Part Four of Six: In a multi-part saga, Barcelona Football Blog offers a retrospective blow-by-blow account of events around Barça’s First Football Team over the past season. Join us as we look back on the high and lows of the 11 months that were Pep’s last, as Manager.
…Continued from Part Three
Alternating La Liga and Copa del Rey matches would fill this month’s schedule. Pep’s player shortage headaches continued with his long-term injury list now including Villa. Players would leave during the January transfer window. Major awards were won by team members; silly errors and missed goals would lead to a drawn game, and Keita would temporarily leave the club to join his Mali team for the African Nations Cup. Dropped points extended the gap at the top of the La Liga table.
2nd January: All players were present for the first training of the day, except Messi (vacation), Abidal (flu) and long-term injured Afellay and Villa. Messi arrived later in the day and attended a light training.
2nd January: Pinto’s contract was extended for one more season until 30th June 2013.
3rd January: The International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS), named Xavi as the “2011 Best Playmaker in the World” for the 4th consecutive year. Messi and Iniesta were placed 2nd and 3rd, while Cesc was 10th.
3rd January: Guardiola had all 18 available First Team players present at a full training, although Iniesta and Puyol performed specialised work because of their injuries. (Only Villa and Afellay were missing.)
4th January: Valdés and Messi were ruled out of the Osasuna Copa del Rey game because they had caught the flu, and Iniesta had still not recovered enough to be considered. However, Messi had other plans…
4th January: Home vs. Osasuna. Copa del Rey. 4-0.
The first game of the new year was a Copa del Rey match against Basque side Osasuna. Pinto was between the sticks and Oier was on the bench to replace an ailing Valdés. Messi also sat on the bench, having phoned Pep to say that he felt better and wanted to play.
Possession went the home team’s way, (although Osasuna chased every ball passed back to Pinto), and it wasn’t long before Alves sent a pass to Xavi on the middle-edge of the box, who spotted a free Cesc to his left. Running onto the pass, Cesc slotted the first (13’) home for the night and the first goal for 2012. Minutes later, a recovered ball at half-way saw Puyol pass up-field to Xavi who sought out Cesc for a beautiful chip (18’) for his second of the night. Barça continued to pressure the Osasuna goal, and were only stopped from scoring by an on-form Asier Riesgo.
Into the second half, and on came Messi for the last 30 minutes. The pace and pressure picked up, and it wasn’t long before he had his first for the year. Nice play from Xavi in the box saw him pass the ball back over to Cesc to cross into Messi who ran into space to head the ball (74’) into the net.
A minute into injury time, Xavi sent a ball into Messi who made no mistake about slotting (91’) the ball home. Barça comfortably won the first leg of this CdR round. Xavi had a wonderful game with 3 assists, as did Cesc with 2 goals and an assist, with Messi also scoring 2 goals in the 30 minutes that he was on the pitch.
~ The game was Guardiola’s 25th CdR game as manager: 18 won, 4 drawn and 3 lost, with 62 goals scored and 14 conceded.
~ This was the first time that Messi played in the opening game of the year under Pep.
~ Piqué had a great night, recovering 20 balls.
4th January: As an early Kings’ Day gift, the team received a brand-spanking new bus.
5th January: Kings’ Day is a major celebration in Spain. The day of the 3 Magi (6th January) is when children receive the majority of their Christmas gifts. As a gift to the fans, a training session open to the public was held at the Miniestadi the day after the Osasuna match. We braved the freezing day to go along and watch, as reported in an earlier article.
6th January: The International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS), named Pep Guardiola as “The Best Club Coach in the World” for the 2nd year running. Pep finished ahead of Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson.
8th January: Away vs. Espanyol. La Liga. 1-1.
The team travelled across town for a derby match against RCD Espanyol.
The home team started very strongly and the pressure was put on Barça for the entire game, which ultimately paid dividends for Espanyol. An early, strong Blanquiblau attack saw a headed goal miraculously pushed out by Valdés. In the 13th minute, Messi won the ball back from GK Álvarez and Cesc slotted home in front of an empty goal, but the goal was disallowed by a Messi handball for which he was carded. In the 14th minute, a runaway Alexis was unable to control the ball in the box, (and looked to have been fouled by Álvarez), and another chance was lost.
Cesc soon put Barça ahead with a header (15’) from an Alves cross. In the 16th min, a strong Espanyol shot on goal was stopped and gathered by Valdés. Espanyol had several shots saved, as did Barça. Chances were lost as shots missed, hit the woodwork or were saved. The 3-man back-line was not working as Espanyol came at them with 5 forwards and, just before half-time, Piqué was seen calling for reinforcements.
Messi was denied by the woodwork in the 76th minute. Espanyol gathered momentum, and confidence, and scored the equalizer in the 85th minute. In the dying minutes, a Piqué shot hit the post and Pedro’s shot was blocked by an Espanyol hand-ball which was not called. The game finished with yet another draw at 1-1, and the team was left ruing the missed opportunities and poor finishing as they fell 5 points behind Real Madrid.
~ Cesc’s goal was the team’s 100th goal for the season. (51 in La Liga, 20 in Champions League, 14 in the Copa del Rey, 8 in the Club World Cup, 5 in the Spanish Supacopa and 2 in the UEFA Super Cup.)
~ Although he played in the match, it was obvious that Iniesta had not fully recovered from his hamstring injury.
9th January: Selected team members and management jetted to Zürich for the 2011 FIFA Awards.
2011 FIFA Awards
~ Messi won his 3rd Ballon D’Or in a row.
~ Guardiola won Manager of the Year.
~ Messi, Alves, Piqué, Xavi and Iniesta were voted into the FIFA/FIFPro World XI team for 2011.
~ Messi’s Ballon D’Or put the club out in front with 9 trophies, ahead of Milan and Juventus who both have 8.
10th January: Afellay returned to Barcelona from the Netherlands and began his physical training.
10th January: Keita left the team to join the Mali camp for the African Cup of Nations to be played in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. His presence would be missed for the good part of 6 weeks in which over 12 games would be played.
11th January: Alves experienced some pain in his leg during training and would miss the upcoming Osasuna match. Iniesta was also left out, as it was clear from his performance against Espanyol that he was not up to full match fitness.
11th January: An agreement was reached between FC Barcelona (Qatari-sponsored) and Paris Saint-Germain (Qatari-owned) for the transfer of Maxwell. After 2.5 seasons, 10 titles, 89 games and 2 goals for Barça, he left the club immediately for France where he and his hair look damn good in the PSG kit while getting more regular game time and positively contributing to the PSG campaign.
12th January: The International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS), named FC Barcelona as the “Best Football Club in the World”, beating Real Madrid and Argentine club Vélez Sarsfield.
12th January: Away vs. Osasuna. Copa del Rey. 1-2.
After their plane was diverted to Vitoria because of heavy fog, the team finally reached Pamplona by bus. The fog was still around when the game started, and it was very cold at the Reyno de Navarra.
With a 4 goal advantage from the Camp Nou leg, all Barça had to do was not allow Osasuna to score the same amount. Guardiola rested a lot of regulars from the starting 11 including Messi, and gave Mascherano a rare game in midfield. Fontàs was included in the back-line and B-team players Cuenca, Sergi Roberto and Montoya also started.
Fontàs started promisingly, only for it to turn sour for him as he slipped in a tackle in the 14th minute and came off with a season-ending ACL knee injury. Abidal replaced him and almost immediately gave the ball away to Osasuna from which they nearly scored, only to first be denied by Piqué on the line, and then Pinto.
Barça found the conditions to be tough, and a Piqué shot was denied, after which Lekic nearly scored, his ball narrowly going wide after another Abidal error. Minutes later, after Sergi Roberto was roughly played off the ball, Lekic opened the scoring (40’) for Osasuna, getting the first goal past Pinto for the season.
After the break, Alexis quickly equalised (49’) with a low header from an Adriano cross. Alexis went off to be replaced by Messi in the 58th minute, and shortly afterwards, Busquets came on for an injured Pedro who limped off with a thigh strain. The game quietened down after that, and it wasn’t until the 71st minute that Messi fed a ball to Sergi Roberto, who made up for his earlier defensive error by scoring the 2nd Barça goal for the night.
It was enough for Barça to go through into the next round of the Copa del Rey, where their opponent would be Real Madrid.
13th January: Pedro was confirmed out for 10 days with a hamstring injury.
13th January: Fontàs’ ACL injury could not have come at a worse time as, on the same day, it had been announced that Maxwell was to leave Barcelona for Paris St. Germain (PSG). The Barça back-line’s left side was being decimated – with more bad news to come later on.
14th January: Due to Maxwell’s PSG transfer, injuries (to Afellay, Villa, Fontàs and Pedro), and Keita’s national commitments, Pep only had 15 senior players available for training and the preparation for the upcoming Betis match.
15th January: Before the Betis match kicked off, the team presented the Club World Cup, and Messi presented his Ballon D’Or trophy to the Camp Nou faithful – and a visiting Mom4.
15th January: Home vs. Real Betis. La Liga. 4-2.
Seville’s Betis came to play at Camp Nou and their sabres rattled the Barça defences and threatened the home side with a first possible defeat at Camp Nou for the Liga season.
It all started beautifully when Alexis slid in a ball for Cesc, whose shot for goal rebounded for Xavi to stroke (9’) into an empty net. (Cue mom4 swooning as her hero scores a goal right in front of her – AND she’s wearing his shirt!) A couple of minutes later, Messi joined him on the scoreboard (11’) when Iniesta passed out to Alexis on the left, whose cross found Messi in front of goal for the easiest of shots.
