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Mathieu & Pique show Barca how to win ugly when Messi can't shine

By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

Not so long ago, it was Barcelona's problem position. For several seasons, issues in the heart of the defence saw Barca miss out on some of the top trophies. But on Sunday, heroic interventions from Gerard Pique and Jeremy Mathieu moved the Blaugrana a step closer to winning La Liga.

Earlier in the day, title rivals Real Madrid returned to form by thrashing Granada 9-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu, placing the onus very much on Barca in what was always looking like a difficult trip to Celta Vigo later that day.

Playing with the incredible intensity they displayed in their shock 1-0 win at Camp Nou back in November, Celta gave as good as they got and largely kept Lionel Messi quiet in the first half. And although Barca were better after the interval and saw a Neymar strike incorrectly ruled out for offside in the second period, the Catalans needed an imperious saving tackle from the inspirational Pique to deny Charles with the scores at 0-0 and a winning goal later on from Mathieu to claim three hard-earned points at Balaidos.

Messi and Neymar were not fully firing, possibly due to a midfield missing either or both of benched pair Ivan Rakitic and Xavi. Celta bravely attacked Barca as few teams dare to do these days, so Luis Enrique's side needed a set piece in the end to win it as Mathieu headed home his second vital goal in as many games after also giving his team the lead in the Clasico victory over Real before the international break.

"My goals against Real Madrid and Celta are equally important," the defender said after the match and his header, which came courtesy of a dead-ball delivery from the otherwise frustrated figure of Messi. "The three points count the same. That's the important thing."

And on Pique's fantastic form, the former Valencia centre-back added: "He is playing at a very high level. To play alongside him is incredible." 

Barcelona improved late in the game as Xavi helped his side recover the possession and the control in midfield, but the Liga leaders can still play much better than this. Nevertheless, it is the result that matters. Goal difference is irrelevant, anyway, as Madrid boast a better head-to-head record in the two games played between the two title rivals. So if they finish level on points, Real will be champions.

But Barca hold a four-point lead and hanging on to it was vital - especially after Madrid's morale-boosting victory. Earlier in the day, Ancelotti has said he would happily swap Real's 9-1 win for nine 1-0 victories and Luis Enrique will no doubt be in agreement.

And having lost at home to Celta already this term, the Asturian coach will be relieved to have avoided another potential banana skin against the team he coached last season.

"Winning is never bad," the 44-year-old said afterwards. "Even if Barca win like that, they are three wonderful points. The moment has arrived in which we will be judged on our results and this prepares us for what is to come."
With that four-point advantage over Madrid and nine games remaining, claiming three points every weekend is all that matters for this team right now. With Messi unable to shine every week, winning ugly could be vital to Barca's hopes of reclaiming La Liga this season. And that starts at the back.

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