Coming into this match a lot of Cules were expecting a statement match. With yet another match with Madrid looming midweek there was hope that we would demolish Betis and emphatically cast off our recent anemic form. Couple this with the fact that the team hadn’t conceded in the Camp Nou yet in the league and it seemed harder to come to Barcelona and get a victory than it is to attack Russia in the winter. Unlike the Russians we were at a numerical disadvantage, with only 15 first team players fit for the match. It would have been an injury crisis for any other club, but it was just a typical day for Guardiola who started: Valdes, Puyol, Mascherano, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Cuenca, Messi, and Sanchez. It was an obvious 3-4-3, and the easiest formation to guess since, uhh, last match. A couple awards were presented and you could almost hear the Cules salivating as they anticipated a major win.
Apparently Betis didn’t get the memo, and like Napoleon’s march on Russia in 1812 they started brightly. Valdes was forced into action early as Abidal failed to pick up his mark and Mascherano lost track of his man running through, giving him a one-on-one. Valdes again showed his importance to the team on the resulting corner, punching out a bullet of a header. Betis looked hungry, they were pressing well, passing well, and creating chances. And the English commentator just called it the “Nou Camp.” Where is that mute button? Time for some Frank Zappa.
Yet for all Betis’ work, Barcelona is the first on the score sheet with what is essentially our first attack. Puyol makes a smart interception and feeds Xavi who begins to dance through the midfield, exchanging passes with Busquets and Iniesta as he moves left and finds Sanchez in space. Meanwhile Fabregas is doing what he does best and making an incisive run across the box. Sanchez again shows his ninja skills with a cleverly disguised pass, Fabregas has his evening cup of Earl Gray before he clips the ball against the far post, and Xavi is lurking to make it 1-0. A deserved goal for Xavi that earned him the right to a cute hop-skip-and-jump celebration with a fist pump thrown in for good measure.
I had barely finished my own, more excessive, celebration before Messi made it 2-0. The entire Betis backline is in full retreat as Iniesta dribbles at them before playing a simple pass to Sanchez who is in acres of space on the left. The Betis right back obviously didn’t learn his lesson about giving Sanchez too much space from the last goal and Sanchez punishes him with a perfect first time cross that Messi finishes easily. Two goals, both of which Sanchez created by maintaining width on the left and catching the Betis backline out of position. 12 minutes into the game and I started to relax.
Unfortunately I wasn’t the only one. Messi put Iniesta in on goal with a long probing pass but Iniesta looks like he is out on a Sunday stroll and the chance is lost. As a side note, Fabregas starts the play making an interception in the right back zone, and ends it making a slide tackle in Betis’ box. Fabregas dropped deep in midfield throughout the game, playing almost as a defensive midfielder at times without the ball. I’d like to see this more often as it fills the hole Busquets leaves when he drops into a back four (and hopefully will cure Fabregas of his “run wherever the ball is” positioning). The ensuing 20 minutes consist mostly of Barcelona maintaining possession deep but not creating many chances. Strangely the reason we struggled to create chances was because we weren’t patient enough in our passing. The team as a whole was too direct in the opponent’s third, constantly trying to play the hero ball when we needed to be besieging their goal (there was also Sanchez comically tripping over the ball when he was through on goal).
AND HOLY JEEZERS BETIS HAVE SCORED. A darting run from Molina through the middle beats Mascherano. Molina drops it back, and while our entire defense stands transfixed a perfect ball finds Castro camped all alone in our box. A very nice goal that we would have been proud of if our boys had scored it, but all of a sudden our Camp Nou clean sheet run is over. And I’m not quite so relaxed anymore. On a tactical note the worry with the 3-4-3 on defense is generally that teams can find space on the wings. With both Puyol and Abidal playing fairly wide throughout the first half the most danger has come when Betis isolate Mascherano against a quick forward and play a through pass – they’ve had several good chances this way. The rest of the half devolves into a ping pong match with both teams having a couple half chances. Overall it feels like an EPL game for a couple minutes there.
A nervous half time commenced. I kept hoping that the words a wise man once spoke would be true: “Betis always find a way of troubling us, even if we eventually win.”
Alves replaced Cuenca at half time – starting off at right wing where Cuenca supposedly played in the first half. Within six minutes he was dropping in to play right back, forming a 4-3-3, and within seven minutes Betis scored their second goal. Castro had the whole right side of the pitch to himself as Alves had been drawn way too centrally. Castro finds Santa Cruz unmarked at the top of the box and Santa Cruz nestles the ball in the far corner. 2-2.
And for a couple of minutes after the equalizing goal there were doubts. A dread seemed to hang over the stadium, and you could hear whispers from the peanut gallery: “Pep insists on using this formation even though it is weak defensively.” “The team lacks the killer instinct it had in years past.” “This is the type of match where Barcelona concedes the league.” For a moment I thought I could hear a Cule running down Las Ramblas screaming “Franco is coming! Franco is coming!” But there was lots of time left.
