Barcelona moved into LaLiga's top five after Frenkie de Jong's goal clinched a 1-0 victory over bottom club Huesca in Lionel Messi's 500th league appearance for the club.
Blaugrana boss Ronald Koeman, who warned before the game that defeat would all but end his side's title challenge, saw a much-improved Barcelona performance as he earned back-to-back LaLiga away wins for the first time in his tenure.
Messi came back into the side after missing Barca's disappointing 1-1 draw with Eibar due to an ankle injury and was at his talismanic best, deftly assisting De Jong's volleyed goal after just before the half-hour mark.
Huesca did open the visitors up on occasion and it remains to be seen whether Koeman can restore some consistency and style to this team, but they did enough here to climb above Sevilla in the table.
How fitting! Our first goal of 2021 is scored by ... Nº 21! pic.twitter.com/oGwPCwAa8M— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) January 3, 2021
Barcelona's early pressure paid off after 27 minutes when Messi played an exquisite chipped pass into the box, where De Jong evaded two defenders and guided the ball into the corner of the net from six yards on the volley.
Messi would have capped a fine first-half performance with a superb goal five minutes from the interval had Alvaro Fernandez not pulled off a spectacular save, palming his dipping 20-yard free-kick over the crossbar.
The six-time Ballon d'Or winner flashed a fierce effort narrowly wide from the edge of the box early in the second period, before Marc-Andre ter Stegen got down well to prevent Rafa Mir's close-range shot from becoming the equaliser.
Ousmane Dembele should have put the game beyond doubt when he went one-on-one with Fernandez 13 minutes from time, but the Huesca goalkeeper saved at his feet and then denied Messi again before full-time.
What does it mean? Six without defeat for Koeman's men
Barcelona's last LaLiga defeat came on December 5 against Cadiz and they have only lost two of their last 11 in the league – an improvement on their early-season form.
But it will take more than a narrow win over the division's strugglers to convince an unhappy fan base that Koeman has the answers to Barcelona's problems.
Fit-again Messi finding form
Messi looked desperate to mark his 500th LaLiga appearance and his 750th club outing for Barcelona with a goal but only two of his eight shots hit the target and none found the net. Nevertheless, the Argentinian was incredibly lively, as evidenced by his assist, match-high 16 duels and 113 touches of the ball, which was behind only Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets.
Wasteful Dembele misfires
Dembele saw plenty of the ball and some of Barcelona's better chances fell to him, but of his six shots one was blocked, three were saved, and two missed the target. While it is certainly a positive to see him getting opportunities, he will be disappointed not to have converted at least one of them given the quality of some of those openings.
Key Opta facts
- Lionel Messi has played his 500th game in LaLiga, 750th in all competitions. The Argentinian is the second player to reach both milestones for Barca after Xavi (505 in LaLiga and 767 in all competitions).
- Marc-Andre ter Stegen has saved four shots against Huesca and five versus Real Valladolid at Nuevo Jose Zorrilla, the most among Barca's away games in LaLiga this season. These games have been their most recent league wins on the road.
- The four goals by Frenkie de Jong for Barcelona have been scored in LaLiga, all of them in the first half, two of them assisted by Messi. The Argentinian player has assisted in back-to-back games across all competitions for the first time since June.
- Messi has had 20 shots from free-kicks in LaLiga this season, more than any other player in the top five European leagues – he has not scored any of them.
- Ousmane Dembele had six shots against Huesca, more than any other game in his 88 games for Barcelona in all competitions.
Barcelona travel to Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday in the second of four consecutive away games in LaLiga, with the Basques looking to get off to a winning start under new coach Marcelino Garcia Toral. Huesca go to Alcoyano in the Copa del Rey a day later.