Well, Guardiola didn’t see this game as one that needed a reaction. Instead he took the more conservative and more pragmatic approach of resting our key players before the Wednesday night game back in the capital. 9/10 other coaches would have probably done this, but it was a bit surprising here as this sort of tactic has never been part of the Pep playbook. He made 7 changes from the Copa del Rey final and we saw a very different starting 11. Milito partnered Mascherano in the defensive, Maxwell came on for the injured Adriano, Keita and Thiago joined Busquets in midfield, while Villa was upfront with Afellay and Jeffren.
The game itself was quite a disaster and there are more bad things to say than good things. We could barely keep control of the ball, barely put more than 6 passes together, passes were lazy/sloppy, and in general it was not enjoyable at all to watch. The fact the referee had a bit of an incompetent and inconsistent game didn’t help things either.
The first half was particularly poor which can be highlighted in a game stat at the 54 minute mark when we had turned the ball over 30 times compared to Osasuna’s 14. Of course a team with more possession will have more turnovers, but last night it was genuine bad play that created this. The game also ended with more shots both on and off target from Osasuna and more saves performed from Valdes (5) versus Ricardo (0).
Nevertheless, we actually started well enough. In the 3rd minute Villa pulled the ball onto his right foot and curled the ball just over the top right corner. 3 minutes later Afellay put in a decent shot that took a deflection and was not far off.
The only other thing worth writing about in the first 45 was David Villa’s goal. Finally, he ended his drought, but his celebration was quite muted actually. It was more like he thought, “I cannot believe it took me so long just to do that”, rather than relief and happiness. Heck, I think I celebrated his goal bigger than he did. Afellay swithed the ball to the left with the outside of his boot, Jeffren put in a perfect early slow cross which curled right around all the defenders and directly into the path of our number 7, who slid in but tucked the ball away into the bottom corner perfectly.
From that goal in the 24th minute, the only other thing to report is Victor Valdes’s awesome 44th minute save from Damia. A cross came in from Osasuna, passed both Milito and Busquets, it reached Kike Sola who flicked it on, it reached Damia with just 1 meter to the goal, but Valdes anticipated the shot and instinctually dived into the path of the ball and saved our blushes. Osasuna actually had 2 other decent chances before the half time whistle blew.
The 2nd half I have even less to say about, or less good things. Iniesta came on for Jeffren during the interval, and I honestly hope Pep asked Nelson if we could please have Jeffren back because Nelson had him in his back pocket all night. The cross Jeffren assisted the goal with was literally the only productive thing he did in those 45 minutes.
In the 50th minute Valdes was again very alert to stop an Osasuna freekick after a cynical Alves foul. In an attempt to improve the dismal performance thus far Pep put in Messi in the 58th minute, and then due to a Milito injury put in Xavi in the 66th. At that point we were now playing without a proper center back, something I don’t think I have ever seen happen.
Iniesta had a good chance he skied over in the 74th minute from an Alves cut back, but we finally put the game to bed in the 88th minute with Messi’s 50th goal of the season. Messi passed the ball right to Alves, immediately started sprinting into the box, and Alves found him with a perfectly weighted through ball that Messi tucked past Ricardo with his right foot. Now, when I wrote 50 goals, it was almost effortless, as with Messi I can believe it. Still, it is a wildly amazing achievement and should not be seen as anything else.
This game did not go how I had expected, nor wanted. It in no way, shape, or form gives any sort of indication about how Wednesday will go. I would have liked the first team to go out and get a confidence boost, but now we have to believe they have the mental strength and familiarity with each other to turn up Wednesday and turn it on immediately. On the other hand, Madrid had another real morale boost in Valencia after their B team smashed the hosts 6-3.
In fact, this game has shown more limitations than before. Afellay had an absolutely useless game. He would get the ball in space on the right, put his head down, and just whip in a blind cross to usually absolutely nobody. Seriously, the only passes he completed were backward ones. Jeffren was owned by Nelson, which was no surprise to me as I have never believed he is good enough for this team. Busquets was amazingly untidy at times, but I’m letting that go to the occasion. Thiago had some nice early moments but then he was so wasteful with passes and gave the ball away in some dangerous area.
The truth is we can only rely on the starting 11 going forward as our bench (especially with the injuries) simply do not have the quality or the experience yet to make an impact. The one area I think we do need to invest in is upfront. The only really positive performance was from Mascherano who is without doubt my man of the match. He did not put a foot wrong, his positional play was perfect, and he was putting in inch perfect slide tackles. Valdes also had a top game when called upon, aside from one or two silly passes out.
So the only thing’s to smile about last night were: 3 points, Messi’s 50th, Mascherano’s ability at centerback, and Villa ending his drought. We now go into Wednesday with less momentum than our opponents, so we really need to draw from our experience and team belief. That is going to be one serious football match. See you then.
Valdes – 8, Alves – 6.5, Milito – 6 (Xavi – 6), Mascherano – 8.5, Maxwell – 5.5, Keita – 6.5, Busquets – 6, Thiago – 5.5, Jeffren – 5 (Iniesta – 6), Villa – 6.5 (Messi – 7), Afellay 3