The game began with a few surprises. The first rather pleasing when we caught the image of Pep walking down the tunnel towards the bench. All reports were that he would definitely take this game off to rest, but the great man showed both his toughness and passion by braving the pain. The second surprise lay in the lineup. Our number one Victor Valdes was named in the line up. I know he trained yesterday with the group, but it was not expected he would play. I was so delighted to see him in. There were also slightly unexpected starting spots for Gabi Milito and Bojan, at the expense of Abidal and Villa. Mascherano was in for Busquets, which was more expected, and Keita came in for Iniesta, also somewhat expected. There was also an interesting situation going on in the president’s suite. To celebrate and recognize the role of women in the working world of Spain, the entire presidential box was given to only woman. This was a historic tribute never done before.
From the start, I knew this was going to be a tough fixture. Zaragaoza came there with a 5-man defense and you could tell early on they were going for anti-football, totally defensive tactics with the minute hope of sneaking a goal. And that minute hope nearly came true in the 8th minute. Keita tried to header a very high ball back to the defense, but it took a huge bounce and caught Milito wrong-footed. A Zaragoza striker then headered it past the Argentine and so nearly got to it, but Pique came in with authority to knock it away for a corner.
However, I really thought we were playing well tonight. This performance, even early on looked the most like Barça in ages. I sensed a hunger, an intensity to play the quick, incisive football we have become beloved for. Our passing was quick and precise, with never ending movement, best illustrated by a superb set of one-twos between Alves and Messi, then Pedro and Alves. I really was feeling confident. Yes we were not getting one on one chances, as the annoying commentator was pointing out non stop, but that obviously was not going to happen. We were playing against a 10 man wall. But we were getting through just enough, we were creating decent openings.
In the 18th minute Xavi made a clever run into the box, found brilliantly by Alves, but Czech Jiri Jarosik was there to put in a big tackle. Off the resulting corner Pedro brought the first proper stop (but there would plenty more later) out of Zaragoza keeper Toni Doblas. Xavi played a lovely ball to the edge of the box, where Pedro tried to hit it first time. He just quite didn’t catch it, but it still nearly went into the bottom left corner, had it not been for a decent save from Doblas.
Just a quick mention for Keita. He was having another really solid game evidenced with two great defensive plays to recover the ball back quickly. Mascherano again was also impressing me.
From now on, we really had chances every 4 or 5 minutes. In the 21st minute Xavi put in a solid shot from range, and then in the 25th Bojan nearly got a slice of luck when his shot from outside the box took a wicked deflection and nearly dipped in.
Bojan had another chance of the resulting corner when Messi whamboozled 3 Zaragoza defenders with his magical dribbling before cutting a perfect low cross back onto Bojan’s head. The little striker just couldn’t generate power from the angle.
In the 29th minute Keita scored a header but it was called offside. When the play happened live I thought it was offside for sure, but on the replay, it looked he was just level. Fair enough, those calls are tough for linesman, so I wasn’t too disgruntled. Alves put in a lovely cross over the defense and Keita headered the ball down and it bounced over Doblas. Still 0-0 though.
The 33rd minute I thought we would score when again Alves was involved with a superbly weighted through ball for Messi who tried to lift it over the goalie, but this time Doblas was out quickly to get his chest in the way.
We seriously had 99% of the ball, the official stats said 85%, but really, they were barely touching it. Mascherano went for goal in the 37th minute and forced a good low stop from Doblas.
A minute later, Pique found himself on the receiving end of another crazy good ball from Alves that somehow sneaked over the head of numerous defenders. Pique’s touch into the box was however a bit heavy and Doblas got sprint out to recover it. So with just 5 minute left we had not scored, but we were getting in and honestly, I think this was one of our best performances in a long time. Xavi had another strike on target in the 40th minute.
But finally, we got through and it was Seydou Keita, who seems to really enjoy games against this team. Messi was trying to dribble in from the right side, but it looked certain that first midfielder N’Daw and then defender Silva were going to get toes on the ball and knock it away, but Messi showed again his relentless dedication by getting past both of them and then knocking the ball across goal, which went under Lanzaro and fell right at the feet of Keita, who knocked it into the goal with his first foot. 1-0 Barça.
That was the end of an action packed first half. Yes it’s only 1-0 but I was very impressed with the levels of energy and desire mixed with purpose and precision football.
The 2nd half did not start as expected and in the 50th minute we nearly surrendered our advantage. Bertolo did very well to hustle Pique off the ball, and very nearly curled the ball into the far corner of Valdes’s goal.
The 55th minute Pique almost atoned for his defensive lapse with a header of a corner kick. However, Doblas was there again to make a save and deny us the safety of a 2-0 lead.
Then in the 61st minute Pongolle almost scored for our opponent. Edmilson showed there still is quality left in his old legs with a huge diagonal ball that started well within his half, which Pongolle took down nicely with his chest leaving Pique in his dust. But Valdes showed brilliant concentration and alertness to come racing off his line and make stop the shot on target with his feet.
We responded well to this scare and Bojan nearly got his name on the scoresheet in the 62nd minute. Mascherano, who was having a great match, showed exactly what his game is about after reading the quick throw out of goal by Doblas, he put in a super solid and clean tackle to regain possession and get the Zaragoza defense on the backfoot immediately. Pedro picked the ball up after the tackle, cut in off the wing, tried to play Messi in the middle, but a defender intercepted. The interception however fell towards Bojan who did well to let the ball run across him, and then pull the shot across the goal. But, Toblas (again!) put in a great stop to deny us.
That would be Bojan’s last contribution of the night as in the 65th minute Villa came on to replace him. This was actually one of Bojan’s better games of the season. He was involved in a lot of the play, was not getting bullied off the ball, and managed a few strikes on target. He can feel happier with his game tonight than most of the season.
Just 2 minutes after he came on, Villa showed exactly what he is brilliant at with a perfectly timed run off the defenders shoulder to get onto yet another pass from Dani Alves. His shot was however not as good as the run and Doblas saved comfortably enough.
Villa got himself in another good position and forced a save from you know who in the 70th minute after a perfect through ball from Mascherano.
Messi had a decent chance in the 72nd minute with a volley off a deflected cross from Pedro and in the 75th minute Villa should have done better with the rebound off Maxwell’s long range effort. El Guaje however forgot about accuracy and just blasted the ball high and wide.
Not much happened after that. Abidal replaced Maxwell in the 75th minute and then Iniesta came on in the 85th for Pedro. But, I did hold my breath just 3 minutes from time when another huge diagonal ball again found Pique off guard and Pongolle very nearly controlled it and found himself clear. Luckily this time his control was just slightly heavy and Valdes could mop up safely.
That was it. I never expected a big scoreline tonight, as the defensive tactic of Zaragaoza was rather predictable. I was however very happy with the 1st half, I think it was our best 45 minutes in a while. I think the team as a whole was very solid with maybe the two most impressive performances going to Dani Alves and Mascherano. Alves provided so many good balls today and was dribbling the pants off Zaragaoza all game long. Milito was also for the most part very solid, as was Keita. Messi was truly dazzling at times with his dribbles but was being marked well by N’Daw. Even Valdes who was barely involved in the game came up with the big save the one time we needed him. Maxwell got involved a lot but was somewhat wasteful with the final pass.
The 3 points are what mattered tonight and I feel good about going into Tuesday. I feel the boys are mentally very motivated and look physically sharp. A few days off now and then Tuesday, we really do have a cracker in store.
Quick set of ratings – Valdes 8, Alves 9, Pique 7, Milito 7.5, Maxwell 7 (Abidal 6.5), Xavi 7.5, Mascherano 8.5, Keita 7, Pedro 6.5 (Iniesta -), Messi 8, Bojan 7 (Villa – 6.5)