Well Pep decided to play neither Dos Santos, Fontás, Montoya, nor Bartra and went for an adapted 3 – 4 – 3 (3 -1 – 3 -3 if you like) of Váldes ; Mascherano, Busquets, Abidal; Keita; Iniesta, Fàbregas, Thiago ; Pedro, Messi, Alexis . It is a system we have used in the past, but never with 2 of the 3 defenders being midfielders. Special day also for my main man Victor Váldes as he plays his 410th official club game, matching the record held by legendary keeper and current sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta.
I’m going to sum up the 1st half rather briefly because for the most part is was quite a slow affair and frankly Villarreal had very little involvement in it. They seemed pretty content to keep it defensive with 10 men behind the ball and let us try attack. Due to the lack of width Alves in particular provides, we kept it quite narrow and they managed to block off a lot of passes. But our first chance came as early as the 6th minute when Alexis’ shot was deflected safely into Diego López’s arms. Pedro then had a clear sight on goal with a header a minute later but fluffed it. He then reacted well to punch the ball clear after a header assist nearly found Messi running in. That was in the 13th minute and until that Villarreal barely had a touch.
In the 17th minute Messi shot into the near post after Pedro played him nicely in but López was equal to the shot. Off the very corner Busquets hit the bar with a header.
We scored in the 25th minute thanks to pre-season hero Thiago. It was great to see him get a start after so many were saying he was bound to look elsewhere with all the midfield options but I believed then and believe now we will find a way to work him in. He scored by running the ball toward the box and when no clear pass presented himself, he hit it with his left foot into the far right corner just as 5 defenders were about to close him down. The rest of the half he did really well too, making lots of smart passes but more importantly running back hard to defend when he gave the ball away. On a mini-tangent, that’s something Alexis does really well too, he runs hard for the ball like Pedro. That’s going to be very useful for us.
But Rossi nearly scored just after we did when he was put through with a beautiful ball and then rocketed it into the side netting.
The rest of the half we had most the ball but you can tell it’s early season. Many good runs are not being spotted and exploited quickly enough. Nevertheless, our pressing has been relentless tonight with Villarreal seriously hardly getting a kick.
We made it 2-0 just before the break with another Cesc goal. He’s fitting in perfectly and connecting with his former Masia team mate Messi like no time has passed. He makes fantastic forward runs and is clinical with finishes and we are going to benefit hugely from it. Messi played him in with perfect timing and precision as the new number 4 ran diagonally across the defense, he then touched it around the keeper and finished.
The second half was even easier and within the first 6 minutes we had doubled our advantage, first from a debutant and the other by number 10 Lio Messi. In the 47th minute Alexis scored on his home debut after Thiago chipped it over the a player, inexperienced Villarreal left back Oriol tried to step up and play the young Chilean offside, but the rest of his defense did not follow his lead so Alexis ran towards goal and slotted it calmly into the net. Messi finally got his name on the scoresheet in the 51st minute in a wonderful attacking movement that even had our leader Pep grinning from ear to ear. It was a perfect barçs goal. It took just 3 touches to set Messi free as Iniesta played it into Cesc who one touched it back to Iniesta, who one touched it through the defense. Messi then touched it past the keeper and slotted it in for his 100th goal at the Camp Nou. It took just 5 touches.
We made all 3 subs between the 56th and 70th minute with Xavi, Villa, and Dos Santos entering for Iniesta, Pedro, and Fàbregas respectively.
Messi capped the night off with a 5th that showed both class and sheer hunger. Messi played it again diagonally behind the defense, something Villarreal could just not handle today, Thiago ran onto it, controlled it, then layed it inch perfect to an onrushing Messi who touched it into the goal before running into López. That was 5-0 and a great opening match.
No rating tonight as everyone played between a 7 or 8. Beside the usual excellence from Messi and co, Thiago and Alexis both had very good games. Thiago in particular I enjoyed. Alexis however showed his dogged and gritty nature, just like Pedro and Messi, in that they he will run down the ball everywhere and with 3 players harassing with such fervor at the front, our opponents are going to hate it. I was pretty disappointed with Villarreal tonight and from the first minute I don’t think they believed for a moment they had a chance. Even pre-match words from manager Garrido saying they need to be “perfect” to even have a chance does not inspire confidence. I really hope they brush this off and refocus because I do not want them playing like that in the Champions League. Firstly it will do La Liga no favors in terms of it’s image and secondly because I’m very much hoping they aid in knocking out Manchester City.
Mes que un club.