Goals from Andrés Iniesta and David Villa allowed FC Barcelona to overcome a resilient Viktoria Plzen side 2-0 at the Camp Nou on Wednesday to put themselves on the brink of qualification from the Champions League group stages.
Their Czech opponents came into the match with one point from two Champions matches after their opening 1-1 draw at home to Belarussian side FC BATE Borisov, and fourth in their domestic league after a slow start to their season. Barça, on the other hand, had been in fantastic form with four consecutive wins in all competitions, conceding not a single goal in the process.
After Barcelona's 5-0 demolition away at BATE Borisov on their last Champions match, it was widely expected that Plzen, in their first Champions League campaign, would be the victims of another Catalan goal-fest but Barcelona surprisingly lacked their usual efficacy in front of goal, wasting a hatful of chances throughout the match.
With an important match against Sevilla on the horizon, Pep Guardiola rejected the opportunity to rest some of his key players for the match; Eric Abidal and Javier Mascherano were the only changes to his line-up, replacing injured Gerard Pique and captain Carles Puyol in the heart of defence.
Barcelona started the match in a quick, free-flowing fashion as Plzen struggled to get hold of the ball in the opening stages, seemingly happy to put every man behind the ball in order not to concede an early goal. But it was not long till Barcelona broke through their defence; Daniel Alves playing a delightful one-two with Lionel Messi before blazing his effort wastefully over Marek Cech's crossbar.
In the 10th minute however, the Catalan giants did take the lead; Iniesta playing a similar one-two with Lionel Messi, receiving the ball inside the opposing penalty area before flicking the ball over the defender with his right foot and finishing with aplomb with his left as the ball nestled into the corner of the net. It was just the start that Guardiola's side needed; settling any potential early nerves and crushing the ambitions of their opposing underdogs.
The Champions League holders were playing with their customary swagger but failed to turn their dominance into goals, often guilty of trying to score the perfect goal instead of opting for the more incisive option.
David Villa went close to doubling the lead but his finesse shot from the edge of the box just evaded the far post with Marek Cech scrambling to get across his goal. Messi was the next to try his luck, taking Pedro's pass in his stride and sidestepping a defender before his dinked effort just crept past the keeper's near post. It seemed to be a matter of time before the floodgates were opened but Pedro's bizarre miss with the goal gaping started to suggest otherwise.
Messi was then denied twice in quick succession as the half drew to a close, first hitting the side netting after Sergio Busquet's delightful chipped through ball and then his long-range freekick smashing back off the upright with the goalkeeper motionless.
The Czech newcomers had not yet mustered a shot but somehow were still in the contest as Barcelona could not capitalise on the multitude of chances that had fallen their way during the first period. Despite his side's superiority, Guardiola did not seem content with the display, eager to obtain a greater margin and put the game beyound doubt.
The second half however, started in a similar fashion; Messi shimmying past three Plzen defenders with some dazzling footwork before firing low into the body of Cech. The Argentine sensation then hit the post for the second time in the match on 53 minutes, sprinting past the right-back before sensationally flicking the ball past the desperate lunges of the two centre-backs but his chipped effort was dreadfully unlucky not to find the back of the net with the keeper beaten. It was proving to be a frustrating night for last season's Champions League top goalscorer, who had already scored twice in the opening two matches of this year's competition.
As the reigning European Champions seemed to grow in frustration, Viktoria Plzen seemed to grow in confidence and managed to enjoy an impressive spell midway through the second half as a series of well-timed challenges and composed passing thwarted Barcelona's relentless wave of attacks. However, they failed to test Victor Valdes's goal, who had become a mere spectator to his team's commanding performance.
Eventually, though, David Villa wrapped up the three points on 82 minutes, finishing convincingly with his left foot when the ball fell kindly to him after Messi had been dispossessed. Barcelona's second goal had been long overdue and an exuberant relief resonated throughout the stadium as Barcelona maintained their position at the top of Group H. Credit was due to Viktoria Plzen who, despite their inability to break down Barcelona's rearguard, produced a courageous and well-disciplined display. Their pressing and desire provided many positives for coach Pavel Vrba to reflect on as they left the Camp Nou with respectable dignity.
The Czech coach was gracious in defeat, expressing his admiration for Barcelona's quality. "The Barça players are the best in the world, and I would say they are perfection—there is no other way to define it." Pep Guardiola, on the other hand, was less complimentary of his opponents, bemoaning their negative approach to the match. "It was a cold game, as we failed to get people involved...it is difficult against teams that come to defend with 10 men." The result is a new club record for Barcelona, as they extended their unbeaten start to the season to 13 games.
Ultimately, Barcelona were not at their clinical greatest but it is difficult to find another team who possess the same skill and flair to become victorious even when they are not at the peak of their game.