Part Three 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.
An action-packed month where games were played for each of the 3 trophy competitions: Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey. Extra Liga games were played in November to clear the calendar for Barça’s travel to Japan for the Club World Cup in December. International travel was required on 2 occasions, and a major health setback was revealed for a key member of the Barça coaching staff. November also brings the first La Liga loss. Little did we know then but, at around this time, Pep had notified the FCB Board of Directors of his intention to step down at the end of the season.
1st November: 8 Barça players were included in the 23 names on the shortlist for the FIFA Ballon D’Or: Abidal, Alves, Cesc, Iniesta, Messi, Piqué, Villa and Xavi. Pep Guardiola was nominated for Manager of the Year.
1st November: Alexis was cleared to play after nearly 6 weeks out with injury.
1st November: Away vs. Viktoria Plzeň. Champions League. 0-4.
Hang on a minute, who are all these strange players in the Blaugrana strip? Oh, that’s the home team! Dressed in basic black, Barça fielded Cuenca and Adriano to provide width on the wings with Messi in the center. A midfield of Cesc, Busquets and Thiago and a conventional 4 of Alves, Puyol, Piqué and Abidal defended before VV.
The game started out with the team slipping around on the pitch surface and a little unsettled. Plzeň almost got away to a perfect start when a fast counter-attack put Petrzela streaking towards the goal with only Valdés to beat. VV held his ground, spread himself wide and managed to save the shot to his low left side. Down the other end of the pitch, Cesc had a valid penalty appeal turned down, before a Thiago stolen ball passed to Messi had the Czech defence scrambling. With only the keeper to beat, Messi was taken down in the box by Cisovsky. Communication between the sideline judge and the referee saw a red card awarded to Cisovsky, for his last-man foul tackle. Messi converted the penalty (22’) and Barça was back in control. The second goal before half-time was another Messi shot (45’+1) when he combined brilliantly with Adriano before slipping it under the diving keeper into the net.
After the break, more Barça scoring opportunities were saved including a Messi free-kick, before the 10-man Plzeň team had another chance when a cross from the left found an unmarked player on the far post. However, the shot was just wide and hit the side netting. Barça immediately retaliated with Messi sending in a lovely ball to a running Thiago whose header hit the underside of the bar and rebounded back into the field of play to be cleared out by the defence. Pep replaced Busquets, Alves and Abidal with Keita, Maxwell and Alexis back from his long injury absence. The next goal came after a Cuenca cross saw Cesc run in to collect and head it (73’) into the net. In the final moments of the game, some lovely team work ended with a Messi – Alexis – Piqué backheel – Messi play for Leo to collect his hat-trick (93’) and end the match at 0-4.
The result ensured that Barça would advance into the next round of Champions League – the final 16. Alves’ Yellow card ensured that he was suspended for the next CL game.
~ This was Pep’s 200th match in charge.
~ Messi’s first goal (penalty) was the 200th goal for him in the first team.
~ Messi’s third goal was the 500th goal for the team under Pep.
~ Valdés broke Miguel Reina’s record for minutes played without conceding a goal.
~ Piqué, Cesc and Messi – the 1987 generation – finally played 90’ together on the pitch for the first team.
~ Alexis returned from injury to play in his first-ever Champions League match.
2nd November: The team flew home to prepare for their next tough Liga match in Bilbao.
6th November: Away vs. Athletic Club Bilbao. La Liga. 2-2.
San Mamés is always a difficult stadium. To prove this, Messi had never scored there, but then neither had he ever lost. Heavy rain was expected for the game, and the weather gods got it right.
It was a deluge for the entire match which made play very difficult and dangerous for the players. Near misses were recorded by both teams, before a slip on the wet turf by Mascherano allowed a concerted Bilbao attack, from which Ander scored (19’) with a brilliant chip into the far top corner of the net. It didn’t take long for the equaliser when Abidal, working hard to circle around the defence on the left, looked up to spot Cesc and crossed in a beautiful ball which Cesc headed (23’) into the net. The chances kept coming, but Barça couldn’t put any of them away.
In the second half, the overworked pitch drainage couldn’t cope, and puddles of ball-stopping water started to form. Iniesta had the chance of his life when a Javi Martinez back-pass to the Bilbao keeper stopped dead, but instead of taking the ball closer and then taking a shot, Iniesta chose to try to lob Iraizoz which didn’t work. Late into the game while trying to avoid a throw-in, Mascherano instead conceded a corner. In the resulting chaos in the box, Abidal tried to clear the ball which rebounded off a Bilbao player to Piqué’s feet. The #3 failed to clear, and knocked the ball in the net (78’) for a Barça own-goal. Disaster.
Barça became a little disorganised and panicky at the thought of the season’s first loss. Attacks on the Bilbao goal continued, but to no avail. The game ticked into injury time as another attack was mounted. Messi passed into the box to Iniesta whose inexplicable back-heel sent the ball towards Iraizoz to gather. However, a mix-up between the goalkeeper and a Bilbao defender saw the ball spill back out. Another defender tried to clear it away, but it only went as far as Messi, who took a huge swipe at the ball (90’+1) and sent it into the net to prevent a loss.