Barcelona started crafting some half chances, with Messi putting a weak shot on target and Xavi playing a nice chip that Fabregas blazed over. Abidal in particular was enjoying the change back to a 4-3-3, getting forward and causing havoc on the left. Fabregas and Messi play a cute give and go but Messi blazes over. Speaking of Messi he lost the ball all too often today, especially after Betis scored their second. 60 minutes gone, and there isn’t so much time left. My heart rate is getting alarmingly high.
The players also seem to be losing their cool, as both Messi and Xavi tell the ref exactly what they think about his call. Alves on the right causing trouble now. We are attacking their goal but the clear chances just won’t seem to come. Messi loses the ball again. Alves goes up with the keeper for a header but the ball just won’t go in the goal. ARE YOU TOO GOOD FOR YOUR HOME? I’m breathing hard now. Xavi is awesome. The ref denies Iniesta a penalty after Montero mistakes his shin for the ball in their box. Iniesta says to the ref “Sir, I must kindly disagree” and gets a yellow for his troubles. Damn this game is exciting. Messi drives through the center and gets wrecked by Montero, who sees his second yellow. Being a man up is great and all by why can’t we score?!?!?! Messi loses the ball again. Oh no Betis is attacking again. Pep is yelling. Sanchez gets a ball through from Iniesta but can’t finish. Sanchez glances a header just wide. 15 minutes left and the tension is rising to uncontroGGGGGGOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLL. GOAL GOAL GOAL.
Xavi has been providing dangerous balls for a half hour and he finds Sanchez running laterally through the middle. Sanchez still has it all to do and he finds space against two defenders and powers the ball past Casto. I may be developing a man crush on Sanchez. The final goal and the nail in the Betis’ coffin comes through an excellent attacking run from Abidal where he combines nicely with Messi and keeps the ball alive after the rebound and earns a rare Barcelona penalty. Messi duly finishes it, and the match is over.
Valdes: B+. Will be disappointed to concede in the Camp Nou, but can’t take blame for either of the goals. Made a couple excellent saves early in the first half. Distribution was solid as always.
Puyol: B. Made some excellent interceptions, but also got caught way out of position at times.
Mascherano: C+. Beaten several times in the first half to give Betis dangerous chances, although he was left isolated. Much better in the second half with Puyol next to him.
Abidal: B. The second game in a row where he cleared the ball out of bounds with alarming regularity. Looked unsure of his role and positioning on the left of the three man defense in the first half. Enjoyed his freedom to get forward in the second and played a huge role in winning the penalty.
Busquets: B+. Spent the first half somewhere between centerback and defensive midfielder, popping up at the right place with unnerving regularity. He reads the game incredibly well. Distributed well and created a couple dangerous moments when he attacked through the middle. Fouled and won fouls. All in all a stereotypical Busquets performance.
Xavi: A. Scored a deserved goal, and controlled the match throughout. Played a bunch of dangerous balls as we searched for the equalizer – they all found their target, but only Sanchez could capitalize. Good match.
Iniesta: B+. He was a wizard out there with the ball at his feet. Played well with Sanchez in the early going. Created a lot of dangerous situations but just seemed unable to connect for the final pass.
Fabregas: B. He kind of reminds me of watching Pedro in his first season. Covered an unbelievable amount of ground. Made some dangerous runs in the box but could also be seen deep in the midfield at times. Some of his passing wasn’t patient enough and he still looks like he isn’t sure where he should be on the field a lot of the time.
Cuenca: C-. Hooked for Alves at half time after an anonymous first half. Contributed almost nothing going forward but worked hard and covered a lot of ground defending the right flank.
Messi: B. Scored two goals and drew a red card, but didn’t have a great game the rest of the time. A solid first half was followed by a second half where he lost the ball too often – whether on the dribble or a pass.
Sanchez: A. Created danger on the left wing the whole first half, and the first two goals as well. Faded a bit in the middle of the match, but emphatically scored the winning goal after a superb run through the middle. We haven’t had a player with his dynamism and versatility of play on the left wing since Henry circa ’08-’09. My MOTM.
Alves: B. Deserves the blame for Betis’ second goal, as he was ostensibly playing right back but was standing in the center circle. Created danger on the right, including a sumptuous cross for Sanchez right before we took the lead, but nothing quite seemed to come off for him.
Thiago: N/A. Replaced Fabregas in the 83rd minute to maintain possession and did his job without any fuss.
*All grading is done on the curve.
Overall it was an incredibly exciting game. No, Barcelona wasn’t at their best, and this didn’t turn into the statement game that many were expecting or hoping it to be. In fact it’s fair to say that our execution was off all night – maybe just by a little bit, but that small margin is what makes the difference. These matches are the reason I love watching this team – tense all the way through, moments of magic, and it feels unbelievably amazing when the boys in Blaugrana pull it off. Games like these remind the players, and fans, that even in the Camp Nou nothing can be taken for granted – a lesson that we may have forgotten over three years of success. In the end you can’t help but hope our season plays out just like this match – a strong start, a slump in form in the middle, and a blazing finish that secures the win.