Some Barça complacency then allowed Betis back into the match when Castro scored (31’) just before half-time. After half-time, the home team was still unsettled when Betis substitute, Roque Santa Cruz, scored a blistering curler (50’) during which the Barça defence did not commit to tackling him. A 2-0 lead was leveled to 2-2.
The home team ratcheted up a few gears and assaulted the Betis goal. Iniesta was brought down in the box but, instead of an awarded penalty, he was shown a Yellow card for diving. Minutes later, Mario hacked down Messi on the edge of the box and was sent off after his second Yellow of the night.
A great Xavi lob from mid-field found Alexis, who regained the lead with a straight shot (73’) which managed to find its way under a diving and very frustrated Castro. The Blaugrana pressure forced the opposition into making fouls and reduced them to 10 men.
In yet another Barça attack, Betis’ Dorado handled the ball in the box and a penalty was finally awarded. Messi sealed the win (84’), but Betis could leave with the consolation that they had nearly toppled Barça at home AND they were the first La Liga team to score on the Camp Nou pitch in this season.
~ Xavi played his 400th Liga game for the club.
~ It was the 100th Liga win for Guardiola, and required on 132 games in which to achieve it: a win average of 76% with 57 victories at home and 43 away.
~ Busquets appeared in his 100th Liga game.
~ Puyol took his unbeaten streak to 50 games. The last loss with him on the pitch was 20th April 2010 against Inter Milan in the Champions League.
~ Prior to this game, Barça had not conceded a goal at Camp Nou in 18 Liga matches.
18th January: Uefa.com named Alves, Piqué, Xavi, Iniesta and Messi to be included in their “UEFA.com Ideal Team”. Pep Guardiola was voted “Best Manager”.
18th January: Away vs. Real Madrid. Copa del Rey. 1-2.
What – another Copa del Rey match? Why yes, and why not make it a Clásico? Pep’s birthday? Alrighty then. The team travelled to Madrid for another nail-biter.
Mom4, nzm and respective spouses travelled to Flaherty’s Irish Bar, just off La Rambla, where they parked themselves in front of the big screen, ordered buckets of beer and eats, and watched the game through splayed fingers when the pressure got too much.
Madrid started strongly by pressing high and were rewarded with an early Cristiano goal (11’) easily beating Pinto. After that, the ball was Barça’s, with 2 near misses from Iniesta, an Alexis header off the bar and a Messi shot from the same direction as Iniesta’s first attempt. A Cesc cross just missed Alexis’ head, and a sliding Messi also couldn’t put it away. Casillas saved a certain Cesc goal with a wonderful header as he came out of his box to put the ball away. Barça wasn’t able to score in the first half.
After the break came a quick corner. Xavi crossed the ball in, and a charging Puyol ran onto it to score a header (48’) that was reminiscent of his goal in the 2-6 victory three years ago. El Capità to the rescue!
The goal rattled Madrid, and the fouls started to mount. Another Iniesta attempt was just deflected by Ramos onto the post. Benzema missed a header in the 57th minute when it hit the outside of the post.
Pepe’s foot did its best to break Messi’s left hand in the 67th minute when Callejon brought down the #10 in midfield. Unbelievably, Pepe escaped sanction. A Xavi free-kick into the box was put high by Busquets’ head (69’).
The 1-2 win was sealed at 76’ when Abidal, latching onto a prescient Messi cross, curled the ball past a desperate Casillas who futilely appealed for an off-side play.
More Iker faces to add to the growing collection.
~ Messi played his 300th game for Barça over which he has scored 213 goals.
~ Guardiola’s team equalled the club record for consecutive unbeaten Liga games (5) at the Bernabéu which was set from 1969-1974.
~ Barça had 72% possession, with 744 passes compared to Madrid’s 234.
~ Xavi completed 122 out of 140 passes; Busquets 109 of 117. The best for Madrid was Alonso’s 35 of 40.
~ Piqué won the most balls – 19 in total.
~ 19 different Barça players have scored this season.
~ Happy 41st Birthday, Mister!
20th January: Fontàs underwent an operation on his knee’s damaged anterior cruciate ligament.
21st January: Pedro was cleared to play again.
22nd January: Away vs. Málaga. La Liga. 1-4.
Betis should have been the last game for the 1st half of La Liga but, because of the players’ strike at the beginning of the season, there was one more match to play – away to Málaga and a rejuvenated team starting to find its way under Manuel Pellegrini.
The home side almost went ahead in the 15th but Valdés pulled off an incredible flying save to deny Isco, before making a double save (also against Isco) from the resulting corner. Barça started to gain momentum after this, and it wasn’t long before Adriano crossed into a rising Messi who powerfully headed (33’) the ball into the net.
