Xavi gives Barcelona 2-0 win over Granada
Xavi Hernandez (Reuters)
Xavi Hernandez scored three minutes from time to seal Barcelona's hard-fought 2-0 home win over Granada on Saturday, keeping the Spanish leaders perfect through five rounds.
Barcelona opened a provisional 11-point gap over defending champion Real Madrid, which faces a Spanish-capital derby at Rayo Vallecano on Sunday.
Goalkeeper Antonio "Tono" Rodriguez was keeping his net clean with an inspired performance until Xavi pounced on a loose ball at the top of the area and fired it off the underside of the crossbar to finally break through for the hosts.
Lionel Messi then provoked Barcelona's second goal two minutes into injury time when defender Borja Gomez redirected the Argentina forward's shot into his own goal.
Granada largely kept Barcelona out of its area, and even showed moments of attacking intent, in an evenly matched first half. And Tono's numerous acrobatic saves to deny Barcelona after halftime gave the modest side hope that it would finally take at least a point away from Camp Nou Stadium after having lost in its 18 previous visits.
But Xavi, who replaced David Villa in the 53rd after the Spain striker made his first start since breaking his leg last December, placed his right-footed strike in about the only place he could be sure Tono would not be able to reach to claim the win.
"We didn't play an excellent match, and Tono was incredible and stopped everything," said Xavi. "We were rescued by a shot from outside the area, practically just before the final whistle. When you don't score early they just close up even more, but we tried until the end and got the win."
Messi, who Barcelona had needed to score a late brace on Wednesday to secure a win in its Champions League opener, went without scoring for just the second time in eight outings this season. He celebrated Xavi's winner by furiously grabbing the netting while shouting victory along with his roaring fans.
"We played well and held up until the end. We can leave with our heads high," said Tono.
Also on Saturday, South Korea international Park Chu-Young scored in his home debut for Celta Vigo to earn a 2-1 win over Getafe, while Osasuna and Espanyol remained winless along with Granada and stuck at the bottom of the standings after Osasuna lost 3-1 at Zaragoza and Espanyol fell 1-0 at Real Betis.
Barcelona was without center backs Carles Puyol (knee) and Gerard Pique (foot), leaving coach Tito Vilanova few options other than reconverted midfielders Javier Mascherano and Alex Song to anchor his defense.
The lack of playing time for Barcelona's makeshift backline almost cost it dearly when Mascherano and Song let Floro Flores receive and fire into the arms of goalkeeper Victor Valdes, followed by Granada's Mikel Rico shooting high after Barcelona failed to clear a loose ball in its area in the 11th.
Messi's frustration with his team's inability to score led to him having a heated exchange with Villa after another failed attack just before halftime.
After the match Messi insisted that he had a good relationship with Villa.
"These things happen in practice and in games. Maybe I expressed myself more vehemently than on other occasions, but I have no problem with Villa," said Messi. "Don't look for problems where there aren't any."
Villa, who had been ineffectual, often falling offsides, was replaced by Xavi while Pedro Rodriguez went on for Thiago Alcantara.
Barcelona then settled down in defense and forced Granada on its back foot inside the last third of the pitch.
Messi had back-to-back opportunities in the 65th, first blasting Adriano's cross wide before drawing a diving stop from Tono.
The 32-year-old keeper, who joined Granada from Racing Santander this summer, brushed Cesc Fabregas' goal-bound shot by his post in the 77th before pulling out reflex saves to turn back both Xavi and Messi.
After not threatening the entire second half, Granada came close to springing the upset when it caught Barcelona off-balance and Fabian Orellana was left one-on-one against Valdes, who held firm to block his shot in the 87th moments before Xavi finally managed to net his precision strike.
"That's not the first time Victor has saved us," said Messi. "Their goalkeeper was spectacular and luckily Xavi's shot went in."
Also on Sunday, it's: Mallorca vs. Valencia, Levante vs. Real Sociedad, Atletico Madrid vs. Valladolid, and Athletic Bilbao vs. Malaga. Deportivo La Coruna hosts Sevilla on Monday.