Despite the howling icy wind and blistering cold, tonight must have felt like the infernos of hell for FC Barcelona. The pitch was shocking, perhaps in a league run by more intelligent people, the match may have been postponed, it wasn’t and Barça lost 3-2 to Osasuna. I’m already quite certain there will be a lot of whining and finger pointing at Pep and some players, a problem with football fans these days who continually forget the other 11 professional athletes similarly wanting to win. Osasuna wanted this win and deserved it. They embraced the conditions, knowing full well it would throw Barça off their game, and that positive attitude, smelling the possibility of blood inspired them from minute 1 to minute 95. But Barça DID NOT lose the league tonight, more on that later.
Responding, quite understandably, to the appalling fixture congestion of 2012, Guardiola rested Xavi, Iniesta, and Fàbregas, giving Thiago and Sergi Roberto starts in the midfield trident. But, he did start our treble winning back 4, Argentine captain and season star performer Mascherano, 2010’s most sought after young player Alexis, and the 2nd highest goalscorer of his tenure, Pedro. The point being, yes 3 big name players were given a rest, but Pep didn’t start a bunch of chumps and naming Puyol in the squad signaled clearly he sensed danger and showed Mendilibar no lack of respect.
I must credit Nic with his pre-game comment because he predicted 3 key factors to this game with keen precision. Firstly, the first 10-minute again proved costly. Osasuna came out into the cold with fire in their bellies and made us extremely uncomfortable. It took just 4 minutes and we were 1-0 down, Lekic (“Leka”) with the first of his brace. Piqué got caught out of position chasing down the ball, the pass sailed over his head, Raúl García got infront of Puyol, did a nice little backheel into space, ran onto it, and put in a cross that Lekic too easily slotted home.
Barça settled into their rhythm around 7 minutes, scoring with Alexis but called offside (fairly) and then a solid curling effort from Messi 11 minutes in saved by Fernández. I have to mention this already, as I jotted it down during the game, Piqué was having an abysmal game particularly with his distribution. This didn’t improve.
To point 2 of Nic’s pre-analysis, Osasuna’s high pressing. They were relentless in this, first half in particular. Predicting before the game that we would suffer with the pitch, then watching it unfold in front of their eyes, Mendilibar’s men suffocated us and it resulted in the sloppiest game you’ll ever see Barça play. That leads on nicely to point 3, “Somehow I can’t see Guardiola telling the players to hoof the ball out so we will see some risky moments at the back…”. Spot on. The players didn’t hoof the ball and it did lead to several risky moments, often decisive.
It went from bad to worse in the 21st minute when the big Serb Leka made it 2-0 from close range again. This time Puyol and Piqué can share the blame. Puyol tried to dribble out, lost possession, and before he knew it the ball was whipped out right, driven in by Cejudo, sailed past the statute presence of Piqué, and Leka showed the hunger to slip in before Valdés could claim it. Now as I said, both defenders were to blame, but angry words were coming out my mouth in Piqué direction who in all honestly looked like he just couldn’t believe he was playing on such a cold night on such a terrible field. He never seemed to accept the elements and from the onset looked moopy, which soon transformed into anxiety. Thank goodness he was taken out of his misery in the 70th minute, in what was his worst game of the season, if not ever.
The team made a relatively feeble attempt to comeback before halftime. There was one nice1-2 combo between Alexis and Messi that resulted in a tame effort from the Argentine, a second disallowed Alexis goal (after two handballs), and a well blocked shot of Messi’s after Sergi Roberto did well to pinch it on the right and lay it back into Messi’s path. On that occasion, Lionel just had to take an extra touch due to the bobbles, which gave the towering defender Sergio time to put in one of many last ditch tackles he and his team made tonight.
2-0 down at half time, something that has never happened under Pep Guardiola. One cannot say he didn’t respond, because he did, and they were some ballsy moves. Puyol was replaced by Cuenca, and Pedro, who was dreadful, subbed for Tello. It effectively means we went to a 3-4-3, with Masch moving back, but really the only rigidness was in Cuenca and Tello occupying the wings, and the other players moving to where they felt was correct.
The moves worked, Barça played far better in the first 5 minutes of the 2nd half than the previous 45. Messi forced another save in the 49th and 60 seconds later Alexis finally did get his goal. Cuenca, who had an immediate tangible impact, ran onto a lovely pass from Thiago, ghosted past his defender, whipped in a low cross that wasn’t dealt with, and Alexis knocked it into the roof of the net. Many won’t appreciate the difficulty of his finish. With the unpredictable bounce and speed of the turf it took extreme concentration to hit that ball so cleanly. 2-1, 40 minutes left, it was only natural to feel encouraged.
