We took a giant step towards a probable Champions League semi-final with Real Madrid after seeing off a disappointing Shakhtar Donetsk tonight at Camp Nou. There have been some recent comments about the form and lack of goals from our forwards in recent games and David Villa and Leo Messi both surprisingly failed to get on the scoresheet with the goals coming from Iniesta, Alves, Piqué, Keita and Xavi.
Pep Guardiola had warned against the dangers we might face tonight and he once more seemed to find the way to get the players to go out and give everything. It is obvious that our defence is not too quick at the moment so we went out to score enough goals so that it wouldn’t matter too much if we conceded. The positions of Alves and Adriano at times are so far forward that it hardly seems right to call them full backs though the excellent physical condition of both players means they are often also seen doing defensive duties. In attack, Messi started though Pedro wasn’t considered fit enough which meant Iniesta started on the left though he was allowed a lot of freedom to roam inside while Messi played a “false” right attacking role and also drifted inside to allow Alves to attack down the right wing. As early as the second minute Adriano attacked down the left and played the ball inside to Messi who was already now on the left side of the pitch, Messi tried to slip a pass through to Villa but a defender got a foot to it but only sent the ball straight to Andres Iniesta who placed the ball home inside the near post before shoving his thumb in his mouth for a not-so-original celebration of his recent fatherhood.
Shakhtar showed some early signs of getting a goal back and Valdés had to do well to parry a cross from Willian that may well have sneaked in the goal. Then in the 12th minute Luiz Adriano got between Piqué and Busquets and away on goal, Busquets avoided giving away the foul and fortunately the Brazilian’s shot went wide of Valdés’s righthand post. Just a minute later Alves gave a poor back pass and Valdés had to come storming out of his goal to clear, the ball fell to Willian 45 yards out and again we were fortunate that his attempt on the open goal was not accurate.
These were worrying moments but then Messi began to appear: first he won a corner after a blinding run into the area, then he curled a free kick just wide and in the 19th minute he robbed the unfortunate Ishchenko – who was in the team in place of the injured Chygrynskiy and hadn’t started a first team game since November – but Messi’s attempted chip over keeper Pyatov didn’t get enough height.
In the 25th minute we almost saw a carbon copy of our goal at Villarreal but this time Piqué failed to control the ball after Busquets’s flick on from the corner, but now we were beginning to up the tempo. Messi put Alves into a great position but instead of shooting he crossed finding nobody to finish. The danger coming from Alves was constant all night and in the 34th minute he beat the offside line to get onto Iniesta’s superb pass and with the control it was enough to take the ball round Pyatov before slotting the ball into the empty net.
The second goal made things a lot easier for us and we settled down into controlling the game. There was an early chance for Luiz Adriano at the start of the second half but his control let him down, while Messi again tested Pyatov with a powerful whipped volley. Then in the 53rd minute we won another corner on the right, Xavi fired the ball in low towards the edge of the area where Piqué had arrived to turn the ball in with the help of a deflection. We are often criticised for not making more of corners but that is two goals in a week and you can be sure that both these goals from Piqué started on the blackboard.
Whether it was the third goal that made us relax I can’t be sure, but in the 59th minute Iniesta got himself booked for not retreating 10 yards at a free kick. The fact that Iniesta was our only player in danger of suspension and also the way he ignored the ref’s whistle suggest he was looking for the card. If that is the case one has to ask about the wisdom of doing this when there is still more that half an hour to play, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was this that caused our defence to lose its concentration to allow Rakitskiy in to knee the ball past Valdés.
We certainly woke up after this unpleasant surprise and we went straight up the other end to score a cracker, Messi dribbled from right to left across the edge of the penalty area drawing the defence towards him before setting up Keita who finished with an absolute screamer into the top corner. This seemed to more or less finish off Shakhtar and we went through the motions of keeping possession and occasionally we looked like scoring another thanks mainly to the continuous surges forward from Alves who again only let himself down with some poor crossing.
However, we hadn’t seen the end of Shakhtar and in the 82nd minute they were a hairsbreadth away from making it 4-2 but Luiz Adriano’s shot came out off the far post before ending up fortunately in Victor Valdés’s arms. It was a sign that it wasn’t to be Shakhtar’s day and Xavi completed their misery in the 86th minute turning in after Alves finally found his target with a cross.
It was not a classic performance but it was enough to give us breathing space for the second leg and thus perhaps rest anyone who needs it with an eye on the league clash at the Bernabeu on Saturday 16th April (kick off 10pm local time in case you didn’t know). It was also good to score some goals after our recent run, though we could certainly do with Villa getting back on track. He seemed to be doing better when he played on the left but since Adriano has come into the team Guardiola has been using Villa more in the centre forward role but without too much luck. It should just be a quesrtion of time with him. It seems we now have Pedro back though he may need another week to be fully fit again and hopefully Puyol can make it back soon as I feel we are going to need him for the Madrid games. It looks like being one hell of a month in front of us!
Barça: (4-3-3) Valdés 6.5; Alves 8, Piqué 7, Busquets 6, Adriano 7 (Maxwell m77, 6); Xavi 7, Mascherano 7, Keita 6.5; Messi 8, Villa 6 (Pedro m70, 6), Iniesta 8 (Afellay m91, –)).
Shakhtar: (4-2-3-1) Pyatov; Srna, Ishchenko, Rakitskiy, Rat; Mkhitaryan, Hübschman (Eduardo m83); Douglas Costa, Jadson (Fernandinho m70), Willian (Teixiera m75); Luiz Adriano
Goals: m2 Iniesta 1-0, m34 Alves 2-0, m53 Piqué 3-0, m59 Rakitskiy 3-1, m60 Keita 4-1, m86 Xavi 5-1.
Yellow cards: m50 Rat (misses 2nd leg), m59 Iniesta (misses 2nd leg), m66 Rakitskiy, m77 Fernandinho.