SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN – NOVEMBER 27: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring goal during the La Liga match between Real Sociedad de Futbol and FC Barcelona at Estadio Anoeta on November 27, 2016 in San Sebastian, Spain. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
Barcelona suffered again at Anoeta as they dropped points against a bold and brave Real Sociedad, to stay six points behind leaders Real Madrid in La Liga.
That means the Clasico next weekend is even more important, with Barcelona desperately needing a win to stay in touch with their arch-rivals.
The Basque hosts dominated the first half although it wasn’t until the 53rd minute that they were able to take advantage.
Willian Jose opened the scoring after both Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique erred, but Barcelona were soon back level after their virtually invisible superstars finally showed up.
Neymar surged away from one defender, then another, cutting it back to Messi whose first touch was a beautiful dink to himself, to set the ball perfectly for his second, a rammed strike across Geronimo Rulli and into the far corner.
Barcelona were extremely lucky when Vela’s shot hit the crossbar and Juanmi turned the rebound over the line, only to be ruled offside while clearly still on. It was a terrible decision to rule it out—and there was some debate over whether Vela’s effort crossed the line in the first place too.
At the other end they nearly grabbed an undeserved late winner, when Denis Suarez rounded Geronimo Rulli but Asier Illarramendi cleared his shot off the line.
Here are five things we learned…
1. The Anoeta curse continues
Why do Barcelona play badly at Anoeta? They haven’t won there since 2007, virtually a decade ago.
Lots of reasons have been touted. Some say it’s because they rotate too much when they travel there, others that the Basques raise their game significantly when Barcelona come to town.
Luis Enrique has never won there as a manager, losing twice with Barcelona (1-0 both times) and once with Celta Vigo. He acknowledged this by picking his strongest side, not making the changes which prejudiced his team’s interests on the previous two occasions.
But Barcelona were horrendous in the first half as the hosts played some wonderful football to isolate the MSN attacking trio and create plenty of danger of their own.
Only a moment of magic from Messi and Neymar in the second half earned Barcelona anything, along with an appalling refereeing decision to rule out Juanmi’s strike, which would have been the winner.
Frank Rijkaard was in charge when they last won there, with Pep Guardiola, Tito Villanova, Tata Martino and Lucho failing to have any joy in San Sebastian, in a total of eight games.
2. Neymar shaken, not stirred by car crash
This has been a bad week for Barcelona’s Brazilian star Neymar.
Spanish prosecutors decided on Wednesday they want to give him a two-year prison sentence for alleged tax fraud, he made a new enemy in midweek in Celtic’s Mikael Lustig, he collided with Barcelona assistant coach Juan Carlos Unzue in training—though both were fine—and then was involved in a car accident on Sunday morning.
Heading to the training ground before the team flew to San Sebastian, Neymar and his Ferrari Spider ended up colliding with the safety barrier on the motorway and being abandoned by the forward and needing repairs.
However in the second half he was the Barcelona player who offered the most to the team, setting up Messi’s equaliser with a brilliant run down the left—showing acceleration his Ferrari would have been pleased with, to get away from two defenders before cutting it back for his team-mate.
Furthermore he avoided the booking which would have ruled him out of the Clasico, a threat which was looming over his head in this match because he has picked up four already.
3. Eusebio’s impressive job audition
Barcelona’s future is unclear. Luis Enrique’s contract expires at the end of the season and the coach is refusing to give any indications of whether he will sign a new one.
That means the board are wondering about who could replace him if necessary, turning games like these into auditions for opposition coaches.
Given Barcelona have a proclivity to hire staff who have a history with the club, Eusebio Sacristan will have wanted to demonstrate his ability here, as a former Barcelona B manager.
And he did just that, with his team dominating Barcelona in the first half, pressing high and winning every 50-50 challenge, or so it seemed.
They destroyed the Catalans on every statistical count, from possession to shots and corners. All except the one which counted—goals, due to some bad finishing and some bad luck.
All in all the hosts were playing the type of game Barcelona love to play, holding onto the ball and using a majority of players who came through their youth academy.
Although Eusebio struggled while coach of Barcelona B, he is more than showing his capability in the Basque Country.
4. Andre Gomes wins… then loses
Andre Gomes was Luis Enrique’s chosen one. A player that he asked the board for in the summer, and the one they struck for quickly and decisively to bring him in.
It was a slightly puzzling signing for a big sum of money, at £30 million, particularly when afterwards it was widely considered Barcelona’s midfield was ‘overbooked’.
Even with playmaker Andres Iniesta out injured there are four players battling for his place, in Denis Suarez, Arda Turan, Rafinha and Gomes.
Luis Enrique seems to favour the Portuguese for the big games, picking him away at Manchester City and at Anoeta on Sunday night, among other occasions.
So the Portuguese won that battle, but lost virtually all the ones he had on the pitch. He played as if his legs were in treacle, slow to everything, finding it difficult to link effectively with any of his team-mates.
The puzzle was why Denis was brought on for Ivan Rakitic at half-time instead of Gomes, although the Croatian was far from impressive as well. For now it still seems like Lucho prefers Gomes to his other options, but many more performances like these and that will have to change.
5. Denis Suarez has huge influence
We saw it against Sevilla and now Denis has done the trick again. His introduction in the second half has improved Barcelona’s performance significantly.
He is demonstrating that he may be the best option to replace Iniesta in the short-term, although the captain should be back soon, but also that he has Barcelona DNA and is the new signing who has bedded in the best.
Suarez nearly grabbed a winner when he stayed on his feet despite being fouled and rounded goalkeeper Rulli, but saw his shot cleared off the line by Illarramendi.
On a day with few bright spots for Barcelona, he was a shining light for the Catalans, even popping up with a useful cynical foul late on to stop an attack.