A very difficult match in the conditions, and a lot of wasted chances (15 shots on goal compared to Bilbao’s 5), saw the game finish 2-2, and the general consensus that both teams each deserved the point.
~ Ander’s goal, in the 19th minute, ended Víctor Valdés’ unbeaten streak, and set the new club record at 896 minutes without conceding a goal.
~ Messi scored his first goal at San Mamés.
~ Iniesta played his 250th Liga game.
9th November: Víctor Valdés picked up an elbow injury during practice and would not be on the bench for the L’Hospitalet game.
9th November: Away vs. L’Hospitalet. Copa del Rey. 0-1.
Brought forward from December because of Barça’s Club World Cup commitments, the team played the first Copa del Rey match with Barcelona neighbours, l’Hospitalet. Barça was without Alves, Adriano, Mascherano, Messi, Alexis, Thiago and Cuenca – all of whom had already left for international duty.
The much lower-ranked l’Hospi team was very excited at the opportunity but its home game, on a hard artificial pitch, lacked the goals which would have made it more entertaining. Barça took 23 shots on goal, compared to Hospitalet’s 5. Both keepers, (Pinto and Moragon), made very good saves, with l’Hospi’s keeper making his save of the match against a Keita bullet in the 19th minute, and Pinto with a massive save in the 81st minute. Moragon also made another great save against Villa in the 88th minute.
Iniesta scored the only goal (43’) with a sensational strike from just outside the box, which brought comparisons to his Stamford Bridge winner from the 08/09 season.
~ Iniesta’s goal was his first CdR goal with Guardiola as manager.
~ B-Team players, Tello and Rafinha, made their First Team debuts, bringing the total to 21 La Masia graduates to play under Pep.
10th November: Another International break, and the Ciutat Esportiva was deserted. Only Pinto, Maxwell, Fontàs and the injured Pedro remained to take part in a light training session in the gym.
10th November: UEFA honoured Xavi and Andoni Zubizarreta, along with Iker Casillas and Raúl González, and presented their caps for playing 100+ games for Spain.
12th November: In a report, that was to perhaps jinx the club in the coming weeks, it was announced that Barça and Benfica were the only 2 clubs in Europe to remain unbeaten in their leagues and in Champions League for the season. Barça had not lost a match since last season’s defeat by Real Sociedad on 30th April 2011. They had played 25 cup games since then.
13th November: Time Magazine named Messi as one of the 32 candidates for this year’s “Person of the Year Award”.
15th November: Afellay returned to the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper for the first time since his ACL operation on 3rd October.
10th November: Adriano returned from International duty with a hamstring injury and was sidelined for 7-10 days. He was injured during training with Brazil.
16th November: Today marked 8 years since Messi’s inaugural game with the first team.
16th November: The International players returned with the exception of Messi, Mascherano and Alexis.
18th November: The full squad returned for training only one day before the next match, and Pedro was judged fit to return to training after a month off with an ankle injury.
19th November: Home vs. Zaragoza. La Liga. 4-0.
It’s rained more times this season for games at the Camp Nou than I can remember from other seasons, and it was another rainy night for the Zaragoza visit. Los Blanquillos is one of the unpredictable teams in La Liga.
The home team pressured early, but some good chances were not converted until a Xavi free kick found a stooping Piqué in the box, who headed it in (17’) for his first goal for the season. Barça continued to press, and GK Roberto and his defenders made a wonderful triple save against a Messi/Cesc/Alexis salvo which did everything but get into the net. It wasn’t until just before half-time that the next goal came when Cesc fed the ball to Messi who scored (42’) with his right foot from just outside the right post.
Zaragoza had their best chance after the break when lovely play into their box was just cleared out by Puyol before a goal could be scored. Not long after this, Puyol was up the other end of the pitch, on the ground, and helping the ball into the net for a goal (53’) of his own. With the match decided, Alexis, (in his first Liga game since Sept 10th) Xavi and Cesc were replaced by Iniesta, Thiago and Villa. Chances kept coming and finally the team was rewarded with a last goal as a diving Villa headed in (74’) from a wonderful Cuenca cross.
20th November: Iniesta received a knock in the Zaragoza game and would be out of the away game to AC Milan.
22nd November: An FCB press release announced that Assistant Coach, Tito Vilanova, had been successfully operated on for a tumour on his parotid gland. Vilanova would miss the next 3-4 weeks as he recovered.
22nd November: Barça travelled to Milan to prepare for the San Siro return match against AC Milan. They were without Iniesta, Adriano, Afellay and Alves who was suspended for this match, as well as Vilanova.
23rd November: Away vs. AC Milan. Champions League. 2-3.
The return matches of the Champions League pool play required a visit to San Siro for a close encounter of the Ibra kind.
