Barcelona put the pressure back on Real Madrid in the race for the La Liga title as they overcame a sturdy Leganes side 2-0 on Tuesday night.
It was the visitors – boasting a starting XI with just one La Liga goal between them – who started the brighter and would’ve taken an early lead if it wasn’t for a remarkable defensive sequence from Clement Lenglet to deter both Javier Araso and Miguel Guerrero.
The Catalans struggled early in possession, as Leganes were compact in their 5-4-1 and afforded minimal space in central areas. Javier Aguirre’s men did a fine job in limiting Lionel Messi’s influence on proceedings in the opening period which ultimately led to a less potent attacking display overall.
Thus, with Leganes making a concerted effort to shun Messi, 17-year-old Ansu Fati decided to take matters into his own hands by giving Barcelona the lead with a fine finish from just inside the area after some determined work down the left by the impressive Junior Firpo.
Aguirre’s switch to two up top failed to change the dynamic of the contest after the break, as the visitors continued to defend well but offer little at the other end.
The visitors’ struggles meant a second was inevitable, and it was a bit of Messi magic which helped the Catalans get it. The Argentine weaved his way past a whole host of challenges to progress from the halfway line to the edge of the Leganes box, before he was brought down inside the area as he tried to receive the return pass following a combination with Luis Suarez.
A soft call, but Messi nonetheless made no mistake from 12 yards to double the home side’s lead, which they held until the final whistle.
Key Talking Point
Poor old Antoine Griezmann, eh?
The Frenchman’s switch to Catalunya last summer raised questions of whether he would be a systematic fit, and those questions have proven entirely valid.
After being forced out wide for much of Ernesto Valverde’s tutelage this term, Suarez’s long-term injury offered Griezmann the chance to impress Setien in a more familiar central role – but it just doesn’t work, the Frenchman at his best operating in the spaces which Messi usually drifts into.
There’s less scope for him to do what he does best and operate as a false nine, while he’s often anonymous in Barça’s build-up play and rarely noticed by his teammates when he tries to run in behind. That certainly wasn’t the case at Atleti.
He struggled against Mallorca, and was disappointing again on Tuesday – and the one time a teammate found him in a dangerous position, his finish was ruled out by VAR for an offside in the buildup. The harsh truth is that Martin Braithwaite is simply a better fit for Setien than Griezmann at this point.
Starting XI: Ter Stegen (7); Roberto (6), Pique (6), Lenglet (6), Firpo (8*); Busquets (6), Rakitic (6), Arthur (5); Messi (7), Griezmann (5), Fati (7)
Subs: Semedo (7), Suarez (6), Vidal (6), Puig (7), Umtiti (5)
The man already written off by many may well have enjoyed his finest outing in Barcelona colours on Tuesday night.
Junior was impressive at both ends of the pitch; showing off his defensive nous when Leganes tried to transition down the right, while displaying a good understanding with Fati – combining with the 17-year-old effectively as well.
He was an outlet down the left wing, particularly in the opening period, when Fati drifted inside as Barcelona tried to penetrate via switches of play out to both flanks.
Setien, Firpo’s former boss at Betis, may well be the man to get the best out of the talented 23-year-old at Camp Nou.
Starting XI: Cuellar (6); Ruibal (5), Tarin (6), Awaziem (7), Bustinza (7), Silva (6); Recio (6), Perez (6), Mesa (6), Eraso (5); Guerrero (5)
Subs: Assale (6), Amadou (6), Rodrigues (5), Carillo (6), Bryan (6)
Barcelona face a trip to third-placed Sevilla on Friday before hosting Athletic Club four days later. Leganes, meanwhile, have a relegation six-pointer up next as they travel to Mallorca on Friday night.