Girona 0 Barcelona 2: Messi and Ter Stegen see Barca past local rivals
Lionel Messi returned to crown Barcelona's 2-0 win over 10-man Girona – re-establishing the champions' five-point lead at LaLiga's summit.
Portugal right-back Nelson Semedo struck after nine minutes at Estadi Montilivi but, four days on from a 2-0 loss to Sevilla in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarter-final, Ernesto Valverde's side were far from their fluent best.
Indeed, immediately after Bernardo Espinosa's red card for two bookable offences early in the second half, Girona continued to create the better chances and Barca were indebted to the heroics of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Messi came off the bench with last weekend's 3-1 win over Leganes in the balance and sat out the trip to Sevilla, but was at the heart of most of Barcelona's best attacks against their fellow Catalans and sealed victory with a delightful 68th-minute goal.
The opening goal came a touch against the run of play as Semedo swiped home a loose ball in the Girona box left-footed.
32 - @FCBarcelona have scored in each of their last 32 @LaLigaEN away games (77 goals), equaling their best run away from home in the competition (32 between February 2012 and September 2013). Infallible. pic.twitter.com/cKwRtoWasK
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) January 27, 2019
It should have been 2-0 in the 16th minute but Philippe Coutinho shot tamely at Yassine Bounou's boot on the end of a majestic Messi throughball.
Ter Stegen saved from Cristhian Stuani before Pique cleared Pere Pons' follow-up off the line three minutes before half-time.
The Ter Stegen-Stuani dual would be repeated either side of Espinosa's needless second booking for a 52nd-minute foul on Luis Suarez, with the Germany international coming out on top each time.
Sergio Busquets – already booked and out of Barca's next LaLiga match against Valencia – made a goal-saving tackle on Aleix Garcia with no margin for error.
It was left to Messi to settle the nerves as he knocked Jordi Alba's pass out of his feet to draw Bounou and lift a finish beyond the Girona keeper, who later restored some pride with a brilliant point-blank stop from the Argentine maestro.
What does it mean? Messidependencia stronger than ever
Scrutiny over Valverde's management of his star asset's workload has increased this week. Barcelona were almost entirely reliant on Messi's inspirational qualities as the rest of their attack largely failed to fire against Girona, which should allow a degree of sympathy for Valverde's predicament. An injury to rule Messi out for any prolonged spell would be catastrophic for Barca's season. For their part, Girona looked far better than a team now winless since December 5.
Ter Stegen wins compelling battle
Stuani was one of a host of forwards linked to Barcelona earlier this month before the surprise signing of Kevin-Prince Boateng. On this evidence, he might not have enjoyed daily battles with Ter Stegen in training too much. The Blaugrana's victory would have been impossible without a commanding performance from their number one.
Coutinho fails to make case
A year on from his megabucks move from Liverpool, Coutinho is once again the subject of transfer speculation, having lost his status as a first-choice starter under Valverde. A second wretched miss of a contest spent on the periphery during stoppage time did not amount to a convincing argument for him to win back favour.
Barca will attempt some more Copa del Rey escapology against Sevilla, while Girona must also overturn a 4-2 deficit on home soil in the second leg of their quarter-final against Real Madrid.