Barcelona overcame Gerard Pique’s 46th minute red card with two late goals, lifting the defending champions past Sporting Gijon to a 3-1 victory on Saturday night.
The game kicked off without Barca talisman Lionel Messi on the pitch, as the Argentine served a one-match suspension alongside Sergio Busquets in the stands. Lacking La Pulga’s cutting edge, Barcelona labored to create clear chances against a disciplined Sporting side content to sit back and defend deeply with all eleven men.
The 3-1 scoreline is truthfully a bit deceptive. This was not a no Messi, no problem type of match, as Barcelona struggled going forward, saw three penalty appeals denied and suffered a harsh and untimely red card against Pique in the 1st minute of the second half.
Things looked down right grim for long stages, as this one appeared to be heading for a draw, until Seydou Keita, with one magnificent strike, broke the deadlock and led Barcelona to a resolute victory.
The first half kicked off with a monotony of possession for the hosts, as Sporting threw bodies behind the ball and absorbed pressure, making no intention to dispute Barcelona’s midfield dominance.
However, despite the overwhelming statistical advantage, the Catalans struggled to create chances without Messi’s incisive runs and had to settle for speculative efforts early on.
Adriano and Pedro saw shots blocked by Juan Pablo Colinas before Javier Mascherano sent a long range strike slicing wide of the post.
Dani Alves would take center stage in one of the many controversial decisions on the night, as he played a quick give-and-go in the area before being shoved off the ball and sent flying out of bounds, as he looked to send a pass across the face of goal. But Velasco Carballo was unmoved by the Brazilian’s protest and refused to award the penalty.
Barcelona’s frustrations began to mount, until Andres Iniesta appeared to break the deadlock with his first league goal of the campaign, culminating a series of zigzag passes with a signature goal on 42 minutes.
Sporting saw their first-half clean sheet undone when Adriano embarked on a penetrating run down the left flank, drawing in defenders before laying off a quick pass to Seydou Keita, who freed the Brazilian with a layoff pass to the byline, which Adriano skillfully cut back for Andres Iniesta to finish with an open net tap-in.
If Barca thought it would be smooth sailing, they were in for a rude awakening when, less than a minute into the second half, referee Velasco Carballo issued a straight red card to defender Gerard Pique, reducing the hosts to ten men.
A deflected pass carried the ball up field to the streaking Miguel de las Cuevas, who took a touch to control before being bundled over by Pique at the edge of the area. Despite both Adriano and Alves being within a few feet of the ball when the foul was committed and the Sporting striker not having clear possession during the play, referee Carballo felt it an intentional foul to break up a clear goal scoring decision as the last defender and as such, gave the Spain international his marching orders under dubious circumstances.
Things would only get worse for the hosts seconds later when Gijon capitalized on their numerical advantage to steal a goal against the run of play and level the match at one.
A shifty move by Formose Mendy allowed the forward to slip past his marker to the byline and fire in a low cross towards goal. Valdes looked poised to collect, only for the speedy Barral to nip past the keeper at the near post and deflect a shot into the back of the net.
Tied at one and down to ten men, Barcelona looked to the bench, as Cristian Tello and Alexis Sanchez were called on to deliver a winner.
The Chilean came close on 60 minutes, collecting a superb pass from Iniesta inside the area before taking an unnecessary extra touch and dribbling his shot wide, with only the keeper to beat.
Cristian Tello made use of his fresh legs, turning on the after burners to repeatedly blow past defenders on the left flank, winning a series of corners for the hosts, in addition to having a shot deflected just over the bar and settle on the roof of the net.
Barcelona would see another blatant penalty appeal denied by Carballo on 68 minutes, as Sporting midfielder Nacho Cases fell to the ground and handled the ball in a double occasion inside the box. The hosts screamed for the call, only for play to be waived on by the erroneous official.
The minutes continued to tick away, but just as things seemed destined for a draw, Seydou Keita delivered La Liga’s goal of the week, firing the Catalans ahead with a brilliant finish in the 79th minute.
A skillful layoff pass from Alexis Sanchez allowed Keita space to pick his shot, as the Mali international swept home a curling finish from outside the area into the upper left corner to restore the lead and ensure justice served.
Alexis Sanchez limped off the pitch with a strained abductor muscle in the closing minutes, leaving Barcelona to finish the match with nine men, as the Chilean faces a two-week layoff due to injury.
But Xavi would add a third on 88 minutes to seal the result, beating Colinas with a clever lob over the keeper’s head after being played in on goal by Andres Iniesta, who beat three men off the dribble in the build up before releasing Xavi with yet another sublime pass through traffic.
It was close until the end, as Barcelona prevailed in the face of adversity to claim a vital victory, closing the gap to seven points in the standings ahead of Espanyol’s bi-annual belly-up performance against Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu.
It was not the prettiest affair, as the Catalans stuttered throughout, but it was a significant win under trying circumstances. 80% possession when playing with ten men is a statistic to laud over. Holding a 13-1 advantage in corners and keeping the visitors to one shot on goal shows the intensity with which the team played. On a night where Messi could not be counted on to bail Barca out of trouble, the Catalans proved they were more powerful than the opposing forces working against them.
Staunch, unyielding and steadfast, the blaugrana exemplified the characteristics of a true champion and can certainly be proud of this one.
Article written by Barcaloco contributor Anson Woodring. Follow Anson on Twitter at @ansonwoodring.