Pep boldly started with a 3-4-3 which included Busquets coming back to help with defence, while Piqué sat on the bench. Possession yo-yoed as both teams worked into the game. Great work from Thiago recovered the ball which he then passed to Messi who spotted Keita out on the left wing. Seydou crossed quickly into the box, where a lurking Xavi unsettled Van Bommel enough for the latter to push the ball (13’) into the goal.
Minutes later, a Milan cross had Robinho directly in front of goal with only VV to beat, but his shot candled straight over the top of the goal. A long ball from Aquilani found Seedorf on the corner of the box and sleepy defence from Barça allows Clarence to feed the ball to Ibrahimovic, who slotted the ball (19’) past VV. Sloppy play, and Barça lost the advantage.
Not long after Milan’s goal, Xavi cleverly played the ball to Cesc who crossed into Messi standing in front of an open net, but Leo chipped into the crossbar and the ball flew out of play. Barça kept pressing and the next chance saw Xavi brought down in the box by Aquilani who was already on a Yellow card. The referee awarded the penalty, but unfathomably avoided booking Aquilani who should have been sent off. Instead, the Yellow was given to Nesta for complaining to the in-goal referee. Messi stepped up to take the kick, and his first effort was nullified as he was judged to have stopped in his run. A Yellow to Messi and another shot (30’) which was inch perfect into the corner to avoid Abbiati’s desperate dive.
Two more good goal opportunities from Villa and Messi were saved by Abbiati, and Mascherano made a perfect tackle on Robinho to dispossess him of the ball in the Milan box. The half finished not long after a Milan freekick was clumsily cleared away.
The second half started with more misses from Messi and Villa, before some errant Barça defence, coupled with amazing individual skills from Boateng, saw him curve around the defence to slot the ball (55’) between VV and the near post. Not VV’s best work, and the score was level once more.
The team picked themselves up, and a wonderful Messi threaded ball found Xavi on the edge of the box to coolly slot the ball (64’) past Abbiati. The Blaugrana had another goal opportunity from a Thiago free-kick, however Alexis and Puyol failed to score due to Abbiati’s stalwart defence.
~ Xavi was involved in all 3 goals.
~ The win was dedicated to Tito Vilanova.
~ Barça secured the top spot in the Champions League Group H.
~ Messi’s goal made him the leading South American goal scorer in European competitions, surpassing Peruvian Claudio Pizarro. It was also Messi’s first goal against an Italian team.
~ Guardiola’s Barça had now scored 102 goals in Champions League – the 100th being Van Bommel’s own goal.
~ Guardiola overtook Van Gaal as the Barça manager with the most CL wins – 27 out of 45 games played.
25th November: Adriano was declared fit, but Iniesta was still injured and would not be available for the Getafe match.
25th November: At his press conference, Pep Guardiola stated, “We have a fascinating build-up to Christmas, and it all starts against Getafe.”
26th November: Cesc joined Iniesta on the injury list for the Getafe game, due to some minor injury niggles.
26th November: Away vs. Getafe. La Liga. 1-0.
Off to Madrid to play at the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez, and the UEFA virus struck. It wasn’t due to lack of goal opportunities – it was the failure to convert them into goals which let the team down.
The first half was punctuated with alternating missed goals by Villa, Alexis and Messi, as all the effort came to nothing. Getafe’s Goalkeeper, Moyà, put in an outstanding performance.
The second half started in much the same way, until Valdés stupidly allowed the ball to run out for a Getafe corner. From the corner kick, Valera climbed high, and unmarked, to get his head onto the ball (66’) and coax it past a flat-footed VV who didn’t move at all as the ball came his way. A goal very much against the run of play.
Barça piled on the pressure with Piqué moving forward as the target man. Keita was judged offside (even though the ball came off a Getafe defender) as he crossed into the box, and the resulting Messi goal was denied. Another Messi shot, well into injury time, ricocheted off the far post, and Moyà brilliantly saved the Alexis rebound shot. Blaugrana heads hung low at their first defeat of the season, and the alarm bells started to clang more stringently.
~ The defeat put an end to the team’s winning streak of 27 games in competitive matches.
~ Barça now trailed La Liga leaders, Real Madrid, by 6 points.
28th November: Tito Vilanova was discharged from hospital, following the successful operation to remove a tumour from one of his parotid glands.
28th November: Iniesta was cleared to play again after injuring his left foot in the game against Zaragoza earlier in the month. Cesc was also cleared to play after minor injuries made him sit out the Getafe game.
29th November: Home vs. Rayo Vallecano. La Liga. 4-0.
Another game was moved forward because of Barça’s Club World Cup commitments. It was imperative that the team put the loss to Getafe behind them as they headed into a critical stage in their season. Rayo had been promoted from Liga Adelante and they were looking to prove themselves.
