Barça took a giant step towards this year’s Copa del Rey Final after beating Almeria 5-0 with another superb display of attacking football. Leo Messi led the way with two more goals, with striking partners Villa and Pedro each getting a goal, these four all coming in an electrifying first 30 minutes, substitute Seydou Keita added a fifth at the end of the game to leave Almeria needing some sort of miracle next Wednesday. I can’t stress enough how well we played especially in the first half when some of the combinations were so fluid and fast I gave up trying to keep up with which players had been involved.
With Puyol injured and Alves still not completely at 100%, Guardiola put out more or less his strongest possible team with just the normal change of goalkeeper in the Copa and the substitution of Busquets with Mascherano which is probably the easiest change for Guardiola to make. It seems that it doesn’t matter quite so much who plays in which defensive position, if we have the front three of Pedro, Messi and Villa supported by Xavi and Iniesta from midfield we really are quite unstoppable at times. People will say that it was expected as we had already beaten Almeria 0-8 at the end of November but Almeria have shown recently that they are not such a bad team and in their last four games they had three wins and a draw with Real Madrid. However, our attacking flair tore Almeria apart from the beginning, there were chances for Almeria to score too, but the difference between the teams was clear to see as our attacking insistence was soon rewarded, though we were somewhat fortunate in the first two goals. After just ten minutes Messi received the ball from Pedro, he spotted the space and used his speed to nip away from two opponents before firing in a powerful low shot that found the back off the net though the Almeria keeper Esteban should have done better as he allowed the ball to bounce over his dive. Then less than two minutes later Xavi burst through the middle before feeding Villa on the left, Villa cut in a bit before curling in a shot that somehow squirmed under the unfortunate Esteban.
It was a great start but there was no letting up from the team, Goitom was giving us some concern at the back with his speed but it was our superb attack that was rewarded again in the 16th minute, Iniesta made a run forward towards the left before checking and sending a 20 yard pass out to Messi on the right, Messi glided smoothly into the area before side footing home with such apparent ease that it makes me feel like running out to my local park to do the same. We were three up and we were playing some magnificent stuff, I don’t often use terms like fantasy football but in this period, while perhaps not defensively perfect, it was a joy to watch, Pedro might have scored the goal of the season with an overhead effort after a neat flicked pass from Villa, and then Villa had the ball in the net after a beautiful build up but he was correctly given offside.
The down side was that Almeria players started lunging into challenges a bit more and Messi and Adriano both took knocks, after the foul on Adriano on 30 minutes Xavi swung in the free kick and found Pedro with a magnificent leap at the near post to send a header looping into the far top corner. It was almost as if we were saying that we could score from the most unexpected source you care to name, three weeks ago it was Eric Abidal surprising with a goal, and today the smallest player we have, Pedro, scoring with a header from a set piece. If Guardiola had planned this on the training field he is even more of a genius than I had thought, but I imagine it was a spontaneous move from Xavi. Almeria didn’t seem to know whether to attack or defend but they did come close to a goal just before half time when they took advantage of Xavi being down to go forward, but Pinto leapt beautifully to save from Crusat’s drive. Messi saved his best run for just before half time spurting past two into the area only to see Esteban make an excellent save getting down quickly to his left to stop the shot.
Those who thought we were on the way to another eight goal feast were slightly disappointed as the intensity inevitably dropped in the second half though we continued to see some magical moments, Maxwell hit the outside of the post after overlapping Messi, Adriano had a shot saved after a brilliant back heel from Pedro and this was followed almost immediately by another save from a screaming 30-yard drive from Mascherano. Afellay and Keita came on in place of Villa and Xavi, and Afellay continued to show a lot of promise. There was some more great stuff especially from Messi and Iniesta but the play was breaking down before we could get a shot. We had to wait until three minutes from the end for the final goal: Messi played a perfectly weighted pass for Keita’s well-timed run and the control with the right foot was quickly followed by the left foot sweeping the ball under the advancing Esteban.
Even though the intensity dropped a little in the second half there can be no complaints about the mentality of the players as this was excellent throughout. The fact that the final could well be against Real Madrid I find it very difficult to see us drop our guard in the return game. A few years ago Leo Messi scored a goal you will probably recall against Getafe in a Copa del Rey semi final in a game that we won 5-2. We lost the return game at Getafe 4-0 so we should be warned. However, as fans we can relax in the knowledge that this team will not relax until we have both feet in the final. That is the merit of Guardiola: the winning mentality is backed up with this relentlessness that makes this team so consistent and so special and so difficult to contain.
Barça: Pinto 7.5; Adriano 6.5, Piqué 7, Abidal 8, Maxwell 7.5 (Milito m82, 6); Xavi 8 (Keita m74, 7), Mascherano 7.5, Iniesta 8.5; Pedro 7.5, Messi 9, Villa 7.5 (Afellay m66, 7).
Almeria: Esteban; Michel, Pellerano, Carlos García, Luna; Mbami, Vargas; Piatti, Corona Crusat, Goitom.
Goals: m9 Messi 1-0, m11 Villa 2-0, m16 Messi 3-0, m30 Pedro 4-0, m87 Keita 5-0.
Yellow card: m43 Vargas