Barça and Malaga go into next Thursday’s second leg at La Rosaleda all square after a 2-2 draw at Camp Nou tonight. A mistake by Thiago Alcántara after 25 minutes allowed Manuel Iturra to put Malaga into a surprise lead but Barça responded quickly with an extraordinary goal from Leo Messi who presented his four Ballon d’Ors to the crowd before the game. Then a minute after Messi’s golazo, Carles Puyol headed Barça in front from a corner but Barça couldn’t add to the lead. Despite being reduced to ten men for the last fifteen minutes Malaga stole an equalizer in the 89th minute through Nacho Camacho.
On the day Pep Guardiola’s move to Bayern Munich was confirmed – proving me horribly wrong about his going to England – there were also a lot more changes to both teams than I had expected. Barça made eight changes while Malaga made seven with only Mascherano, Iniesta, Messi, Sergio Sanchez, Weligton, Eliseu and Camacho starting both at La Roseleda on Sunday and tonight at Camp Nou.
As in the league clash between the sides on Sunday tonight’s game began at a terrific pace. Messi didn’t take long to demonstrate his immense class. After just four minutes he chested Iniesta’s pass down to Thiago and then responded brilliantly to Thiago’s touch to loop a pass over the Malaga defence for Thiago to run on to but Thiago’s lob over Kameni didn’t have the strength to reach the line and Weligton cleared off the line. Two minutes later Messi sent a stunningly good pass for Tello to center from the left of the area, the low cross gave Alexis a golden chance but the Chilean forward couldn’t keep the ball down and hit it over the bar.
Alexis wasn’t discouraged, showing one devastating turn to start a break with a forty yard burst forward. Thiago was looking busy, sending in a dangerous cross that Sergio Sanchez nearly headed in his own goal, and bringing roars of approval with one delicious spin in midfield. However, despite the whirlwind first minutes it was becoming clear that Malaga were again going to be a difficult foe. They were offering practically nothing going forward but their defence was looking very organised and well-protected by the energetic Camacho, Iturra and Seba in midfield. Barça remained patient and continued to try and find openings. In the 19th minute Iniesta robbed the ball and quickly found Messi who showed electric acceleration to go past two opponents but he was off balance and shooting with his right foot and sent the ball well wide.
At this point of the game the script was pretty much as might have been expected. Then as on Sunday the deadlock was broken by an awful mistake by a promising young midfielder. At La Rosaleda it was Camacho who gifted Messi the chance to put Barça ahead, tonight it was Thiago who had gone back to receive the ball from Pinto but he got caught trying to turn by Iturra who had a clean run at goal and slotted the ball firmly past Pinto.
Barça’s reaction was astonishing and within five minutes we were in front. In the 29th minute Messi treated us to a flashback to his early years with a glorious charge up the right wing, hurdling challenges on the way, and then when it looked as though Weligton had got across to cover, Messi stole the ball with the guile of pickpocket, darted into the area and beat Kameni inside the far post to bring the house down. I wonder if Messi was remembering Weligton’s off-the-ball assault in 2009 as he celebrated the goal – I certainly was. Just a minute later Barça won a corner on the left. Thiago sent in the cross which was met by Puyol who was moving away from the goal but managed to flick a magnificent header that looped in off the far post.
Barça had good momentum now and we looked for a third. Adriano and Iniesta made one burst into the area at brutal speed but Kameni was out to block. Then it was Tello who found Adriano overlapping and the Brazilian’s cross found Alexis at the far post but for the second time in the game the finish was poor and the ball ended up in the crowd. Alexis showed his frustration by kicking the publicity board but to be fair it was nowhere near as easy a chance as it seemed with the ball bouncing just before arriving to him. However, his run of luck in front of goal is becoming worrying.
After a splendid first half the second period was somewhat disappointing. Barça had the ball but besides a shot from Adriano and another from Messi, Kameni had little to do. The first attacks from Malaga began to appear sporadically with Saviola having a first shot blocked by Puyol and then hooking over from the resulting corner. Eliseu had moved to the right wing in the second half and he forced Pinto into a couple of saves and then in the 70th minute Pinto had to react very well to stop Seba’s powerful volley.
Vilanova reacted by bringing on Fabregas and Pedro and within half a minute of coming on Fabregas sent a tremendous long pass for Pedro who would have had a clear run through if he hadn’t been clipped by Monreal who was shown a straight red card by referee Jose Luis Gonzalez Gonzalez. Xavi came on to try and make a difference as Barça searched for a third goal. Pedro was denied by a last ditch tackle by Sergio Sanchez, and Xavi curled one wide from 25-yards.
Then with the clock close to 89 minutes, Duda lofted a free kick into the area, Puyol, Mascherano and Song all lost the flight of the ball and Adriano was outbustled by Camacho who got in free at the far post to half-volley past Pinto. Fabregas had a final attempt with a header from Messi’s corner but the ball drifted wide of the far post with Pedro arriving just too late.
No doubt there will be a lot of flak for Alexis after his misses, and it is going to be a tough test for the Chilean to get over this bad run and prove he can be a star at Camp Nou. I liked Alexis a lot in his first season and it was always clear he was not a great goalscorer. The problem here is: that’s precisely what he should be. He has skill, he has speed and he makes excellent runs which get him into scoring positions, but his finishing recently has been woeful. Despite my desire to see more of David Villa I am pleased that Vilanova continues to show confidence in Alexis, patience is needed with new players and Alexis has shown he has enough quality to be at the club. However, there are some at Camp Nou who have less patience and the last thing we want to hear are whistles and boos for our own players.
The other negative point tonight was the error from Thiago, who was also caught in possession in our half in the second half. He has so much talent that he can undoubtedly fill Xavi’s boots when he retires, but he needs to learn from the great man about not losing the ball. I imagine Vilanova will put out a stronger team for next week’s second leg which is sure to be tough. A draw tonight is not the end of the world. Hopefully it will prove as a warning for future games.
Barça: Pinto 6.5; Montoya 6.5, Mascherano 6.5, Puyol 7.5, Adriano 6.5; Thiago 5.5 (Xavi m78, 6), Song 6.5, Iniesta 7.5; Alexis 5 (Pedro m74, 6.5), Messi 7.5, Tello 6.5 (Fabregas m74, 7).
Malaga: Kameni; Gamez, Sergio Sanchez, Weligton, Eliseu; Camacho, Iturra; Portillo (Monreal m45), Buonanotte (Duda m68), Seba; Saviola (Santa Cruz m65).
Goals: m25 Iturra 0-1, m29 Messi 1-1, m30 Puyol 2-1, m89 Camacho 2-2.
Yellow cards: m10 Alexis, m33 Messi, m38 Eliseu, m93 Seba.
Red Card: m75 Monreal.