Soon after the break, a Thiago shot was saved by Caballero before being sent back into the middle by Adriano for Thiago to miss again, but Alexis was there to square away (47’) the ball. Minutes later came Messi’s second (49’) for the night when he collected the ball in mid-field, beat 4 converging defenders and shot home.
The pace slackened for a while, and around the 70th minute, Adriano was subbed off with muscle cramps. A Messi free-kick struck the bar, before an absolutely brilliant individual run saw him score (80’) his hat-trick. Rondón scored a consolation (85′) a few minutes later, but the damage was already done.
~ Iniesta played his 384th game for the club, equalling the records set by Guardiola and Ramallets.
~ With his 15th club hat-trick and 5th for the season, Messi finished the first half of the season with a record 22 goals and equalled the half-way record set by César in the 1950/51 season.
25th January: Home vs. Real Madrid. Copa del Rey. 2-2.
This time it was Xavi’s birthday to be celebrated with a Clásico, and Real Madrid finally came to play a decent match for the second leg of the CdR match at Camp Nou.
Higuain almost scored in the first 20 seconds, but his shot went wide across the goal. Three minutes later, and another Madrid near goal from a free-kick was stopped by Pinto, as well as ruled off-side. A Ronaldo shot went wide and another was saved by Pinto. Cesc and Messi broke free, but a poor pass from Cesc made Messi lose momentum as he stopped to collect the ball, and his attempt went wide. A Ronaldo cross was saved by Puyol and the resulting corner was cleared by Busquets. A long-range Oezil shot rattled off the bar before Pinto stupidly kicked the ball out to Higuain, but managed to save the Argentine’s weak return shot.
In the 29th minute, Iniesta’s Clásico came to an end as he went to ground with another hamstring injury. He was replaced by Pedro. The first 30 mins saw an unsettled Barça hard-pressed by a strong Madrid attack. It settled down after that with the home side regaining control, and in the 43rd min, Messi flew with the ball from midfield before slipping a sublime assist for Pedro to shoot a trademark straight shot (43’) past Casillas.
Cue great video capture of Cristiano throwing his toys out of the cot.
Lass bought down Messi just outside the box, with what should have been his second yellow card incident for the game, but the referee was too chicken to send someone off. Instead, Casillas was pinged for coming out of his box to complain.
From the Xavi free-kick, Lass deflected the ball towards Alves who wound up his rubber-band and fired a scorcher into the top corner of the net. It was a typical Alves shot which can either miss by a mile or be on target and, on that night it was, fortunately, the latter.
The second half saw Barça take the foot off the gas, and 2 quick, successive goals from Madrid (Cristiano 70’ and Benzema 74’), resulted in a nervous remaining 20 minutes of game-time in which both teams did everything but score again. The 2-2 result meant that Barça advanced to the next CdR round on a 4-3 aggregate.
~ This game was the 9th meeting between the teams over 10 months.
~ Pep’s record as Manager vs. Real Madrid is: 9 wins, 3 draws and 1 defeat.
~ Playing in his 31st Clásico, birthday-boy Xavi equalled the record of Joan Segarra who played 31 Clásicos between 1949 and 1964.
26th January: Iniesta’s injury would keep him side-lined for 3 weeks. Alexis was also injured and would be out for some days with shoulder damage.
26th January: The club was rocked by the death of Catalan La Sexta TV football journalist and commentator, Dani Montesinos, who was killed in a traffic accident. The ever-present and fun-loving journalist was a friend of Puyol and Xavi, and the 4 club captains attended Guardiola’s press conference where a minute’s silence was held for Dani.
27th January: During the last training before the Villarreal match, Pedro tore his hamstring. Alexis, who was injured during the CdR match with Real Madrid, would travel with the team due to the shortage of front-line attack players.
28th January: Away vs. Villarreal. La Liga. 0-0.
The second half of La Liga arrived, and the return matches commenced.
The seating at El Madrigal means that the home crowd sits very close to the pitch which can unnerve visiting teams, and Villarreal was defending an excellent home record while their away results were dismal. Sound familiar? Barça, weakened by injuries, started with a 3 man defence of Piqué, Puyol and Abidal with Mascherano playing midfield.
Alves and Messi missed 2 great chances before Villarreal found their way back into the game, harassing the Barça defence and with each player taking a turn at committing a foul to stop the flow of play. Mascherano cleared a Villarreal chance after Valdés had been beaten, and Villarreal had another goal ruled offside.
Into the second half and Busquets was lucky not to concede a penalty. An injured Alexis came on for Piqué, but the Blaugrana siege on goal came to nothing, as no shots would go in. Another disappointing away result, and 2 more points dropped to increase Real Madrid’s lead to 7 points.
~ Piqué played his 100th league game for Barça: 77 wins, 19 draws, 4 defeats.
~ Tello made his league debut.
~ It was the 5th away draw this season, and the 6th draw in total. 12 points lost to draws.
~ This season, the team had already hit the woodwork 15 times in 21 league matches.
~ There were 10 shots on goal during the match.
~ Villarreal committed 22 fouls against Barça.
31st January: Isaac Cuenca signed a new contract until 2015, and was officially promoted to the First Team.
31st January: The January transfer window saw the club clear out some of the driftwood, and Hleb was finally released from his contract to become a free agent.
THE REDONKULOUS JANUARY INJURY REPORT
All Month: Afellay with ACL injury and Villa with broken leg.
Part-time: Tito Vilanova with parotid tumour.
1st – 3rd: Abidal with flu.
1st – 5th: Valdés with the flu.
1st – 7th: Iniesta with a hamstring injury.
1st – 6th: Puyol with a groin injury.
9th – 13th: Iniesta rested to recover fully from hamstring injury.
11th – 13th: Alves with leg pain.
12th – 21st: Pedro with hamstring injury.
12th – 31st: Fontàs with ACL injury.
25th – 31st: Iniesta with a hamstring injury.
25th – 31st: Alexis with shoulder injury. (Had to play injured.)
27th – 31st: Pedro with hamstring injury.
10th – 31st: Keita with Mali for African Cup of Nations.
The month, (most dreaded by all dedicated Culés), had arrived; typically the time of the season when Barça experiences a drop in form, except that Hleb-the-jinx had just left the club. Had the bad voodoo gone with him? It may be the shortest month on the calendar, but there were still 7 games to play, and only 14 fully-fit First Team players at the start of the month.
1st February: Messi appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.
1st February: Away vs. Valencia. Copa del Rey. 1-1.
The semi-final stage of the Copa del Rey, and Valencia was the opponent. The Mestalla was dry and dusty – not conducive to the Barça smooth passing game.
An early Messi free-kick flew just wide, before a Pinto User Head-Space Error saw him handle the ball outside the box and somehow not red-carded for it. A 19th minute Soldado effort, from a corner kick, flew just over the bar.
The Valencia players took turns at committing fouls before they went ahead in the 26th minute when a quick run of play ended with Mathieu crossing to Jonas to score.
Missed shots from Messi and Alexis, before Cesc, (with a bandaged head from an earlier clash), fed a corner kick into a flying Puyol, who saved the night with another fabulous ball ricocheting off his granite head (35′) onto the ground and into the net.
The second half saw an early disallowed goal to a just-offside Alexis, before Messi put another shot over the top of the goal, while Piatti did the same from a long-range shot.
In the 55th minute, Thiago was brought down for a penalty. Messi stepped up and missed, as Alves guessed which way he’d send it. The 2nd missed penalty to Valencia this season.
In the 64th minute, we could only laugh in admiration as Puyol intercepted the ball and performed a double roulette in mid-field. Valencia’s GK, Diego Alves, saved an Abidal thunderbolt, while a Dani Alves shot hit the upright with Thiago unable to pot the rebound.
More missed opportunities and another doctored pitch meant that the 1-1 result was slightly better than a loss, especially with an away goal on the score sheet.
~ Valencia committed 25 fouls to Barça’s 12, and had 8 shots to the Blaugrana’s 15.
~ Barça had lower possession rates than usual – only 58%.
~ Abidal won most recovered balls – 14 in all.
~ Dani Alves’ shot onto the post made it 28 times that Barça has hit the woodwork this season – 15 in La Liga and 13 in other competitions.
~ Diego Alves has a record of saving 13 penalties out of the 19 that he has defended in La Liga. (Messi scored 1 of the successful 6.)
~ Puyol scored his 3rd goal of the season – 12 in 535 appearances.
2nd February: A cold snap hit Catalunya and, while it didn’t bring snow, temperatures dropped down to below 0 at night. The frigid weather continued for at least a couple of weeks, and forced the club to break out the thermal blankets to stop the pitch from freezing. A rare occurrence in Barcelona.
3rd February: After 5 months of negotiations, Éric Abidal signed a contract renewal until June 30th 2013, with a provision to extend until 2015. In his interview, he stated that FC Barcelona was his second family and that he would like to retire at Barcelona.
5th February: Home vs. Real Sociedad. La Liga. 2-1.
On a f-f-f-freezing night, Real Sociedad came to town to play in front of the brave 50k+ brass monkey fans who had turned out to watch.
Despite the insulating blankets that had been put on the pitch, the grass still froze after it was watered just before the game.
Playing with 8 La Masia starters, shots were traded before Messi threaded a beautiful assist to a charging Tello, who pushed the ball past the GK and into the net to score (8’) in his first La Liga game as a starting player.
With so many injuries, Barça still did not look comfortable with misses from Alves and Cesc in front of goal. Messi continued to press, but wasn’t rewarded until he finally scored (72’) from an Alves cross.
The Blaugrana seemed to switch off with 2 goals scored, and were immediately punished by Carlos Vela who slipped the defence to score (73’) with almost 20 minutes left in the game. The 3rd goal of the Liga season to be scored against Barça at home.
Puyol and Dos Santos were taken off for Abidal and Busquets, but the latter only lasted 7 minutes before leaving the pitch with an awful inner knee-scraping injury after colliding with a Real Sociedad player. Cesc turned white and almost passed out.
Piqué came on, and the team played out the rest of the match to gain a valuable 3 points.
~ This was Pep’s 160th win as Manager (2008-2012), and he equalled Frank Rijkaaard’s tally set between 2003-2008. With 250 victories, only Cruyff has more wins.
6th February: Busquets required stitches to his inside right knee and would be out for several days.
6th February: Several players attended Audi Driver Training in the new Audi Q3 – part fun and part sponsor duty.
6th February: Rosell went to London to attend the Laureus Awards and picked up the trophy for “Best Team”, awarded to Barça who were placed ahead of the Dallas Mavericks, the Red Bull F1 Team and the New Zealand All Blacks.
This was the video played at the awards:
7th February: Iniesta and Pedro returned to full training, but still without full medical clearance.
8th February: Home vs. Valencia. Copa del Rey. 2-0.
Los Che arrived at Camp Nou for the first of their 2 visits for the month.
At 1-1 in the first leg of the CdR semi-final, tension was high, and Valencia got off to a great start with a near miss inside the first 3 minutes. The visitors continued to press for the first 15 minutes and created havoc for Pinto.
Barça regained control when a wonderful overhead Messi pass found Cesc, who chipped it over Diego Alves for the first (15’) of the night. Minutes later, a defensive error from Rami gave Messi the ball, but he was blocked by Alves, with Cuenca’s rebound shot going wide.
A Messi free-kick was also expertly stopped by Alves. Alexis shot off target and tweaked his already injured shoulder as he fell after the shot. More defensive errors gave Cesc and Xavi the ball but they were unable to score.
The second half had barely started before Jordi Alba was racing for goal, only to be denied by a kick-save from Pinto, who also saved the subsequent header from Aduriz. Another miss for Messi, before Mascherano blocked a Aduriz chip after Pinto had advanced too far out of his goal area.
Messi appeared to be clipped from behind when clear on goal, but the penalty wasn’t awarded. A Xavi chip was too high, before a blistering Aduriz shot was pushed over the top by Pinto.
An elbow to Puyol’s head by Feghouli saw the Valencia player sent off with 2 Yellow cards before Xavi finally got the second goal (82’) to seal the win. Great free-kick saves from both Pinto and Alves denied more goals.
Barça will now face Athletic Club Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final on May 25th – their 3rd King’s Cup final in 4 years.
~ With his goal, Xavi equalled his personal best of 10 goals in one season.
~ With 3 goals, Cesc became Barça’s top scorer in the CdR campaign for this season.
9th February: Iniesta and Pedro received medical clearance to rejoin the team and will travel to Pamplona.
11th February: Away vs. Osasuna. La Liga. 3-2.
Back to the Reyno de Navarra for one of most difficult games of the season. The pitch was frozen and in deplorable condition – the bare areas in front of the goals were painted green. As well as being very cold, it was also extremely windy, and Puyol even resorted to wearing a head-band to control his hair.
With the absence of Busquets (injury) and Keita (with Mali), and not wanting to risk Xavi or Iniesta in the conditions, Pep was forced to play an unorthodox midfield of Thiago, Mascherano and Sergi Roberto. Osasuna’s Lekic scored 4 minutes into the match and again in the 21st minute, and the home side was hugely dominant for the entire first half, with Barça unable to score.
Early in the second half, Barça responded with an Alexis goal (50’), however another goal was scored by Osasuna 5 minutes later, and although Tello put another into the net (71’) for Barça, it was not enough.
An Alexis goal was disallowed (the 3rd for the night) and there were more missed chances, but the game was lost 3-2. To make matters worse, Mascherano was red-carded for a second bookable offence after he voiced his dissent to the referees in the tunnel after the game.
~ Real Madrid was now 10 points clear of the Blaugrana team at the top of the Liga table.
~ This was the club’s 2nd La Liga loss for the season.
13th February: We’re on a plane again, for the quarter-final stage of Champions League in which Barça had drawn Bayer Leverkusen. The team was greeted with snowy conditions upon arrival in Germany.
14th February: Xavi injured his leg during training and was unable to play in the Leverkusen game.
14th February: Away vs. Bayer Leverkusen. Champions League. 1-3.
Piqué was surprisingly not included in the team for “technical reasons” and Mascherano was in the back-line again. Busquets returned after his inner knee injury.
The Bay Arena was in great condition considering the cold weather, and Leverkusen began by playing a tight defensive game in which all the possession was handed to Barça as the home-team defended deep in their half.
A Leverkusen defensive error saw Messi get hold of the ball on mid-way and, with Cesc and Alexis running free on the right, Messi fired the ball into their path. Alexis nut-megged the goalkeeper (40’) to open his Champions League scoring account and the Blaugrana went into the half-time break with the advantage. Quick play from a defensive blunder was the key to the break-through.
Early in the second half Barça again got caught napping, and Leverkusen equalised in the 51st minute. Alexis soon countered with another goal (54′), after a wonderful Cesc assist to Alexis had the Chilean round the keeper for his second of the night.
Leverkusen abandoned their defensive tactics to become more attacking, and it was credit to Valdés who made 3 great saves to keep the home team from scoring again. Messi almost scored the goal of the season, but his amazing chip hit the post. Finally, Alves unselfishly fed a scoring opportunity across to Messi who pushed it into the net (88’) to make it 1-3.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
~ The win was the first away victory for Pep Guardiola in a CL second round tie.
~ Pedro played his 150th official game for the club, during which he’s scored 52 goals.
~ Messi became the first player in Champions League history to score in 6 consecutive away matches.
~ Messi also set a new Champions League record for all-time highest goal scorer in the CL knock-out stages with 19 goals. He was now ahead of Raúl (18), Shevchenko (18) and Inzaghi (16).
~ Alves played his 40th Champions League match with Barça.
~ Mascherano (16) and Puyol (15) recovered most balls in the match.
14th February: Adriano sustained a hamstring injury during the Leverkusen match.
15th February: The team arrived back in Barcelona to prepare for the next Liga game against Valencia.
16th February: After his season-long ACL injury, Afellay started training on the field once more.
17th Feb: Welcome back, Keita! The Mali player returned from the African Cup of Nations and resumed training with the squad.
19th February: Home vs. Valencia. La Liga. 5-1.
For the 3rd time in 3 weeks, Barça’s opponent was Los Che. Montoya started in place of a carded-out Alves, and Mascherano was also missing after the red card (2 Yellows) which he had received in the tunnel after the Osasuna match had finished. Xavi was on the bench in an attempt to give the old man some rest, and because he had been suffering from a foot injury.
Valencia had a goal on the scoresheet in the 8th minute after Piatti put away a Feghouli cross. The Blaugrana woke up after that, and possession and chances started to come their way. Pedro missed a great chance by playing it directly to GK Diego Alves. Pedro then crossed into Messi who put the ball away (21’) from an impossible angle, after Rami failed to clear the ball.
Minutes later, Iniesta fed the ball out to Abidal who shot it into Messi. Diego looked to have saved the shot, but the ball spilled and it was all that Messi needed to net (26’) for his second of the night in 5 minutes. Alexis was the next to break free, but a wonderful save denied the goal. A Cesc shot was also parried away, before Messi put a ball into the side of the net on the half hour. Diego again saved a potential Iniesta threat, before a cross from Alexis was too high for Pedro to collect. Cesc was the next with an amazing bicycle kick which hit the bar and the GK was able to catch the rebound header from Pedro.
After half-time, Alexis had another shot within the first minute, but Diego was equal to it. Alves made another save off his fingers from a marvelous defence-splitting run by Cesc. Puyol had a certain penalty appeal denied after his jump for a corner kick was impeded by Rami in the 54th minute, and Iniesta curled the rebound ball just wide of the far post.
Diego Alves was getting the better of the Barça players and he pulled off the save of the match by denying a close-range Messi header. Montoya was the next to have a goal denied and the rebound was horribly candled by Cesc in front of the goal.
It was Valencia’s turn, and Valdés saved a thundering shot from Feghouli which Piqué cleared away. Tello replaced Pedro, and Busquets had a rare shot at goal which was on target but sailed straight to a waiting Alves. Tello was next to shoot, and Alves spilled the ball into an empty space between 5 Valencia defenders, which Messi was happy to collect and score his hat-trick in the 75th minute.
Piqué collected a header from a corner kick which rebounded off Costa’s face and back onto his feet, but his powerful shot went over the goal. A steal from Messi was sent high by Tello who perhaps should have sent it back into the middle.
The game was well-secured when Busquets fired a ball into Messi who collected it, beat a defender and chipped it (85’) over an advancing Diego for his 4th of the night. Xavi came on for Iniesta for the last 5 minutes and his first attempt went wide, before Alexis had another close miss. In the first minute of injury time, Xavi chipped a loose ball over Alves to finish the night.
One of the best performances of the season from Barça and, if it hadn’t been for an inspired Diego Alves, the score could have, at least, been double.
~ It was Messi’s 200th La Liga game and he celebrated with a poker of goals, bringing his Liga goals to 27, and 44 in total for the season.
~ Messi became the youngest Barça player to play 200 Liga games, and the 12th youngest player in Spain’s top league to achieve the landmark.
~ In 200 Liga games, Messi scored 146 goals – another club record.
~ This match was the 8th time that the team had scored 5 or more goals during the season.
~ 9 La Masia players were in the starting line-up and 3 others were subbed in.
~ Xavi’s goal was his 11th for the season – a record for him, surpassing the 10 scored in 2008/09.
~ Busquets’ and Messi’s Yellow cards now meant that they were 1 game away from suspension.
~ Montoya played his first Liga game of the season, his 3rd with the team, and the first in which he has played the full 90’.
20th February: The team headed into the first 6 day break of the season without a mid-week game.
20th February: The Italian Football Player Association, with the support of FIFPro, awarded its Bulgarello Número 8 award to Xavi, beating Daniele de Rossi (Roma) and Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich).
20th February: Pelé, stuck for something to say for his weekly soundbite, stated that, “This Barça is like my Santos”, which is another way of saying, “You know that Santos team which was beaten by Barça at the Club World Cup? They were but mere shadows of the Santos of my time.”
21st February: The Catalan Football Federation hosted its Gala Awards where Pep was named “Catalan Coach of the Year” and Xavi won “Catalan Athlete of the Year”.
26th February: Away vs. Atlético Madrid. La Liga. 1-2.
The final game for February was away to Atlético Madrid, and yet another sub-standard pitch on which even Los Colchoneros had problems playing.
A wonderful Alexis/Messi play saw the goal in the net in the 7th minute, but the goal was denied because Messi had handled the ball. Messi was awarded his 5th Yellow card. A Xavi free-kick was played away by Courtois. Atlético played ultra-defensively, and it wasn’t until the 35th minute that Messi passed out to Cesc on the left, whose shot across the box was collected by Alves for the goal. Valdés snuffed out a Falcao opportunity after a defensive error had gifted Atlético the ball on the edge of their box.
Soon after the 2nd half started, the Blaugrana – again – allowed the opposition back into the match. From an Atlético corner kick, Busquets played the ball on with his header which found an undefended Falcao who ran past a flat-footed Cesc to score in the 49th minute.
The game nervously see-sawed after that, with Alexis missing the best opportunity for another goal. Pep changed to a 3-4-3 on the hour and it nearly brought disaster, as Falcao slipped the defence with only Valdés in front of him. VV advanced almost to the edge of the box, spread himself like an octopus and saved a certain chipped goal, with the rebound shot saved by Puyol who had run back to stand in front of the empty net.
Pedro was fouled just outside the box in the 80th minute, and Messi cheekily took the freekick before Atlético could set up their wall. The ball curled beautifully into the far top corner of the goal, followed by vociferous Atléti protesting which did nothing but produce cards for them.
In the last minutes, Valdés made another two brilliant saves to keep the score at 1-2 for a vital away win against one of Barça’s strongest remaining opponents. Such was the stress and pressure that Puyol collapsed onto the pitch, in exhaustion and relief, as the final whistle blew.
Man of the Match game from Valdés who saved the winning result on many occasions.
~ Messi’s 5th Yellow card (the 3rd for handball) meant that he would miss the next game against Sporting at Camp Nou.
~ Busquets also received his 5th Yellow and would also miss the Sporting game.
~ The quick free-kick was the second time in which Messi had caught out Atléti in the same way. The first was in 2008 at Camp Nou.
~ Valdés blocked 7 balls and turned away 8 in one of his busiest nights keeping goal.
~ Iniesta equalled Chendo’s record of 47 consecutive undefeated league games, and is 3 short of the all-time record.
~ Puyol had another sterling game with 12 recovered balls. Mascherano and Abidal were next with 10 each.
27th February: Various team members then scattered to join their national teams for friendlies. Apart from the injured Villa, Afellay and Fontàs, only Keita, Pinto and Pedro remained at the club. They trained with the B team, and then had 2 days off.
FEBRUARY INJURY REPORT
All Month: Afellay and Fontàs with ACL injury, Villa with broken leg.
Wrapped in Cotton Wool: Xavi rested whenever possible.
1st – 10th: Alexis with shoulder injury. (Had to play injured.)
1st – 9th: Pedro with hamstring injury.
1st – 9th: Iniesta with a hamstring injury.
5th – 12th: Busquets with gash to inner knee.
14th – 19th: Xavi with injured foot.
14th – 25th: Adriano with a hamstring injury.
1st – 17th: Keita with Mali for African Cup of Nations.
In the next instalment: Devastating news for a player and the team; drama galore as the Liga points gap starts to shrink, and crunch time in Champions League.