a natural right-back and opposition teams continue to exploit that.
DF Gerard Pique, 5 -- Tried to build play from the back and played one lovely pass over the top for Sergi Roberto. Defensively, though, Barca continue to be suspect and not even the presence of Pique is able to shore them up. He's looked out of sorts of late and was booked late on for an obvious foul which typified his evening.
DF Samuel Umtiti, 5 -- Credited with an own goal for Real Sociedad's first goal, but little he could do to get out of the way of the ball which was flying toward him. The mistakes had occurred elsewhere. Did drift out of position for the visitors' second, though, allowing Prieto to find space between Pique and Jordi Alba.
DF Jordi Alba, 6 -- A rare start for the left-back, who has been the major casualty of Barca's switch to three at the back. Would have preferred to have Neymar in front of him, but worked well with Alcacer and managed to avoid the booking which would have seen him suspended for next weekend's Clasico.
MF Sergio Busquets, 6 -- Fresh from his midweek suspension in Turin, Busquets was thrown straight back into Barca's lineup. Had some good moments, but trying to function in a midfield which was largely absent and losing the possession battle made it a difficult evening for him.
MF Ivan Rakitic, 6 -- Asked to play a hybrid role, with his positioning often changing. At times was on the right of a midfield four; then he was in a more familiar central role. Not his best performance, but his head never drops and you can guarantee he will keep going for 90 minutes.
MF Andre Gomes, 5 -- Another disappointing performance which once again ended with him being taken off. Was bullied off the ball on more than one occasion and couldn't get the ball out of his feet when presented with a decent first-half chance.
FW Lionel Messi, 8 -- Opened the scoring with a thumping effort from the edge of the box. Scored the second from slightly closer range, taking his tally in La Liga for the season to 29 and his total in official games for Barcelona to a staggering 498. Created the third goal for Alcacer and was once again his side's biggest threat, despite playing phases of the game in second gear.
FW Luis Suarez, 7 -- Put in a tremendous shift, perhaps aware of the added responsibility during Neymar's absence, and was involved in both of Messi's goals. Didn't have much luck in front of goal himself, though. His best chance came in stoppage time but Geronimo Rulli kept him out.
FW Paco Alcacer, 7 -- Luis Enrique opted for the former Valencia man to fill in for Neymar and he did well. Was involved in both of Messi's first-half goals and then scored the third with a really good finish. Should have scored before then, mind, fluffing a really good chance after a cross from Sergi Roberto. Slacked off after the break and was eventually replaced.
MF Andres Iniesta, 6 -- Barca coach Luis Enrique would have been reluctant to bring his captain on with Juve in mind, but was forced to introduce him with the midfield battle being lost and La Real in charge of possession.
MF Denis Suarez, NR -- Brought on late on for Alcacer to help Barca see the game out.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.