Barça beat Real Sociedad 2-1 tonight at a freezing Camp Nou to maintain the gap with Real Madrid at seven points. Goals from Cristian Tello and Leo Messi put us on the road to victory though we suffered a nervous finish to the game after Real substitute Carlos Vela pulled a goal back with fifteen minutes remaining. Sergio Busquets suffered a knee injury just a couple of minutes after coming on as substitute and was stretchered off however the first news suggest it is nothing serious.
In the press conference before the game Pep Guardiola defended his players physical condition but the starting XI suggested he wanted to add some new energy to the team. It was known that Xavi and Alexis had slight injuries, but Busquets, Piqué and Abidal joined them on the bench. Cristian Tello and Isaac Cuenca were in alongside Messi to give us real width in attack, while Johnathan dos Santos and Thiago Alcantara started in midfield with Cesc Fabregas which meant that our three midfielders and three forwards tonight are all youth products and none of them is older than 24-years-old. In all we had eight home grown starters despite the absence of Piqué, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta and Pedro.
News of Real Madrid’s narrow win at Getafe won’t have helped to warm the spectators waiting for the game on a freezing night, however, the game began at a brisk pace which promised a good game. Our first chance came when Cesc was trying to get the ball back to Messi, but before he could he was assisted by Markel who stabbed the ball back for Messi for a great chance but Real keeper Claudio Bravo was out quickly to save. Real hit back and Ifrán showed his speed to get away from Mascherano and shoot but Valdés was on fine form tonight and he made a splendid save.
Messi had been under scrutiny from his critics after going three games without a goal but as usual he was ready to bounce back. In the first half he worked three assists that might have given us a three goal lead at half time. The first was a sublimely weighted pass for Tello to show his electric pace getting away from Carlos Martinez, Bravo had to come for it but Tello was quickest, flipping the ball right footed past the advancing keeper for his first league goal. Messi threaded another through for Fabregas in a great position but Cesc’s stab flew just over. And just before half time Messi dribbled and bustled his way against four opponents and the ball broke nicely for Alves but there was a slight angle and Alves fired his shot wide of the far post.
It wasn’t just the chances created by Messi. Tello frightened Real every time he got the ball but the final pass was missing. Dos Santos and Thiago worked their socks off in midfield and were not afraid to try things out to create. Occasionally their inexperience led to us losing the ball where we shouldn’t but fortunately our opponents did not make the most of the ball and we often recovered possession very quickly. Cesc also worked hard but did not have his best night, the rumour is that he would have been rested tonight if it hadn’t been for all the injuries we have. Cuenca didn’t see a lot of the ball on the right but he set up one chance with a low cross to Thiago by the penalty spot but Thiago’s low hooked shot lacked power and Bravo got down to save comfortably.
Messi also had his chance to score, after one of those Messi moments that only Messi can do, after chasing a long ball from Cesc he kept the ball in play turned back inside to play a one-two with Thiago before getting in a low shot that Bravo did well to turn out for a corner. Another point of note from the first half was the lack of runs upfield from our full backs Alves and Adriano. Perhaps this was because we had enough width with Tello and Cuenca or perhaps it was because Guardiola felt our midfield needed more protection today.
The first half had been pretty positive though our failure to add to Tello’s goal left us more vulnerable. Five minutes into the second have Griezmann, who had switched from the left to centre forward, outmuscled Mascherano to get a clear chance, Valdés was again magnificent, blocking Griezmann’s drive. The danger was always there, even though Messi had further chances to score, once he dummied onto his right but his shot lacked power then three minutes later after Thiago’s long through ball Messi rounded the keeper but rather than trusting his right foot again to shoot he pulled the ball back onto his left allowing the defender the time to get back and intercept.
Alves was seen more in attack in the second half, in the 66th minute he galloped forward before setting up Cuenca with a chance, but Cuenca’s shot bounced out off the bar and when Tello pounced on the rebound the ball hit a defender and then Alves on the line on the way to the net. The goal was disallowed for Alves’s offside though he couldn’t do much to get out of the way. Alves made up for it a few minutes later sending a teasing cross to the far post that Messi was quick to chase after, again Bravo had to come for it and Messi took his chance to clip the ball back past the keeper for his 23rd liga goal of the season.
It should have been all over but it wasn’t. Alves gave a poor ball to Thiago and Griezmann stole the ball sending Vela free to beat the furious Valdés. We brought on Abidal and Busquets, but Busquets only lasted three minutes and Piqué had to come on in his place. The mood inside the ground was nernous and the whistles from some fans certainly don’t help in this respect. It is sure that the level dropped a bit at times in the second half but with young players on the field whistling is only going to make us more anxious. As it was there was very little danger in the final minutes though we ended with a couple of uncharacteristic hoofs up the field.
I never thought it was going to be easy tonight but in many ways I am happier after tonight’s game than I have been for a couple of weeks. The gamble for the youngsters paid off in a vibrant game. Yes, it wasn’t perfect but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the players who were not at their best played below par due to the strain of recent games. Messi had a better game and I’m sure we won’t have to wait long for the next hat-trick. Thiago rose to the occasion to demonstrate again that he will be Xavi’s successor, I particularly liked the Laudrup style chip pass with the outside of the boot on the run. Phenomenal. However, I think the man of the match for me has to be Victor Valdés. A shame he couldn’t keep the clean sheet but the stops from Ifran and Griezmann really saved us the three points tonight.
Barça: Valdés 8; Alves 6, Puyol 7 (Abidal m76, 7), Mascherano 5.5, Adriano 6; Dos Santos 6.5 (Busquets m76, — (Piqué m80, –)), Thiago 7.5, Fabregas 6; Cuenca 6.5, Messi 7.5, Tello 7.5.
Goals: m9 Tello 1-0, m72 Messi 2-0, m74 Vela 2-1.
Barça no yellow cards: