We took a massive step towards retaining the title tonight with a narrow victory in Valencia thanks to a late Leo Messi goal. We have now won an incredible 23 league games from 26 played which nobody has ever done before in the first 26 games, and we have also extended our unbeaten run away from home in the league to 20 matches which is also a record, our last away defeat in La Liga was at Atletico Madrid on Feb 14 2010.
Tonight’s match was a massive tactical battle between the two coaches and Pep Guardiola surprised by bringing in a big tactical change. Adriano was brought in at left back but he was given an attacking role very similar to Alves on the right. To compensate for these advanced full backs he played Busquets as an extra defender between Pique and Abidal, while Mascherano came in to play the holding role in front of the defence. Xavi and Iniesta played their familiar playmaker roles in midfield while Messi roamed free behind Villa who continued in a more familiar centre-forward role. Pedro was sacrificed which meant we had very little width going forward except for the advances of Alves and Adriano, but both players played a role in many of our attacks and Adriano turned out to be decisive.
But it was Valencia who started strongest, coming out to battle for the ball and pushing up on our defence they caused us some early nerves, winning four corners in the first six minutes. But Barça soon began to settle and little by little we began to create chances. in the 9th minute Messi broke through and had three attempts to score, Guaita the Valencia keeper stopped the first and third effort while Ricardo Costa somehow cleared the second. Jordi Alba had the ball in the net after 20 minutes but he was correctly called offside, but it was Barça who were looking better now and Adriano was causing problems going forward but his finishing was not good. Then on 30 minutes Messi stole the ball from one defender got past another but with just the Guaita to beat Messi chose his scoop option but only succeeded in scooping the ball over the keeper and over the bar onto the top of the net. The first half ended with a couple more half chances for Villa while we remained poretty solid at the back though Pinto gave us the odd nervy moment playing with his feet under pressure.
The second half began with Emery bringing on a centre forward, Soldado, in place of a winger, Joaquin, and soon Valencia began to cause us problems. In the 52nd minute Soldado got away from Busquets and Abidal before shooting wide, and a couple of minutes later Pablo shot straight at Pinto. The biggest scare came in the 59th minute when Soldado found Pablo on the left and his shot went across the goal and just wide of the far post. Messi shot just wide at the other end but Guardiola obviously saw that things weren’t working as well now so he moved from thge unusual 3-5-2 formation, taking off Mascherano, moving Busquets back to his normal role while Pedro provided some width up front in a more familiar 4-3-3.
The game seemed to be moving towards a tactical stalemate but with just twelve minutes remaining we finally made the breakthrough. Adriano had reverted to a more traditional left back position but this didn’t stop him getting forward. Xavi managed to thread a pass through to him, Adriano then jinked into the area before looking up and squaring to Messi who swept the ball gleefully home despite a touch from Guaita’s fingertips. Villa had a couple of chances but couldn’t find a goal on his return to Mestalla while we had few scares at the back in the closing minutes.
This will prove to be highly frustrating for Real Madrid who will have seen tonight’s game as a big chance for Barça to drop points. The new formation looked a little bit conservative and it did look as if our game plan might be for Leo to sneak a goal, but it is fair to say that Pinto had very little to do and this at the home of the third best team in La Liga. I was particularly impressed with Busquets who seems capable of adapting to Guardiola’s tactical ideas, while of course Adriano deserves praise for a very good match and a crucial goal assist. If anybody doubted his worth to the squad then surely he has shown his value today.
Barça: (3-5-2) Pinto 6.5; Piqué 7, Busquets 8, Abidal 7; Alves 7, Xavi 7, Mascherano 6.5 (Pedro m62, 6.5), Iniesta 6.5 (Keita m87, –), Adriano 7.5 (Maxwell m82, 6); Messi 7, Villa 6.
Goal: m78 Messi 0-1.
Barça yellow card: m64 Messi.