If Leo Messi was in any sort of mini-crisis recently when he went three whole matches without scoring, then perhaps that is something we should wish for more often. Messi came out of his dip in form with three goals against Mallorca at the weekend and he followed that up tonight with another hat-trick against Viktoria Plzen in Prague to take us back to the top of Champions League Group H and into the last 16. The game might have been different if Victor Valdés hadn’t made a superb stop from Petrzela early on but Valdés held on to go past Miguel Reina’s club record of 824 minutes without conceding which was set in the 1972/73 season.
When news came in before kick-off that AC Milan had only managed a 1-1 draw at BATE Borisov, we knew that victory over Viktoria would mean we could go to Milan on November 23 needing only a draw to maintain our advantage at the top of the group with only the visit of BATE to Camp Nou to follow that. Isaac Cuenca was rewarded with another game on the right wing and Adriano continued on the left with Messi back in the false nine position being supported by Cesc and Thiago from midfield which meant both Xavi, who is supposedly suffering a slight problem, and Iniesta were on the bench. Mascherano was also rested so we returned to our classic back line of Alves, Piqué, Puyol and Abidal.
Viktoria showed much more ambition early on than they had at Camp Nou and Pilar caused some problems on the left. Fabregas might have had a penalty in the 12th minute when Jirasek scythed his legs, but then four minutes later we had a monumental scare when Petrzela burst through the middle from the half-way line, as the roar of the crowd grew as Petrzela bore down on goal Valdés kept his cool to make an excellent one-handed save diving to his left. Viktoria were obviously boosted by this chance and a minute later they managed to get a cross in from the right which found Kolar given too much space by Puyol but we were fortunate that the finish was blasted high over the bar.
What might have been for Viktoria all changed in the 22nd minute. Thiago won the ball and fed Messi into the area where he was clumsily brought down by Cisovsky. The referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot or in producing a slightly harsh red card for the unfortunate defender. Messi scored his 200th first team goal for Barça with the calmest of penalties rolled into the corner.
The game was more or less over from this point, Viktoria looked to defend so as not to suffer a humilliation, and Barça knocked the ball about comfortably with patience, knowing that more goals would surely come. We had three more decent chances to add a second in the first half but Messi was twice denied by Pavlik while Cuenca hit his best chance over. Then as the game entered first half injury time Messi set off on a run through the middle, he knocked a short pass forward to Adriano who cushioned it back and Messi shot left-footed low past Pavlik.
The second half was all set up to be a stroll in the park, straight after the restart Messi sent a splendid pass into Fabragas whose scooped shot went narrowly wide of the post. However, despite an almost total dominance our concentration was found to be lacking on a couple of occasions. Alves got himself a yellow card when Pique let Kolar away and he’ll now miss the game in Milan, and midway through the half an Alves error led to a left wing cross that found Petrzela free but his volley went just wide. From this we responded better and another great Messi assist found Thiago but his header bounced out off the underside of the bar. And then in the 72nd minute Cuenca went past the left back and sent in another excellent cross which found Fabregas moving in unmarked to head home from 6 yards out.
The best sight of the night came in the 73rd minute with the surprising early return of Alexis Sanchez. He was only on the pitch for five minutes when Messi found him inside the area but his screwed shot was blocked by Pavlik who had done his job closing down the angle. Alexis might then have got a decent run at goal but he was incorrectly flagged offside, and then as time was running Alexis sent in a dangerous cross which Messi nearly managed to turn in with his thigh. Messi, however, was not to be perturbed, in injury time he ran on to Piqué´s back heel flick before rounding the keeper to complete his second hat-trick in a week.
I don’t think there were really any Messi-doubters so it seems pointless to say much about that. He now has 202 first team goals for the club and his goals per game ratio just gets better every season. At the other end we should give a massive shout for Victor Valdés who has overcome the critics to become a world-class goalkeeper. Of course the defence has been excellent in recent games but Valdés has done his bit and his first half save today from Petrzela was top drawer.
I couldn’t finish today without a mention for Pep Guardiola who completed 200 games in charge of the first team. I won’t list the trophies he’s won for us but just take a look at the stats for those 200 games. Won 144 Drawn 39 Lost 17 Goals Scored 500 Goals Conceded 143. I don’t think I need to stress how brilliant those figures are. Well done Pep, here’s to many more years.
Viktoria: Pavlik; Rajtoral, Bystron, Cisovsky Limbersky; Jirasek, Horvath (Reznik, m78); Petrzela, Kolar (Duris m68), Pilar; Bakos (Sevinsky m25)
Barça: Valdés 8; Alves 6 (Maxwell m71, 6), Piqué 6, Puyol 6, Abidal 7 (Alexis m73, 6.5); Thiago 7, Busquets 6.5 (Keita m65, 6), Fabregas 6.5; Cuenca 7, Messi 8, Adriano 7.
Goals: m24 Messi (pen) 0-1, m45+2 Messi 0-2, m72 Fabregas 0-3, m92 Messi 0-4
Yellow cards: m15 Pilar, m49 Alves, m60 Limbersky, m76 Horvath
Red card: m23 Cisovsky