It’s always difficult to get excited going into a second leg match when the team has a 4-0 lead from the first leg. When you factor in that in the last few days Messi and Guardiola both picked up major individual awards, Maxwell was sold to PSG, and we inevitably drew away to Espanyol; this game almost seemed like an afterthought.
This thought was reinforced when the main story in the buildup to the match was the dense fog that had descended on Pamplona. It seemed a sinister fog, forcing Barcelona to land their jumbo jet in a neighboring city and take a bus the rest of the way – buses being the kryptonite of the team (apart from knee and hamstring injuries). The fog also forced Pep to leave Iniesta at home as he was concerned the other players wouldn’t be able to see him, and Alves stayed behind so he didn’t miss his Thursday night samba class. A classic 4-3-3 was in order with the likes of Pinto, Montoya, Pique, Fontas, Adriano, Sergi, Mascherano, Thiago, Cuenca, Sanchez, and Pedro getting the nod. And I was excited to see some fringe players get some time.
As the match started the fog wasn’t just obscuring my view of the far side of the field, it seemed to weigh heavy on the shoulders of the men in mint green. It was a pernicious fog that seemed to have seeped into the minds of our boys, and for much of the first half we seemed slow and off kilter. I’m reminded of the first time I ever went white water canoeing – the fog was so dense over the Nantahala that you could hear the rapids before you could see them, and by the time you could see them there was no time to react. My skiing coach once told me that in order to be a good mogul skier you had to be thinking at least two turns ahead – the same holds true for white water paddling, and for football. The fog on the Nantahala made it impossible to look down the river and plan my moves, meaning I spent the entire time reacting to the river instead of being proactive (well, when I wasn’t swimming). And so it was with Barcelona early on. The fog had appeared to dull the teams thoughts, to make them reactive instead of proactive. And just as my analogy falls apart here, so did Barcelona’s coordinated team play for most of the first half.
Pedro was the man who created the first bit of excitement in the half as he created a half chance for himself and duly put it on target. Unfortunately it forebode the type of game he would have, the type of game he has been having all season. Whether it’s due to his injury issues, his lack of goals this season, or the arrival of Sanchez; Pedro has been trying too hard to make something happen, to create a moment of magic. To return to the form that elevated him briefly to San Pedro he is going to have to return to basics and focus on doing the simple things correctly… Ooooohhhhh Osasuna gets off a good cross that neither Pique nor Montoya have any idea how to deal with and it luckily passes harmlessly between them. Lucky Break 1.
This brings us to the most disappointing aspect of the game – Fontas’ ACL injury. He only lasted 11 minutes but up to that point he had been nearly flawless – passing well, getting into space well, and even doing some defending. Unfortunately his first mistake got him into trouble as he lost his head and the ball at the edge of our box. You can see him put a serious stress on his knee while his foot is planted, and then, in a lion-hearted move that would have made Puyol proud he continues to play and atones for his mistake – all while it looks like his knee will give out at any moment. It was a glimpse of the determination and steel that champions are made of. Unfortunately it’s a sight we won’t see again for some time, as it looks like the already underused defender will be out for the season. So it goes.
The rest of the first half was honestly fairly uneventful. It consisted mostly of Barcelona keeping possession but not threatening much while Osasuna looked dangerous every time they crossed into our half. Pique made a massive goal line save with his head after Abidal lost the ball in our box – although Pinto should take some blame as his distribution put Abidal in a dangerous situation. Lucky Break 2. Osasuna created several more dangerous chances, including a beauty of a volley from Lekic. Lucky Break 3. Lekic made no mistake with his next chance though, as a poor clearance from Abidal followed by Sergi tripping over his shoelace gifted him a clear chance. So it goes.
Meanwhile we were somewhat of a shambles going forward. The problem originated in the midfield where all three of Mascherano, Thiago, and Sergi had a tendency to dwell on the ball. This game was a reminder why Pep uses Mascherano as a center back, he distributes the ball adequately but not with the speed, creativity, or precision that Busquets does. Meanwhile Sergi can pass but he didn’t put himself in positions to help his teammates enough. We did manage to put together a couple nice moments of tiki-taka which interestingly all coalesced around Thiago. Unfortunately Thiago lacked a foil in midfield and has a tendency to push the play away from himself – he has a phenomenal cross-field pass, but in this match he needed to draw the play towards himself, not send the ball across the field. Sanchez looked isolated but played his role well. He held up the ball well several times and made intelligent runs to find space wide but you couldn’t fault him for being frustrated.
While we somehow managed to sneak out of the first half without giving up another goal, the boys looked more positive at the start of the second half. In practically the first attack of the half Adriano created just enough space with his pace to play a phenomenal cross that was easy for Sanchez to nod in at the back post. Adriano deserves the credit on this one. As a side note I’m more than happy that I was wrong about Sanchez’s ability to score goals, but the kid has the killer instinct of a ninja combined with the hunger of a black bear coming out of hibernation. Scary.
