Well, we won and that’s pretty much all that game was good for. Beside the 3 points and the importance of keeping the 8 point gap, that game is as forgettable and uninspiring as any under Pep Guardiola. To be clear though, that is no fault of his own. Pep was as animated as I’ve seen in a while on the side line, looking grimaced and annoyed with the most of our game. From the very start I sensed a lackadaisical and sloopy approach to the game. The passing was lazy, we were slow, the movement was minimal, and honestly we were trying through balls and passes that were so obvious and imprecise it was almost disrespectful towards our opponents.
The lineup was a mixed bag as expected. Pinto made it, Milito got his expected start, Maxwell was given a run out, and then there was also room for Bojan and Thiago at the expense of Pedro and Villa. The only player in the first 15 minutes I was enjoying was Thiago, who was had a spring in his step and was doing some nice pirouettes and dribbles, but also 2 silly mistakes where he lost possession. He had the first good chance in the 16th minute but he showed no composure and blasted it well over the bar. Bojan did some awesome work on the right wing after he controlled perfecyl on the chest a great long ball from Milito. Bojan then delightfully flicked the ball with his head over the defender, got into the box, tried to pull it back, and then the defenders deflection fell to Thiago.
But really, up until this point, even the 20th minute, they were having way too much ball and possession and putting us under pressure. I was far from impressed with us.
We however started improving from here onwards. We had an array of chances between the 20th and 30th minutes with a shot from Iniesta and then one from Messi. In the 30th minute Pique did some great defending when faced one on one with the quick and skillful Piatti. I thought Pique had a great game from start to finish.
In the 31st minute Pep was forced to make a substiatuion when Bojan picked up an injury in a tackle. So on came our marquee signing of the season and Spain’s top goalscorer David Villa.
And that was pretty much the end of a slightly frustrating and very average 45 minutes.
2nd half we were much better as I’m sure Pep gave them a bit of a telling off. Like he said, and it’s so true, 3 points against Almeria are worth as much as 3 points against Madrid. Mathematically, no more, no less. In the 49th minute Villa was unlucky to see his shot come off the post. Messi did some magic skill leaving 2 dead, before dropping a pass to Iniesta who slid Villa through. Now, he got the shot off and it nearly went in, but it still wasn’t a confident strike of the ball.
Then, with their first proper attack of the game, our opponents scored in the 51st. Iniesta lost the ball in the Almeria box, Crusat brought it out quickly and before you knew it we were outnumbered. Crusat gave it wide left to Piatti who held onto it the perfect amount of time before slipping a ball just past Milito for Crusat who finished cooley. 0-1 Almeria.
This woke us up and within 2 minutes we were back level. Milito put a delightful long ball behind the defense, Diego Alves took far too long to come for it, and Villa just knocked it past the Almeria goalie who took him down with his legs. Simple penalty decision. Messi then put it away expertly waiting for Alves to make the first move. That ended our number 10’s little goal draught and finally got him off 45 goals. Now, just one away from last year’s number and once again tieing the record.
Now, right after we slotted the penalty in, Pep got very itchy about scoring and yanked off Milito for Pedro. Personally, I was a surprised and didn’t like the move. The 53rd minute seemed a bit early for this move, especially considering that would leave us with essentially one proper defender. Now, it didn’t cause any issues so no harm no foul, but I thought it was a bit premature for that move.
Quite soon after he entered Pedro missed a makeable chance. Villa did well to make space in the box, bring it back on this right and try curly it into the far right corenr. Alves made a good save, but knocked it right into the path of Pedro who put it into the side netting. Fair enough, it was literally his first touch of the ball all night and the angle was somewhat tight, but I still expected to see the ball hit the back of the net at the time.
Very soon after that Villa missed a pretty easy header after Messi looped it perfectly over the defense. He hit it softly and straight at Alves.
Finally though, we went ahead and it was through our up and coming star Thiago. And off another corner too! That is 3 corner goals in successive matches that I feel confident about saying has probably never happened before. Back in the day, under Van Gaal and the others before Rijkaard we were so useless at corners I would be disappointed when we even got them. Messi put it into the box and Thiago made a good diagonal run and attacked the ball with real purpose and gusto. That’s the kind of player he is. He is very direct and confident about his play, and that kind of bravery and endeavor is nice to see him a player of his type. Right after the goal, he came off for Keita but received a great round of applause from the crowd that must have been very satisfying.
But after that, little to report again. We took the foot of the pedal a bit, but also defended well on the few occasion and set pieces we needed to. In the 68th minute they nearly scored an own goal and then right at the death, Messi scored again, his 47th of the year. Keita whacked the ball off a set piece we were defending, Messi then put loads of pressure on the defender Silva, who misjudged the bounce and missed his header. Lionel then grabbed the ball, was 1-on-1 and delicately dinked the ball over the onrushing Alves.
Still, I’m somewhat concerned about us. We just aren’t clicking properly going forward. Villa again didn’t get a goal, when he probably should have. He also lost the ball too often. Trust me guys, I get no joy in writing that. I don’t like criticizing any one, especially someone I’ve liked his entire career and always thought was a great Barça fit. But I call it like I see it and the boy just needs to score. In general though our attacks aren’t quite there. The runner and passer seem just that split moment off each other, the passes are just that bit too slow or off line, and too often a quick counter attack ends in an intercepted ball or so. I hope I’m over worrying, a typical pre-Rijkaard fan attribute, but I fear the next few weeks could be disappointing for us. Pedro was also totally anonymous tonight beside that missed chance and tame left footed shot a bit later.
There were good parts also. Obviously seeing Messi get goals was another plus. Bojan was having a really solid game and the disappointment really showed on his face when he was forced to go off. Masch also had another accomplished game, filling it very well when asked to play along side Pique. I just love those big sliding tackles he makes. I actually thought Milito did very well acting as sweeper for Pique and in general I think he gets far too much slack here. This guy was an elite defender prior to his injury, and then last year when he returned from that lay off he was excellent in a time we really needed him. Pique may have been my man of the match tonight. I didn’t put a foot wrong and seems to be back to nearly his best at the time we really need him. It was a bit sad to see Puyol back in the stands but hopefully he gets a run out in the Ukraine.
In 7 days time we have the return league Clasico and man, that game is going to be something. It’s quite nice our Champions League tie is less complicated than it may have been. See everyone in a few days.