TRIBUNAL DESK: Luis Suarez headed in the only goal as defending champions Barcelona edged Valencia 1-0 in their Copa del Rey semifinal first leg at a half-full Camp Nou on Thursday.
Barcelona, the record 29-time winners of the tournament, are attempting to become the first team to lift the cup four years in a row since Athletic Bilbao in the 1930s.
But they were forced to labour against a Valencia team missing a trio of key players — Goncalo Guedes, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Ezequiel Garay — through injury.
Barcelona dominated possession but had to wait until the 67th minute for the breakthrough. Not surprisingly, Lionel Messi was the man who unlocked the Valencia defence before setting up Suarez.
The Argentine danced his way into the penalty area before a deft left-footed chip left three defenders out of position and allowed Suarez to score from the edge of six-yard box with a diving header.
Thursday’s tight affair was dramatically different to the last time these two teams met at the same stage two years ago — Barcelona won 8-1 on aggregate following a 7-0 win in the first leg.
“We have a small advantage but there’s still 90 minutes to play and it’ll be a long 90 minutes as Valencia are a very strong when they play at home,” said Suarez who has now scored 13 times in the last 11 games.
It was another Messi show for Barcelona, with the Argentine running things and getting the vital assist, but manager Ernesto Valverde warned after the match that they must lower their expectations from his side’s crown jewel.
Speaking about Messi post-match, Valverde told reporters: “When Messi plays the ball, everybody expects many things from him. Sometimes it’s too much because we have to let Messi breathe a bit.
“It’s true he is an awesome player as we have said many, many times. It’s a spectacle watching him every day.”
Barca will take a slender lead to the Mestalla and Valverde added: “I wouldn’t say the score is not that bad because I think the score is good because we won the match.
“Winning a match is really difficult and we did. Valencia didn’t score, so we have to think that 0-0 is good for us at Mestalla but we won’t go there looking to draw the match. We will go for trying to win it.”
In Wednesday’s first semifinal, Leganes, who stunned mighty Real Madrid in the quarterfinals, battled back from a goal down to draw 1-1 with Sevilla in the opening leg.