Iniesta almost opened the scoring at 2’ when he spied the Rayo keeper out of position, but Cobeño just managed to save the ball from going into the net. Rayo had the better chances after that, with one attempt flying over the top of the goal, and another shot by Lass going wide. A high ball from a free-kick was misjudged by Valdés and he just managed to tip it over, the ball hitting the crossbar on the way out. Barça started to gain control, and Alexis scored (28’) a beautiful individual effort with a curling shot into the top far corner. Messi missed a chance in the 32nd minute with a shot that went into the side of the net, and then Lass had another opportunity from some good play off a free-kick.
Barça scored again when Messi threaded a pass to Xavi, the ball flicking off his foot into the path of Alexis who buried (40’) the ball into the goal. Just before half-time, Piqué ran forward with the ball which he passed to Alves who crossed into the middle for Villa to slot (42’) home.
Not long after the second half had commenced, Alves and Messi made a break down the right side, culminating in a Messi goal (49’) in which he skirted around most of the Rayo defence to score from an oblique angle across the goal face. The game lost some intensity after this, and Alexis, Xavi and Iniesta were replaced by Cesc, Thiago and Adriano. Villa had a great chance for a 2nd when he was one-on-one with the keeper, but his chip was too high. Messi also shot wide. Rayo nearly got a goal as Valdés spilled the ball, but Tamuldo wasn’t quick enough.
~ Alexis scored his 2nd and 3rd goals for the club after missing 10 weeks due to injury.
~ Villa also scored his 3rd goal for the season.
~ Piqué picked up a Yellow (for time-wasting) which suspended him for the next game vs. Levante when he deliberately drew his 5th card so that he was clear for the upcoming clásico.
~ Valdés became the club’s first goalkeeper to keep clean sheets in 200 matches.
~ The team equalled the club record for remaining unbeaten, with 0 goals against them, at Camp Nou: 8 games which was set in the 1986/87 season.
30th November: Adriano, only back for a week since his last injury, was confirmed injured during the Rayo game with another hamstring injury, and was out for the next 5-7 days.
30th November: The LFP Futbol Professional Awards were presented, with Barça winning almost every available trophy.
~ Best goalkeeper: Valdés
~ Best defender: Abidal
~ Best mid-fielder: Xavi
~ Best attacking mid-fielder: Iniesta
~ Best striker: Messi
~ Best manager: Guardiola
~ Best player in La Liga: Messi
The only trophy not awarded to the club was to Iker Muniain (Bilbao) for “Revelation of the Season”
NOVEMBER INJURY REPORT
All Month: Afellay with ACL injury.
1st – 18th: Pedro with twisted ankle.
8th – 15th: Valdés with elbow injury.
10th – 25th: Adriano with hamstring injury.
20th – 28th: Iniesta with leg injury.
21st – 30th: Tito Vilanova with a parotid gland tumour.
25th – 28th: Cesc with injury niggles.
30th: Adriano with a hamstring injury.
Another busy and varied month with games for 3 trophies – one of those cups is very special. Time for the away El Clásico, a few home games, a trip to Japan and a serious injury to a key team player.
1st December: 11 Barça players were selected as candidates for the best team of the year in the FIFA FIFPro World XI 2011: Valdés, Abidal, Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Busquets, Cesc, Iniesta, Xavi, Messi, and Villa. GK Valdés received his first nomination.
3rd December: Home vs. Levante. La Liga. 5-0.
Sitting in 4th position on the La Liga Table and only 2 points behind Barça, Levante was not to be taken lightly – especially after winning at home against Real Madrid, and having topped the table (in Weeks 9 & 10) for the first time in their club history. Piqué was suspended, so Pep set a 3-4-3 formation, resting regular starter Alves and flanking Messi with Alexis and Cuenca.
Barça started at pace and didn’t stop, giving one of their strongest performances of the season. The fans were still settling into their seats when Messi fired a pass into Iniesta, who back-heeled to Cesc, who turned and scored (3’) in one fluid movement. A rebound of a Messi free-kick was almost collected by Puyol but he was unable to control the ball.
Another free-kick by Xavi flew over the cross-bar, before his next one found a rising Cesc in the box who headed it into the goal (33’) for his second in 30 minutes. Messi, on one of his trademark runs, drew 5 defenders before sliding a pass to Xavi who passed it onto a free Cuenca. The youngster wasted little time with a curling grubber shot (36’) finding the mark.
Levante had their best chances just before and just after half-time but Valdés kept them out with some superb saves. A subbed-on Alves recovered a ball to send forward to Messi who shot from his favoured right side of goal for his 27th Liga goal (53’) for the season. In the 59th minute, Alexis worked hard in deep defence to recover the ball for Barça. He then sprinted down the left side of the pitch as the ball was passed forward to Messi-Xavi-Messi and then back to Alexis who stopped the ball and scored with the ball deflecting off a defender’s back and over the goalkeeper.
The team wasn’t finished as subbed-in Pedro was sent on his way, only to be denied by some good goal-keeping by Munúa in the 85th minute. A few minutes later, an Iniesta goal was incorrectly ruled off-side, but the game was wrapped up and the crowd went home happy.
