Tonight we took an enormous step to winning our third consecutive league title under Pep Guardiola with a hard earned victory at Villarreal. The fact that Real Madrid lost earlier at home to Sporting Gijon means our lead at the top is now 8 points on a day when many of us were worried our lead could be cut to 2 or 3 points. It should be the killer blow for Mourinho’s Madrid as it seems very unlikely that they can recovere the difference unless Barça decide to implode. However, there seems to be a real unity in the squad and with Guardiola at the helm there seems little chance of us dropping our guard.
Tonight we were without Abidal, Puyol, Xavi and Pedro and Guardiola decided to leave Leo Messi on the bench which is a decision that was probably taken earlier today although some will think that Pep made up his mind when the Madrid result came through. The team did not look particularly strong on paper. Busquets was preferred over Milito to partner Piqué at the back, Thiago was given the big resposibility to fill in for the suspended Xavi, while in attack Afellay played a proper winger’s role on the left, Villa stayed in the middle while Iniesta drifted in from the right to support midfield leaving the right flank open for Alves to attack.
The early signs were not good. Without Puyol and Abidal we are a bit slow at the back and as early as the fourth minute Mascherano had to clear up the danger created by Rossi’s speed. Then a couple of minutes later Cazorla sent in a pass that just eluded Piqué and Rossi was quicker than Busquets and suddenly face to face with Victor Valdés, fortunately our keeper made a superb leap to whip the ball off Rossi’s feet. At the other end we responded but Alves’s pass was just too long for Iniesta, and soon after Iniesta’s cross was cleared after a neat piece of skill from Thiago. However, the host were looking the more dangerous and in the 12th minute it was Cazorla’s pass again that found Rossi between our centre backs and Valdés was again called upon to parry Rossi’s quick shot.
After this we began to settle down a bit. Mascherano played deep between Busquets and Piqué and the supply to Rossi began to dry up, but we were not doing much going forward. Eventually we started getting closer to goal, Afellay put in a dangerous low cross to where Pedro might have been if he were playing but Iniesta was a couple of yards short of arriving, and then Piqué might have done better to control the ball after a corner came his way, but we didn’t manage a shot on goal until the 39th minute when Adriano cut in and fired straight at Diego Lopez from 25 yards. David Villa had been very quiet but in the 42nd minute Iniesta slipped a neat ball through but Catalá was very quick to intercept to deny our striker.
We looked much better from the start of the second half. Iniesta had a shot tipped over and then Villa turned brilliantly away from Gonzalo but his shot was disappointing. Then in the 53rd minute Guardiola brought on Messi for Keita and we began to take over complete control of the game. The combinations between Messi, Iniesta and Thiago began to mesmerize Villarreal and it looked like the goal would have to come. Alves and Afellay attacked well down both sides and Afellay had a good effort in the 66th minute though his shot went straight at the keeper.
And then came the goal. We won a corner on the right, Thiago centred, Busquets flicked on to Piqué who controlled with his chest, though the ball appeared to touch his arm after the chest, and then fired home in the top of the net. From here on in the game looked safe as Villarreal were clearly tiring. We looked for a second but Diego Lopez denied Messi from a delightfully floated free kick, and then he saved from Alves. However, with the score as it stood there was always the danger of a goal out of the blue and it very nearly came in the 86th minute when Valdés somehow saved with his legs a volley from Cazorla which looked a certain goal. There wasn’t time for much after that though Valdés and Busquets managed to get tactical fifth yellow cards which means they will miss next week’s gam,e with Almeria and thus be available for the Clasico in two weeks.
This is a win that is well worth celebrating, with just eight games remaining it is very difficult for Madrid to catch us now even if they could manage to beat us at the Bernabeu. We have 81 points after just 30 games which is yet another record for La Liga. We could in theory still win 105 points this season though I have a feeling that the lack of the strong challenge maintained last season by our opponents we will inevitably drop points in the final games.
Tonight we proved we can win away to tough opponents without several players starting. We may have a short squad but players such as Adriano and particularly Mascherano are proving to be very good buys, while Afellay also impressed today. I just hope he can step up a little bit more and he could turn out to be an excellent player for us too. However, the biggest praise today should go to Victor Valdés who made three excellent stops which would have seen us drop points otherwise, while I also thought Iniesta had a very good game, I loved how he supported Thiago throughout who also deserves a massive thumbs-up today, despite getting caught in possession a couple of times he gave a pretty mature display.
Next up it’s Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday who could also test the pace of our back line. Hopefully we’ll be able to keep up the high level of concentration we are going to need and we should by no means underestimate Shakhtar. The good news is we should have both Xavi and Messi starting for that game which will give the Ukranians something more to worry about.
Barça: Valdés 9; Alves 7.5, Piqué 6.5, Busquets 6.5, Adriano 7; Thiago 7, Mascherano 8, Keita 6 (Messi m53, 7); Iniesta 8, Villa 6 (Bojan m71, 6), Afellay 7 (Johnathan dos Santos m84, –).
Goal: m67 Piqué 0-1.
Barça yellows: m40 Piqué, m55 Alves, m93 Valdés, m93 Busquets