Then the hammer blow. Valdés tried to pass it out of defense, for the umpteenth time due to the bounce and wind, it took a funny trajectory and this time Osasuna punished. The ball was intercepted, then Alves and Puyol both tried to clear it, both failed, and eventually it fell nicely to Nino on the left who crossed it in and again the cold seemed to be in Piqué’s bones because he again was late to cover the middle and Raúl García knicked it past Valdés on the near side, post and in. 3-1.
This is the only point in the game, I have a minor, and I mean minor, grievance. Sergi Roberto did a few things well but a bucket load poorly. He gave away a lot of ball and the team seemed so unsettled in the midfield. At this point I would have brought in Cesc or Xavi to take control of the tempo, it seemed necessary.
Osasuna sat back after that 55th minute goal and Barça came at them hard but throughout struggled against a motivated team and unforgiving turf. Alexis missed a pretty good header chance on the hour mark, there were many blocked shots and crosses, but a 2nd did come, from Tello, with 28 minutes left. Cesc got the ball just outside the box, showed true vision and patience to slip a ball past all the traffic into Tello, who cut it back onto his left and blasted it past Fernández. I have to admit, even with so much time left, I never felt totally hopeful. As mentioned earlier, Cesc had entered just before this goal.
Osasuna nearly ended it a few minutes later after Puñal hit the post. From now till the end, it was really just a bunch of “HUUUUUUY” moments. Tello forced a few top saves out of Fernández, Alexis had a 3rd goal disallowed, Alexis couldn’t round the keeper, and Cesc put a last second header right into the keepers path. On the 3rd offside goal, it was certainly the most controversial, but I don’t blame the refs. It clearly appeared that the cross had been flicked on by Sergi Roberto and if so, Alexis was miles off. Even in super slow motion, it’s extremely difficult to see if he touched it, but as it happened live I thought he did and so I can only understand that the linesman did as well.
Tonight is not the night we lost La Liga. Pep taking a small risk with Sergi and Thiago (?) was not why we lost La Liga. I believe unequivocally in this. The league was lost on September 10th in Sociedad, on November 6th in Bilbao, November 26th in Getafe, and January 8th at Espanyol. 3 draws from winning positions, 1 limp defeat. The starting lineups from those games were (excluding Valdés) Alves, Busquets, Fontás, Adriano, Thiago, Xavi, Keita, Pedro, Alexis, Fàbregas – Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Abidal, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Fàbregas, Messi, Adriano – Alves, Piqué, Abidal, Maxwell, Xavi, Busquets, Thiago, Alexis, Villa, Messi – Alves, Puyol, Piqué, Abidal, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Alexis, Messi, Fàbregas. 95% of those players are double Champions League winners, multiple League winners, World Cup winners, in other words, the players we have fawned over and praised as the best club side in football history. That is where the league was potentially lost. Not on a glacial pitch, after 11 games in 42 days (1 every 3.8 days) with an average of 3 days rest, not against a team who embraced the unique circumstances and killed themselves to win.
Pep Guardiola is the most successful coach in Barça’s history. Guardiola has rejuvenated a squad that was lazy and undisciplined, headed for unfulfilled potential. Guardiola has given new pride and success to the meaning of La Masia, promoting 26 local players in 42 months. Just don’t forget that. He believes in his players, from Messi to Tello, believes in the system and these principles have made him the success he is. Cuenca and Tello tonight showed why, they had big impacts on the credible 2nd half fight-back.
You cannot win them all, you just can’t. It would take an implosion of historic proportions to see us make up a 10 point deficient (assuming Madrid win tomorrow) but we are still in the Champions League and the Copa del Rey final. And even if we don’t win either, there is nobody to blame, nothing to feel ashamed about. It’s sport, you win and you lose.
I am unsure how harsh to be, simply due to the clear difficulty of the elements. If this had been at the Camp Nou, one could take a full point or 2 off some scores.
Valdés – 6, Alves – 5.5, Piqué – 3 (70th: Fàbregas – 6.5), Puyol – 5.5, (45th: Cuenca – 8) Abidal – 6, Roberto – 6, Mascherano – 7, Thiago – 6.5, Alexis – 7.5, Messi – 6.5, Pedro – 4 (45th : Tello – 7)