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It was one of those gorgeous, sun-soaked Mediterranean afternoons. The temperature was just right, neither a tad too cool nor a tad too warm. The fans filed in early to stroll around the grounds, perhaps to buy a souvenir or just do some people watching. Inside the stadium an hour before kick off the seats were already sprinkled with supporters eager soak up the rays. An occasional breeze and the faint sound of a vuvuzela could be sensed. Players from both sides ambled out to loosen up on the thick, alternating bands of tea and forest green turf that is the Camp Nou pitch. The final countdown to Saturday afternoon’s main event was football heaven.
The game itself was just as heavenly, a thrilling end-to-end affair for all 90 minutes, even if the biggest plays of the day — a first-minute Luis Suárez goal, immediately followed by a saved penalty kick by Claudio Bravo, and a record-breaking 400th career goal by Leo Messi — came at the very beginning and at the very end. While Valencia put forth a back-breaking effort in between, it wasn’t enough to slow down FC Barcelona, which secured a 2–0 victory at Camp Nou. The win keeps Barça two points clear at the top of the league table.
When the match started, those who had taken their seats were quickly drawn forward. In the very first minute, on FC Barcelona’s maiden attack of the game, Suárez put Barça up, much to the delight of the home crowd. Messi collected a pass just across midfield, looked up, and darted in towards the Valencia penalty area, drawing with him a pair of defenders. When he looked up he saw Suárez slashing in from the right. Messi dished off smoothly to Suárez, who one-timed past Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves for an early-bird goal.
After that, things only got more fired up. Three minutes later Rodrigo Moreno just missed pulling one back. Then, in the ninth minute, with Valencia threatening again, Barça’s Gerard Piqué was ruled to have fouled Rodrigo in the area and the referee pointed immediately to the spot. Valencia captain Dani Parejo stepped up and fired low and to the left. But Bravo guessed correctly and pounced, smothering the ball to preserve the early lead.
It was a scintillating first 20 minutes that saw the visitors — relentlessly fighting for a coveted spot in the UEFA Champions League — go after every contested ball with hustle and gusto.
Paco Alcácer had chances on 33 and 39 minutes, but hit the post and sent an open shot just wide. The most dangerous blaugrana chance came with five minutes to play in the first half when Messi one-timed only barely off target from the doorstep.
After the break the pace backed off, but only slightly. Messi — looking spry and eager to score his 400th career goal and make progress in the race for the pichichi — hit the crossbar on a 25-metre free kick at the 64-minute mark. Bravo then made a diving stop on Rodrigo in the 75th when the Valencia striker enjoyed an open look at the end of a pinball-esque sequence in the Barça area.
Saturday's attendance of 92,915 gave Camp Nou its second biggest crowd of the season and everyone there had been treated to a wonderful display of attacking football by both sides. When the sideline referee held aloft the digital sign indicating three minutes of stoppage time, the fans were unaware that their parting gift had yet to come.
With Valencia taking their last gasps to try and restore equilibrium to the scoreboard, Barça were standing tall in their own end. The cheers grew louder as the final minute of injury time ticked away and, with one final defensive stop, victory was imminent. But it ended in unexpected, record-breaking fashion as Messi received the final booming clearance shy of midfield and raced out on a breakaway while the referee — whistle in mouth — struggled to keep up. Messi’s first attempt was stopped by Diego Alves, but the Argentinian regrouped and tapped it in for goal number 400. The crowd roared, drowning out the final whistle of the out-of-breath referee. Another win, another milestone.
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