x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Barcelona get back to business against Viktoria Plzen

Champions League holders are made to work hard for their 2-0 win over the Czech side Viktoria Plzen.

Barcelona's Andres Iniesta celebrates with his teammates.
Barcelona's Andres Iniesta celebrates with his teammates.

BARCELONA // Viktoria Plzen's first ever trip to Spain was always going to be an almost impossible task, and so it proved in Barcelona's 2-0 Champions League win last night.

If Barca are to win Group H and avoid the probability of a more difficult draw in the last 16, then they cannot afford to drop points at home after a 2-2 draw against Milan in their opening group game.

The statistics made the prospect even more daunting for the Czech champions who won their first ever domestic title last season: Barca have won 34 of their last 35 home games in the Champions League.

The Catalans almost took the lead from kick off following an 18 pass move which ended when Andres Iniesta crossed to David Villa, who struggled to connect with the ball.

A double one-two a minute later between Lionel Messi and Daniel Alves saw the Brazilian shoot over. It would set the tone for what was to come.

Just as the 5,000 travelling fans began bouncing up and down to celebrate 10 minutes without conceding a goal, Iniesta repeated the double one-two with Messi as Barca again advanced into the Plzen area. Iniesta flicked the ball past his marker with a right foot before volleying it with his left into the bottom corner.

Plzen had not been under any illusions. "We're up against the strongest team in the world and I hope we don't concede too many," said coach Pavel Vrba before the game. "But we can't go into the match thinking about how many goals we are going to let in. Messi is the best player in the world but Barcelona are not just about Messi - there's also Xavi, Iniesta, lots of others. It's going to be tough."

Vrba then smiled as he said that he would happily accommodate any of the Barca players in his team - "except we couldn't afford them".

Barca started with just two established defenders as full-backs Alves and Abidal pushed forward. They dominated with pace as Plzen defended in numbers, but there was no arrogance about the defending champions, no showboating.

Pep Guardiola, the Barca coach, had warned his players that the smaller sides "always pose problems" for us, but he was being diplomatic. There was a clear, yawning gulf in class, but, surprisingly, only one goal separated the two sides at the break. Villa curled a shot wide of the post after 25 minutes, while Messi shot into the side netting two minutes later after combining with Villa.

A Pedro effort was blocked by David Limbersky on 38th minutes as the Czechs' work rate prevented a landslide, while the post stopped them falling 2-0 behind to a curling Messi free kick seconds before half-time.

Many teams have crumbled at Camp Nou, but the combination of Plzen's fitness and considerable good fortune helped them keep the score to 1-0.

It was Messi's magic which again came closest to adding a second on the hour when he skipped past three defenders before shooting against the outside of the post. It would have been his 17th goal in 13 games so far this season.

Plzen were only a goal behind and could have drawn level in the 68th minute after a mix-up between Alves and Victor Valdes, but a game that had started brightly faded during the second half. That was until Villa picked up a loose ball in the Plzen area after combining with Messi and fired home in the 82nd minute.

The Spain striker has scored in his last four Champions League games.

Barca will expect far sterner tests, but they are capable of dominating against their greatest rivals as last season's 5-0 demolition against Real Madrid and 3-1 Champions League final triumph over Manchester United illustrated.

They need to retain their level while their peers attempt to close the gap they have established over the chasing pack. Plzen are not part of that pack, but they can feel satisfied that they limited Barca to two.


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