~ The 5-0 win gave this Barça team the record for the number of consecutive games won at home where 0 had been scored against them – 9 games in total. The team had scored 39 goals and conceded none.
~ This was the 15th 5-0 win for the team under Pep Guardiola.
~ Messi matched his personal best of 16 league goals at home in one season before this season’s halfway mark.
~ Messi also made his 292nd appearance for the club, equalling Philip Cocu as the foreigner who has played most times for Barça.
~ It was Guardiola’s 100th match at Camp Nou as manager: 82 wins, 296 goals scored and 59 goals conceded.
4th December: As Barça had already progressed through to the Champions League, and mindful of the Clásico match to come, as well as the travel and play for the Club World Cup, Pep elected to rest 13 first team players for the final Group game against BATE Borisov. Watching in the stands would be: Valdés, Alves, Puyol, Abidal, Mascherano, Keita, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc, Messi, Alexis and Villa. First Team players Pinto, Piqué, Fontàs, Maxwell, Thiago and Pedro would play the match with the rest of the players coming from the Barça B team.
5th December: Pep Guardiola was shortlisted for the award of FIFA Best Manager of 2011.
5th December: Messi’s goal against Arsenal during the 2011 Champions League game at Camp Nou was nominated for the FIFA Puskás Award for best goal of the season:
6th December: Guardiola named the team to play BATE Borisov. Six First Team players – Pinto, Piqué, Fontàs, Maxwell, Thiago and Pedro – were joined by Cuenca, Rafinha, dos Santos, Sergi Roberto, Bartra, Montoya, Muniesa, Deulofeu, Riverola, Sergi Gómez, Oier and Kiko Femenia from the Barça B Team.
6th December: Home vs. BATE Borisov. Champions League. 4-0.
An inconsequential game for the Blaugrana as they had already advanced to the next round of Champions League, but it was a chance for a lot of the Barça B players to show their worth to the world.
The starting team was: Pinto, Montoya, Bartra, Fontàs, Maxwell, Thiago, dos Santos, Sergi Roberto, Pedro, Rafinha, Cuenca. On the bench sat: Piqué, Muniesa, Deulofeu, Riverola, Sergi Gómez, Oier and Kiko.
From the kick-off, the Blaugrana contained BATE well inside their own half, and Rafinha came close to scoring with practically the first movement of the game. Sergi Roberto narrowly missed with his shot skimming just outside the left post. Nice play from Thiago-Pedro-Roberto gave Sergi the opening goal (34’) and his first goal in Champions League. Barça went into the break up by one which didn’t really reflect the team’s domination.
The second half brought more of the same action with a little more success. Pedro narrowly missed a straight drive for goal with the ball just shaving the outside of the left post. Sergi had another shot that missed, and Fontàs followed with a goal which was disallowed. The 2nd came when Cuenca slid a brilliant assist into a sprinting Montoya who joined (58’) Sergi Roberto to score on CL debut.
The crowd was being thoroughly entertained, and #3 came from a wonderful Montoya-Cuenca-Pedro combination which the Canarian back-heeled (61′) into the net. Guardiola subbed out dos Santos, Rafinha and Roberto and sent on Muniesa, Deulofeu and Riverola.
Cuenca was taken off his feet in the box, and Pedro slotted (86’) the penalty home. The team walked off to a standing ovation from the low-attendance 38,000 crowd. Job well done.
~ This was the 150th win under Guardiola. (98 Liga, 28 CL, 16 CdR, 4 Supacopa, 2 Europe Cups and 2 Club World Cups. With a 72.1% win rate.)
~ Riverola was the 22nd La Masia graduate to play in the first team under Pep. He has played for every FCB team since he started with the FCB Escola. His maiden First Team game was a Champions League match!
~ The average age of the Barça players on the pitch was 22.7 years.
~ The Alcántara brothers are the 23rd set of brothers to play for the club, and played together for the first time in the First Team.
~ The team received a standing ovation from the non-playing first team members upon arriving back in the dressing room.
~ The team achieved 16 points in the Champions League Group round which is the most points in CL Pool play, with Guardiola in charge.
~ 16 different players had now scored for the team over the season.
~ Pedro’s 2 goals took his tally to 50 for the club.
7th December: Tito Vilanova returned to work, 15 days after his operation. His full-time return wouldn’t come until much later, as he was unable to travel for away matches for some time.
7th December: Adriano was cleared to play again.
7th December: With the team due to leave for Madrid and Japan, it was decided that Afellay would return to the Netherlands, to continue with his recovery and to enjoy his time off over the Christmas break.
9th December: Thiago gained 2nd place in the Golden Boy Award 2011, run by Italian daily “Tuttosport”. Dortmund’s Mario Goetze won and Lille’s Eden Hazard was 3rd. Messi won the award in 2005 and Cesc (while at Arsenal) won in 2006. The trophy, dubbed as the “Junior Ballon D’Or”, is decided by the votes of 30 Europe-wide reporters.
9th December: Apart from Afellay, all other squad players were fit and at Pep’s disposal – a rare event for the season.
10th December: The team departed for Madrid and Japan. Because he was unable to fly after his surgery, Tito Vilanova and his wife caught the train to join the team in Madrid. He would not be going to Japan.
10th December: To ensure that the Bernabéu pitch was wet enough for Barça’s liking, Pep ordered it to rain. So it did – rather heavily. It was also cold which kind of cancelled out the rain advantage, because Barcelonans don’t like the cold.
10th December: Away vs. Real Madrid. La Liga. 1-3.
By this time, the worrying away form had started to rock the fans’ confidence, (and no doubt had some effect on the team!), and the lead-up to the match was an anxious affair, debated at length by armchair football coaches on forums and websites.
Fears were not alleviated when a Valdés blunder in the first 30 seconds saw Benzema on the scoreboard for Madrid. Thankfully, with Puyol revving up the players, Barça quickly recovered and, under Pep’s direction, changed tactical formation to gear up the attack. In the 6th minute, Messi drove for the box after Ramos slipped in defence. His shot was just cleared away by Iker’s fingertips, but the Barça threat was back. A Di Maria cross (10’) found the head of Benzema, but Valdés easily collected the ball. Ronaldo attempted a shot (18’) from outside the box which was slapped away by Valdés, and cleared out by Busquets and Cesc. Cristiano had another attempt (24’), but it went very wide and should have been played out to Di Maria, who was standing clear and unmarked on the right. Lass Diarra was the next to have a biff (29’), but it went Alves-style-high over the goal.
Messi then collected the ball on the halfway line, wound though a few Madrid defenders and threaded a pass to Alexis who took a few more steps and unleashed a shot (29’) which crossed in front of a diving Casillas to find the back of the net. Barça was back in the game, and Alexis continued to harass and worry the Madrid team for the rest of his time on the pitch.
Into the second half, and a Cristiano free-kick (49’) was gathered safely by Valdés. It was not Cristiano’s night. A cleared ball by Madrid only went as far as Xavi who struck it strongly (52’) towards goal. Casillas was there to save it but, inexplicably, Marcelo contorted his body into a move that would have made John Travolta proud, and the ball ricocheted off his foot and headed for the far post. A desperately diving Casillas could not get to it in time. The Blaugrana took the lead.
10 minutes later, Messi and Alexis combined again, but the shot was kick-saved by Casillas. A Messi free-kick (63’) just missed and shaved a layer of paint off the post.
Down the other end of the pitch, Kaka sent a kick (64’) into the gathered Madrid players and Cristiano’s header went wide. From the next play, Cesc recovered the ball from deep in the Barça half. The ball was played through Messi and out to Alves. Cesc sprinted the length of the pitch with Coentrão beside him. Alves whipped in the perfect cross to find Cesc who dipped forward and headed the ball (65’) past a hapless Casillas.
The crowd fell silent, except for the couple of thousand Barça fans way up in the stands. Alves sent in another cross for a Xavi header (74’) which went wide. Benzema managed to slip Puyol and fired towards the goal. His shot missed, and a lurking Higuain was judged offside. A Kaka strike was miraculously saved by Valdés and spilled out of play. Iniesta and Messi combined for an assault in the box (85’), but the ball was finally gathered by Casillas.
3 minutes of injury time, and then it was finally over – amazingly with 22 players still on the pitch, although the card-count had started to climb for Madrid once Barça had scored the 3rd. Another nail-biting, end-to-end Clásico, Pep remained unbeaten at the Bernabéu, and the points gap between Madrid and Barcelona narrowed to 3.
~ In his 13th Clásico, Xavi played his 600th game in his 14th season for the club.
~ The season’s new arrivals, Cesc and Alexis, both scored.
~ Under Pep, Barcelona had scored 16 goals against Madrid, and conceded 6.
~ Alves and Messi are the only 2 Barça players to start every Clásico in the Guardiola era.
~ 9 of the Barça players had come through the club’s youth ranks compared to 1 for Madrid.
~ So far, Guardiola had not put out the same starting-lineup in the 26 official games that the club had played during the season.
~ Barça had 67.5% ball possession during the match.
~ Puyol won 14 balls and lost 0. He committed a single foul and was only fouled once.
~ In the 55 league games in which Piqué and Puyol have played together, the team has won 46, drawn 9 and lost 0.
11th December: At 1:30am, immediately after the Clásico and unable to speak to the press because of time constraints (except for Guardiola’s press conference), Barça was at the airport to take an 11-hour flight to Japan to play in the Club World Cup.
Club World Cup, Yokohama, Japan
Qualifying by virtue of their Wembley Champions League victory, Barça’s ranking meant that they would join the competition at the semi-final stage.
Club World Cup Facts:
~ This was the 3rd Club World Cup competition for Valdés, Puyol, Iniesta and Xavi who had also played for Barça in the 2006 and 2009 events.
~ It was the 2nd Club World Cup for Alves, Piqué, Abidal, Busquets, Keita, Messi and Pedro. Pinto, Maxwell and Jonathan Dos Santos were in the squad in 2009, but were not selected to play.
~ It was Pep Guardiola’s 3rd time at the competition, having played in 1992 and won as the Barça coach in 2009.
~ Messi would need to score a goal if he was to keep alive his quest to equal Pedro’s achievement as the only Barça player to score in 6 official competitions in the same season. (He also needed to score in a Copa del Rey match, having already scored in the Europa Super Cup, the Spanish Supacopa, La Liga and Champions League.)
15th December: Away vs. Al Sadd. Club World Cup. 0-4.
The first game was against Qataris, Al Sadd, who had won their first match against African side Espérance. Al Sadd was the home team for this game, and both sides started cautiously, with Barça in possession and Al Sadd defending. Pep played Adriano at Right Back, and it paid off for the team.
Villa had a shot saved by GK Saqr, before Pedro, playing at Left Wing, crossed into the box. The ball looked to have been secured by Belhadj, who stopped the ball and pushed it over to Saqr standing close by him, however a mix-up led to a still advancing Adriano kneeing the ball into the goal (24’) for Barça’s first of the game, and for the tournament.
Minutes later, Abidal found Villa in the box who, although surrounded by 4 defenders, laid the ball off to Iniesta, but his shot was saved and rebounded for Villa to bury into the net. Sadly, it didn’t count as Villa was off-side.
In almost the next movement and while running into the box flanked by a couple of defenders, Villa went down and immediately raised his hand for assistance. His season had come to an end with a broken leg, and he was stretchered from the field. Alexis took his place. Just before half-time, Adriano and Thiago combined for the older Brazilian to blast a shot into goal (42’) for his second.
After half-time, Barça continued to retain possession, and the next chance came when Messi threaded an assist to Keita who, with the outside of his left foot, shot the ball (63’) across the goal-face for goal #3 – a goal which he dedicated to Villa. The 4th came in the 81st minute, when a Maxwell-Thiago combination saw Maxwell in for a narrow-angle shot which bounced under Saqr’s leg and went in.
Thiago had a great game controlling the midfield and was instrumental in much of the attacking play. Barça was through to the final of the Club World Cup, for the second time in 3 years, where they would play Brazil’s Santos.
~ The four goals came from unusual sources as far as the team was concerned – 2 Brazilian backs and a Malian midfielder.
~ Keita and Maxwell scored their first goals for the season.
~ After being stabilized in hospital, Villa was flown back to Barcelona for an operation and to begin his recuperation. In later reports, it was revealed that Villa had been carrying an injury to his left tibia since the CL Final at Wembley in May.
18th December: Away vs. Santos. Club World Cup. 0-4.
Leading up to the competition, there had been never-ending media reports generated around the potential squaring-off between Lionel Messi and hyped-up Santos youngster, Neymar. Pundits claimed that the latter would steal Messi’s crown as the greatest player. Messi soon put their hopes to the sword.
Barça quickly settled into dominance with attempted shots from Messi and Iniesta, before a Santos free-kick gave them the opportunity to open the scoring, however the Neymar-Ganso attempt flew wide.
Soon after, Xavi and Messi combined to give Leo a wonderful chipped goal (17’) to maintain his attempt to score and assist in all 6 trophy competitions. Alves assisted Xavi with the next goal (24’) which the #6 drove straight into the net.
Shots were traded until, just before half-time, an Alves ball found Messi in the box. After being tackled, Messi recovered his feet to play the ball back to Alves, who just managed to keep the ball in play and sent it back into the middle of the box, where the Santos keeper deflected the ball. Thiago dived in for a header which was saved before Cesc cleaned up with a cross-shot into the net. 0-3 into the break and Barça was well in control.
The second half started with almost the 4th of the night when Messi and Cesc combined, but Cesc’s shot went just wide. Neymar had his best chance of the night when a Borges cross came his way, but his header was too uncontrolled and flew high over the goal.
More shots were traded with both sides having good scoring opportunities. Valdés showed great one-on-one skills to deny Santos. Alves changed his position and went to play center-left, where he combined with Messi for the final goal. Messi cut the ball around the GK to slot home (82’) for his 2nd for the night, and for the tournament.
Puyol lifted the team’s 3rd trophy of the season and their second Club World Cup title in 3 years.
~ The team enjoyed 72% possession during the game, and completed 881 passes to Santos’ 256.
~ The team set a new record for the highest winning margin of 4 goals in a Club World Cup Final.
~ Xavi made the most passes, completing 151 of 160.
~ Busquets recovered the most balls – 15.
~ With his 2 goals for the tournament, Messi won the Golden Ball trophy.
~ Messi also won his 2nd Man of the Match performance in a Club World Cup final – the only player to have achieved 2 wins since the award began in 1980.
~ Along with Denilson, Messi is the all-time leading goal scorer in the Club World Cup Competition with 4 goals.
