FC Barcelona stay top of La Liga for another week after a comfortable 3-0 victory over Racing Santander. Andres Iniesta returned to the team and was instrumental in setting up Leo Messi for two goals. lnbetween Messi’s brace Xavi Hernandez got into the area to score an old-fashioned centre-forward’s goal, heading in Pedro’s cross from the by-line. The negative news was an injury to Gerard Piqué which will leave him on the sidelines for two weeks.
Pep Guardiola’s team selection was again worth some comment. We reverted to our more usual 4-3-3 shape with full-backs Alves and Maxwell given lots of freedom to push forward, but perhaps the strangest thing was that we played without a recognised defensive midfielder with Thiago given the role of playing the pivot in front of the defence. World Cup defensive pairing Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol returned but in the opening exchanges we looked a bit shaky with Piqué giving away possession with his first touch. However, Piqué day was going to get worse soon after as he pulled up with what appears to be another muscular injury and Abidal came on to restore some order at the back. The other major change was to see Messi operating from the right side, just as he used to in his first seasons, which left Villa in the middle with Pedro on the left. In the ninth minute Messi set off on a run inside from the right touchline, he then sent a beautifully weighted touch into the area for Iniesta who’d made the diagonal run from the left, Iniesta controlled the pass and then swivelling and checking for a moment to draw three defenders towards him before picking out Messi again, Messi’s control took him between two defenders and then he kept his head to round the keeper Toño before scoring into the empty net from the angle. With Messi it looks simple, it wasn’t, it was genius.
Messi nearly added another two minutes later after good work from Villa on the right, but his shot was deflected over. Racing were really never in the game after the first goal, Hector Cuper gave a debut to 18-year-old Kone up front and to be fair he gave a good showing but he lacked support. In the 24th minute he managed Racing’s first shot but it was a simple save for Valdés. Not long after that we added a second, Pedro’s step-over and sprint was enough to take him past Francis and his left footed cross was met by Xavi who leapt to glance a header past Toño.
Chances were now coming fast, Pedro should have done better but his first touch let him down after a great ball from Iniesta. Then Messi just couldn’t reach as the ball skidded across the goal from Pedro’s deflected shot. The best chance for a third came after a superb pass from Xavi put Pedro into the danger zone but when Pedro pulled the ball across the goal Puyol failed to convert from three yards out, the ball hitting him before he could react. Then as half time approached another splendid pass, this time from Messi, found Villa bursting into the area, his first touch took him wide around Toño but then he couldn’t quite screw back his shot enough, only finding the side-netting. There was still time for another chance for Messi before half time after Maxwell’s overlap but Messi’s shot from close in hit a defender’s body.
The second half began with another effort from Kone, this time we allowed him space to chest the ball down and volley but Valdés was never really in trouble as he dived to his left to save. After that the second half was all Barça again but we were lacking the intensity to convert our domination in a lot more goals. We were treated to one magical piece of ball control from Messi who while marked by one opponent brought down Maxwell’s skied clearance on his instep before using his thigh to nudge the ball just where he wanted it allowing him to then knock the ball past another Racing player before sprinting after it to maintain possession.
Messi should then have had a penalty after another penetrating run, but as the ball ran on to Pedro the referee inexplicably waved play on. Not to be disheartened two minutes later Messi grabbed our third. First he sent in a razor sharp pass to Iniesta who brilliantly flicked it past a defender before letting loose a low shot that beat Toño but not the far post, however, the ball bounced out only as far as Messi who fired in the rebound.
The game definitely lacked some intensity in the last twenty minutes as we just played keep-ball, though we were treated to the spectacle of an Eric Abidal overhead kick which only just lacked the power to avoid Toño diving save. The ease with which we won the game is summed up by the fact that we only gave away five fouls in the whole 90 minutes. There might not be too much to say about the game. The back four was fine after a nervy first ten minutes and it was a shame about Piqué though I admit to being a little worried about him as he doesn’t seem the player he was a year ago. It was great to see Iniesta back and already looking so good, but probably the most positive thing was to see the role of Thiago in front of the defence, he showed more maturity and obviously knew that he could not take so many risks in this position. Who knows? Maybe the dream midfield will end up being Thiago-Xavi-Iniesta-Cesc, now wouldn’t that be something?
Barça: Valdés 7; Alves 7, Piqué — (Abidal m8, 7.5) Puyol 6, Maxwell 7; Xavi 7, Thiago 7, Iniesta 7.5; Messi 8, Villa 6, Pedro 7.
Goals: m11 Messi 1-0, m28 Xavi 2-0, m68 Messi 3-0
No Barça yellow cards: