Barcelona’s substitutes made the difference as Xavi’s side came from behind to beat Elche and consolidate their place in the top-four in La Liga.
The Catalans had scored four times in each of their last three games prior to this contest but left it late to overcome a stubborn Elche thanks to a late penalty from Memphis Depay.
Frenkie de Jong had two clear cut opportunities to give Barcelona a first-half lead but was left frustrated on both occasions. First, he saw a shot cleared off the line by defender Diego Gonzalez with the goal gaping and, a short while later, goalkeeper Edgar Badia made a fine save to preserve their clean sheet after he was released behind the home defence.
The hosts had fired a warning when Tete Morente rifled a shot over the bar from close range, but it wasn’t heeded and, on the stroke of half-time, Fidel pounced on a loose pass from Pedri, burst into the penalty area and drilled a low shot past Marc Andre Ter Stegen into the corner of the net.
Not to be deterred by the setback, Barcelona grabbed their equaliser on the hour-mark, with Ferran Torres, who was brought on at half-time, standing in the right place at the right time to turn the ball home. The 22-year-old ought to have had a second just moments later but rifled his shot over the bar from point-blank range.
Just when it looked like Barca would have to settle for a point, however, they were awarded a penalty following a VAR check when the ball struck the hand of Antonio Barragan inside the box, with Depay – also a second-half substitute – making no mistake from the spot.
Tension was running high as the game drew to a close as Elche had a strong case for a penalty turned down when the ball appeared to be handled by Jordi Alba, a decision that was too much for substitute Javier Pastore who was sent off for protestation.
There was yet more drama to come as deep into added-time Guido Carrillo’s bullet header looked destined for the top corner but Ter Stegen came to Barcelona’s rescue with a huge save as the Catalans held on for the victory that sees them leapfrog Real Betis into third and three points ahead of fifth-placed Atletico Madrid.
TALKING POINT – BARCA’S RUN CONTINUES
Eleven league games and counting unbeaten, Barcelona are gunning for a strong finish to their campaign. On paper, this looks like a close encounter but Xavi’s side played with a swagger and created more than enough opportunities to win the game. On another day, this would have been a comfortable afternoon’s work.
Even when the match appeared destined to end in a draw, Barca continued to play Xavi-ball, patiently waiting for openings and eventually – with just six minutes remaining – their reward arrived, even if Elche will feel aggrieved about some of the referee’s decisions.
The Catalans have looked a side reborn of late and with the ultimate test of El Clasico now just two weeks away, they have a chance to show the world just how far they have come under their new manager.
MAN OF THE MATCH – OUSMANE DEMBELE (BARCELONA)
Most of the visitors’ attacks were focused down the right flank where Dembele was causing chaos with his movement, direct running, pace and delivery. It’s no surprise that he had a huge part to play in Barcelona’s equaliser.
Elche: Badia 7, Barragan 5, Enzo Roco 6, Gonzalez 6, Mojica 6, Tete Morente 6, Mascarell 5, Raul Guti 6, Fidel 7, Pere Milla 6, Boye 6.. subs: Marcone N/A, Carrillo 5, Ponce 5.
Barcelona: Ter Stegen 7, Alves 6, Pique 7, Araujo 6, Alba 7, Busquets 6, Pedri 6, De Jong 6, Dembele 8*, Gavi 5, Aubameyang 5.. subs: Dest N/A, Gonzalez 5, Depay 7, Torres 8.
44′ – GOAL! ELCHE 1-0 BARCELONA (FIDEL): What a moment for the hosts! Fidel pounces on a loose pass from Pedri in midfield, races into the box and slides it past Ter Stegen with a shot from a tight angle that nestles into the bottom corner.
60′ – GOAL! ELCHE 1-1 BARCELONA (FERRAN TORRES): The substitute draws Barca level! It’s all thanks to Dembele after yet more fine work from the Frenchman down the flank. His cross is stabbed on by Alba and Torres is perfectly positioned to turn it home.
83′ – PENALTY TO BARCA! Barragan appears to block Depay’s cross with his hand and although a corner is initially awarded, VAR has a look and the referee runs to the pitchside monitor to have a second look before signalling for a spot-kick.
84′ – GOAL! ELCHE 1-2 BARCELONA (MEMPHIS DEPAY, PEN): Depay makes no mistake from the penalty spot, smashing it into the top corner. They’ve made hard work of it but with five minutes remaining Barcelona lead for the first time this afternoon.
87′ – NO PENALTY! Elche have a penalty appeal of their own, but this time it’s turned down. The ball is flicked on from a corner and it may have hit the arm of Alba. However, the referee isn’t interested and VAR isn’t going to overturn his decision.