19th December: The team returned victorious to Barcelona, but downcast at the loss of Villa as they headed into the business end of the season.
19th December: Guardiola gave Messi, Alves, Keita, Alexis, Mascherano, Adriano and Maxwell an early start to their holidays. Most would return on 29th December with Messi to return on January 2nd. Abidal was also excused from training and would return on 29th December.
20th December: Contract renewal negotiations opened between the club, and 2nd Goal-keeper and team motivator, Pinto.
20th December: Valdés won Best Athlete of the Year at the Festa de l’Esport Català gala (Catalan Sporting Awards). The First Team also won Best Male Team of the Year.
21st December: Villa was not forgotten as several team-mates visited him in Hospital after their return from Japan.
21st December: In his press conference, when asked about his renewal, Guardiola replied, “People need to be calm, I know what I’m doing.”
22nd December: Rosell said, “All I want for Christmas is Guardiola’s contract renewal to be signed.”
22nd December: Home vs L’Hospitalet. Copa del Rey. 9-0.
The last game for 2012 was the return Copa del Rey match vs. l’Hospitalet to be played at Camp Nou. There is a very sweet video which shows the l’Hospi team travelling from their stadium to Camp Nou, and capturing their evident excitement at the opportunity to play on a world-class pitch. The Camp Nou visitors’ dressing room (with spa pool) was undoubtedly much better than their own dressing room at their La Feixa Llarga Stadium!
Although he was missing all his South American players, plus Keita and Abidal, Pep started a no-nonsense First Team line-up which gave Fontàs a rare outing in a 3-man backline. Cuenca was the only B-team starter, as he was not yet officially signed to the first team.
By the 22nd minute, Barça was in control 3-0 with a penalty to Pedro (11’) and goals to Iniesta (18’) and Thiago (22’). Sergi Roberto came on for Iniesta who had gone down with a hamstring injury. After Xavi’s 35’ goal, he was subbed off for Cristian Tello. After 3 more goals at 42’ (Tello), 47’ (Cuenca) and a 52’ penalty (Thiago), Jonathan dos Santos came on to replace Busquets. The team scored 2 more goals (Tello 62’ and Cuenca 79’) to finish the match 9-0.
~ Of the 14 players to take to the pitch, Pinto was the only player who was not “home-grown”, as the remaining 10 starters and 3 subs all came through La Masia.
~ Tello became the 18th player to score for Barça during the season.
23rd December: Iniesta was confirmed out for 15 days with a hamstring injury to his left thigh. He would miss the Catalunya Team Match against Tunisia, the Copa del Rey match against Valencia and, possibly, the away match to Espanyol.
23rd December: The team now headed somewhat happily to the Christmas break.
23rd December: The First Team set a new Primera Division record of 170 goals scored within a calendar year. The 9 goal haul against L’Hospitalet helped them to overtake Real Madrid who had scored 167. The year finished with no goals being scored against Barça at home in La Liga or Copa del Rey matches.
24th December: Villa was released from hospital to spend Christmas at home.
26th December: French publication L’Équipe, named Messi “2011 Champion of Champions”, beating Tennis #1 Novak Djokovic and Formula 1 champion Sebastian Vettel. Leo became only the 5th football player to win the award, and the first to win it out of a World Cup Year. Alves, Piqué, Messi, Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi were also named in L’Équipe’s All-Stars football team.
29th December: The team returned to training with the exception of Messi (returning Jan 2nd) and Alves (Dec 31st). Maxwell, whose house had been burgled during his absence, was also excused to sort out the mess. Injured Iniesta trained alone.
29th December: Barça’s memorable moments of 2011 were compiled into a short video.
30th December: 10 Barça players took part in a Catalunya vs. Tunisia match in the Montjuic Olimpic Stadium. Johan Cruyff coached Catalunya. It was a lack-lustre affair which ended 0-0, and was costly for Barça when Puyol pulled out before the start of the match with a strained adductor muscle.
30th December: Puyol was confirmed side-lined with a groin injury. Keita picked up a knee injury during practice, and Abidal caught the flu.
30th December: The International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS), named Messi as “World Top Goal Scorer of 2011” with 19 goals, ahead of Falcao (17) and Kuwait’s Hasan Mahmoud (16). With 12 goals, Villa finished equal 10th with Cristiano.
DECEMBER INJURY REPORT
All Month: Afellay with ACL injury.
Returning 7th and part-time: Tito Vilanova with parotid tumour.
1st – 7th: Adriano with hamstring injury.
15th – 31st: Villa with fractured tibia injury.
23rd – 31st: Iniesta with a hamstring injury.
30th – 31st: Puyol with a groin injury, Keita with a knee injury, Abidal with flu.
In the next instalment: Two action-packed months – full of games for all 3 trophies. The January transfer window would see movement away from the club, and a player would be missing for a critical 6 weeks while playing for his national team. Hlebruary was upon us – would the jinx continue to plague Barça?