And now some things are happening on the far side of the field but I can’t tell who is on the ball and whether they are doing something sweet or not, damn fog. At least we have the ball near their box and look dangerous. Ohhh look it’s the 60th minute and Messi is coming in. I should have made a wager on that, although I bet it would have had less than a 1% return on my investment. Ohh and look, he gets fouled the first time he touches the ball. So it goes.
With Messi on we looked like a completely different team. He gave the attack a focal point and began to dictate the game, something no one had been able to do earlier in the match. OHHH what a nice disguised pass from Messi that Pedro somehow manages to get stuck between his feet and the chance is lost. And Pedro has picked up a hamstring knock and is replaced by Busquets as Pep looks to see the match out with a 5-1 aggregate lead.
The final goal of the tie comes as Sergi finds a pocket of space in the Osasuna backline and is put through with a phenomenal ball by Messi. It’s worth noting here that Sergi set himself as the player highest up the field. Whether that was due to an instruction for Pep or whether he naturally noticed that there was space available, it was impressive positioning from the youngster. The goal brings his tally to 2 goals in 4 first team games. I have to wonder at this point if he has leapfrogged Dos Santos in the pecking order.
At this point the match is essentially over as a contest. Barcelona maintains almost total dominance for the last 20 minutes, and other than a sweet Messi chip disallowed for a (correct) offside decision, there isn’t much to report on. On to the players!
Pinto: B-. Decent performance, but some of his distribution was questionable – notably putting Abidal in trouble right after he came on.
Montoya: A-. I haven’t mentioned him yet, but he put in a very solid shift today. He covers the flank well, overlaps well, and regularly puts himself in good positions. His passing is quite tidy, and he rarely gave away the ball. Add in some neat interceptions on top and it was a very encouraging, if understated performance from the young Spaniard.
Pique: A-. Put together a very solid match today. A great goal line save was the highlight, but he lead the line without too much trouble throughout. His long pass radar also seemed to be working tonight, something that hasn’t been true in a while. When the team was lacking drive he made some intelligent runs forward to try and galvanize the team. Good match.
Fontas: N/A. Played well in the first 11 minutes. Unfortunately his first mistake was his last as he was stretchered off with an ACL injury.
Adriano: B+. Struggled a bit in the early going, but the more he took the license to get forward the better he looked. Put in a phenomenal cross for the first goal after he made the smallest window of space for himself.
Mascherano: C+. Struggled a bit as he moved back to his “natural” position (as the English commentators called it). He misplaced too many passes and spent a bit too much time on the ball. However his movement was intelligent as he dropped in to form a back three at times.
Sergi: B. Popped up to score the winning goal to atone for being easily muscled off the ball to gift Osasuna their goal. His passing is solid, but seemed a bit rushed at times. His movement could use a lot of work, and he needs to learn to offer himself for a pass instead of making a bee-line for the goal. Even though he was hot and cold, he should be encouraged by his performance.
Thiago: B. Some good, some bad. He was in the thick of all our best moments in the first half, but he also gave the ball away much too easily on several occasions. Unable to set the tempo of the match, but generally used the ball well.
Cuenca: B-. Looked good when the ball came his way and his deadly low crosses were there tonight, but no one could seem to get on the end of them. Anonymous for large periods.
Sanchez: B+. Looked isolated in the first half, but not for lack of effort. Put himself in the right place to score the opening goal and his movement was good throughout. Subbed for Messi in the 58th minute.
Pedro: D. A tough game for Pedro where he worked extremely hard and created very little. His pressing was poor today, and at times it looked more like chasing that coordinated pressing. Taken off with another minor hamstring injury. Must be wishing this season would end so he can get a fresh start.
Abidal: B-. Abidal didn’t look his usual calm and collected self out there today. Gave away the ball and almost a goal as soon as he came on, and never settled in. Cleared it out of bounds more than I’ve seen him do in some 5 game runs. Had a hand in Osasuna’s goal with a poor clearance. Looked solid most of the time, but like my old man says “Defenders can play a perfect game but make one mistake and it is considered a poor game.”
Messi: A-. Provided a focal point for the team when we desperately needed one, and got himself an assist for the winning goal. We looked a different side with him on the pitch.
Busquets: N/A. Came on to provide stability and other than making a meal of a challenge I can’t think what else he did.
*All grading is done on the curve.
And so in the end it was a victory, but a costly one. I’m reminded of the legend of the Greek king Pyrrhus, who looked out at the battlefield after a victory over the Romans and said “another such victory would uttely ruin us.”