This is not a review. Not a real one, anyway. I won’t be talking tactics, formations, or dissecting individual plays. This is just a few impressions I formed while watching the game and running a LiveBlog, so if I missed any key moments, you can blame those rambunctious loveblobbers for distracting me! 😀
The original plan for this weekend was to wrap up the league title mathematically and lift the cup at the Camp Nou after a resounding victory over Real Betis that would soothe some of the trauma of the last few weeks. However, last week’s draw with Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid’s come-from-behind victory over Valladolid ensured that we would have to wait another week to officially claim the league title. And as for the resounding victory part, well…Real Betis didn’t seem too inclined to co-operate.
Tito went with a lineup of: Dani Alves, Pique, Adriano, Jordi Alba, Song, Xavi, Iniesta, Sanchez, Villa, Tello, and Pinto, who was filling in for an injured Victor Valdes. As soon as the lineup was announced, the twitterverse exploded with outrage. Why was Xavi playing when his tendons were like overstretched elastic bands? Why doesn’t Tito trust Thiago? Did Bartra fall down a hole after the Bayern Munich game? Iniesta needs a nap! Oddly no one seemed too worried that Dani Alves has now started eleventymillion* games in a row, but I digress. The point is that Lionel Messi was once again sitting on the bench. Yes, that’s right. Cristian “the new Henry” Tello benched Messi. Or more probably, Leo’s golden hamstrings are still not perfectly 100% and were being held in reserve for use only if necessary. More on that to come.
The team had barely had time to register which end they were playing from when a mishit clearance by Pinto was returned at speed into the path of Real Betis’ Dorlan Pabon, who burst past Pique and put the ball in the net. Two minutes in and Real Betis was already up by a goal!
Not to worry, though. It was clear after only a few minutes that this was not a team who were about to let themselves be humiliated in their own house. I mean, again. The word of the day was ATTACK, and so they did, with Alexis Sanchez diving low to score a header from a perfect Iniesta cross in the 9th minute. What followed was a very exciting game, with Barcelona having slightly less possession than usual (only 54%!) but the great majority of the shots on goal (34 to 12). Villa, Tello, Sanchez, Iniesta all peppered the box with shots with little to show for it except for the overwhelming feeling that something was bound to go in soon. Villa grew increasingly frustrated as he skied the ball over an open goal and soft-shoed another one straight into the arms of the keeper. Tello had a monster of a shot ricochet off the crossbar, hit the goalline, and it was justhisclose to going completely in! But no, it wasn’t a goal, and not long after, Betis was rewarded for their own persistence when Ruben Pérez smashed the ball into the top corner from 30 yards out to give the visitors a 2-1 lead just before half-time.
45 minutes gone and only one goal to show for it, in a must-win game. Time to bring out the not-so-secret weapon. Lionel Messi starts to warm up on the sidelines. David Villa spots him and knows his number will be coming up soon. There is no way he is coming off the pitch before scoring a goal, it’s been coming all game, and here it is! Finally! In the 56th minute he latches onto a cross from Dani Alves and heads it past the keeper for the equalizer. Still, he had to make way for Messi and didn’t look too best pleased about it. He was the logical sub, though. Both Tello and Sanchez had been playing really well and both are arguably better at feeding Messi the ball than Villa is right now.
Now, you can argue about whether this team is too dependent on Messi, whether the system is the problem (it’s not) or the other players just aren’t good enough (they are), but you absolutely cannot ignore the way the very presence of Messi on the pitch, even a 80% fit Messi, has a psychological impact on both teams. Real Betis were already struggling to prevent our forwards from getting through on goal. Now they had a fresh, motivated magician to deal with. Our own players knew that their jobs would become easier as well as Messi would draw defenders into his orbit, freeing up space for others. The outcome wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but there was a palpable feeling that what had been a fairly equally balanced game had suddenly and irrevocably shifted in Barcelona’s favour. With practically his first touch Messi curled an absolute peach of a free kick into the top right corner of the goal, then 10 minutes later tapped in a gimme from a sublime backheel from Iniesta to Alexis, who put the cross right at Messi’s feet. 4-2. Game over. A big win and only two more points needed to put the league out of reach for Real Madrid.
So how did we do? As a team effort I thought it was a very strong performance. I admit I wasn’t thrilled to see Adriano starting at CB instead of Bartra, but according to the stats he didn’t do badly. Between them, Pique and Adriano recovered 15 and 16 balls respectively, the most out of anyone. And the team did not give up a single corner! When was the last time that happened? Tello, Iniesta & Song all had an excellent game. Tito even singled Song out in the dying minutes of the game by substituting him, so that the Camp Nou could acknowledge his performance. I thought that was a nice touch. And Alexis Sanchez continued his recent run of making me wonder why on earth anyone would want to sell him, as he not only scored a goal and assisted Messi’s second, but worked his tail off creating space and setting up chance after chance for David Villa. In fact, according to the official team site, “Alexis has scored five goals and claimed six assists in the last eight league matches, meaning he was directly involved in 11 out of 22 FCB goals.” This is a player we need to keep.
Next week we play Atletico Madrid. What do you think the chances are of them rolling over for us like they did Real Madrid? Nah!
*Actually this was the tenth match in a row that he has started.