Barça face a difficult trip to San Mames on January 5 in our attempt to reach the quarter finals of the Copa del Rey after only managing a 0-0 draw in tonight’s first leg at Camp Nou. As expected there were changes to our starting line up but for the last 30 minutes of the game we had our “star” front five of Messi, Villa, Pedro, Xavi and Iniesta but we could still not find a way through.
Guardiola surprised me a bit with the team selection. I didn’t expect to see Xavi or Iniesta but perhaps this is a good sign that both our midfield maestros are leaving behind their respective injury problems. It demonstrated that we are taking this tournament seriously though Messi, Busquets, Villa and Puyol all started on the bench. It was no surprise to see Pinto, Maxwell, Mascherano, Keita and Bojan but I thought it strange that Adriano wasn’t given a run out and I was slightly disappointed that Thiago didn’t get the nod.
Our shape from the beginning saw Mascherano playing deep to support the centre backs allowing Alves and Maxwell to play in advanced positions, however, the crossing was pretty poor all night but to be fair to these guys there is often nobody really to aim at and it takes a very good cross to find forwards who are all so short. The most interesting was to see Iniesta given the “false 9” Messi role and while he may not be much of a target man, nearly all the danger in the first half came through Andres. In the 7th minute he played the ball out to the left from where Bojan cut in to shoot from 20 yards and force the first save from Gorka Iraizoz. After this, however, Bojan disappeared for long periods which left it to Pedro and Iniesta to look for a goal. Pedro continues to impress with his workrate and enthusiasm but he was unable to get a sniff of goal though he did send in a couple of dangerous crosses in the first half that found nobody to finish. Iniesta had two fine efforts in the space of five minutes in the middle of the half but twice Gorka leapt to tip the ball over the bar. At the other end Pinto had to make a couple of simple interventions and Athletic caused us concern from a couple of corners but little more.
We were in control of the game but we were lacking the killer instinct. Early in the second half Alves put in a couple of decent crosses but one was towards Bojan and Gorka was able to stretch enough to get there first and then another found Xavi unable to adjust enough to get his shot on target. Pep brought on Messi and Villa and we began to look more urgent but we were still failing to find a way through. This could have been because the team had got stuck in a lower gear from the start and couldn’t react, or it could have been simply that Athletic defended deeper and deeper as the game moved towards the end. There were moments when it looked like we mightgrab a goal but both Villa and Messi had shots charged down by the defence, Alves showed his frustration by shooting from a very wide position but maybe he was just irritated at only having little guys to aim at.
We finally brought another save from Gorka in the 75th minute but it was just a weak free kick from Xavi, apart from that Villa had one shot wide when he couldn’t break free from two defenders, and then Villa had the ball in the net but the ref had blown for offside. Near the end Messi sent in a dangerous cross but Piqué who was in a dangerous position could only wave his leg at the ball as he jumped and he failed to get good contact sending the ball wide. Our day was summed up in the very last action, instead of crossing Alves chose the option of a neat pass inside to Villa who had made the diagonal run but in his attempt to turn and cross Villa slipped and fell on his arse and the ref decided that that was enough.
It is obviously not a good result and we have a tough second leg, the tie is more complicated now but we will still be the clear favourites to go through. It is better that we have a second game to put things right and we have lost no league points tonight. Perhaps it is normal that the level dropped today after our recent games. It takes a lot of hard work for the team to arrive to the levels we have enjoyed in recent weeks and it is almost impossible to maintain the high levels of concentration needed to perform so well. Everyone was a little below their best though I thought that Abidal, Pedro, Iniesta and Mascherano all had reasonably good games. The most disappointing was Bojan which was a shame after signing a new contract, it was the type of game that makes me worry about him as he often struggles to make an impact on a game. I was also a bit disappointed with Keita who had one of the games where you hardly notice him, he’s always there working away but with practically no influence on our attacking game. It’s now a week and a half before the next game with Levante on January 2, let’s hope the players don’t eat too many turrones.
Barça: Pinto 6.5; Alves 6, Piqué 6, Abidal 7, Maxwell 6; Xavi 6, Mascherano 6.5 (Adriano m78, 6), Keita 5.5 (Messi m54, 6); Pedro 6.5, Iniesta 6.5 Bojan 5 (Villa m63, 6).
Barça yellow card: m90 Piqué