x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Messi magic saves Barca from Spartak's spirited attack

Argentine leads comeback after Moscow side gave the home side a scare in the Champions League, Andy Mitten reports from Camp Nou.

Barcelona's forward Lionel Messi, centre, takes on half the Spartak Moscow team.
Barcelona's forward Lionel Messi, centre, takes on half the Spartak Moscow team.

Barcelona // Barcelona's Camp Nou enjoys a reputation for being the most impenetrable of European stadia.

The most exalted of sides are regularly destroyed in football's biggest venue, yet Russian visitors are making a habit of not respecting that reputation.

Barça had gone 16 games undefeated at home in European competition, their last defeat in 2009 was to Russian side Rubin Kazan.

Another Russian side, Spartak Moscow, came close to an improbable success last night, until two late Lionel Messi goals gave Barça a dramatic 3-2 victory.

With coach Tito Vilanova in charge for his first European game, Barca attacked from the opening whistle.

As coach of Valencia until last season, Spartak's Spanish coach Unai Emery was renowned for playing attacking sides at Camp Nou.

If he instructed the same last night then it was initially difficult to see - his players could not get the ball for the first 20 minutes and were forced to defend so deeply that their star striker, the Nigerian Emmanuel Emenike, was often closer to his own penalty area than the Barça half.

After a couple of warning shots broke through the banks of Russian defenders, Barca took the lead in the 13th minute when winger Christian Tello controlled a ball, pushed it past Dmitri Kombarov before striking low past Andriy Dykan from outside the area.

So far so good for the home team, although Barca fans had been concerned a minute earlier at the sight of defender Gerard Pique limping off having injured himself taking an earlier shot.

Pique was replaced by recent signing Alex Song, his injury coming at a bad time for the Catalans given the continue absence of Eric Abidal and Carles Puyol.

Song looked cumbersome in the defensive role, though Dani Alves was responsible for an error which let the Russians back into the game.

It came when Emenike, enjoying a rare foray forward, crossed low across the Barça area in the 29th minute. He was delighted when Daniel Alves flicked the ball past Victor Valdes into his own goal, as were the 4,900 travelling supporters.

Vilanova had warned about Spartak's counter-attacking capabilities pre-match.

The equaliser was unexpected, but Barca reasserted their dominance with Cesc Fabregas and Xavi having attempts on goal against the increasingly aggressive Russians. They could not, however, regain their lead in the first half.

Boosted by their goal, Spartak were more adventurous in the second period, making for a better game with chances at both ends.

A minute after Messi came close to restoring Barca's lead in the 58th minute, Spartak counter attacked and took a shock lead.

Scottish winger Aiden McGeady slipped a ball to Romulo, who struck a low shot across Valdes and into the net.

As the away fans celebrated, the rest of Camp Nou was briefly stunned before fans responded in noise and support.

They were rewarded with a 71st-minute equaliser from Lionel Messi, the Champions League's top scorer in each of the last four seasons, side-footing home a Tello cross from the edge of the box.

Messi struck again in the 79th minute with a rare headed goal following a cross from substitute Alexis Sanchez.

With Barca ahead, the fans began to sing for Catalan independence from Spain, echoing the recent mood in the city which has seen marches of up to a million Catalans.

An unusual night in Camp Nou, on the pitch and off it.

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