A predicted complicated game seemingly became even more so when Piqué was rightly sent off moments into the 2nd half and Barral equalized soon after. Paradoxically, the red card actually benefited Barça and eventually the team came out with a comfortable enough 3-1 victory. Worryingly we ended the game with 9 men after Alexis pulled his groin. A truly unwelcomed sight.
Respecting the taxing nature of his midweek travel to the USA (and a reported minor injury), as he often does with Messi, Pep gave Alexis’s starting spot to Cuenca in a less than normal beginning 11. Adriano took Abidal’s left back spot joining Piqué, Alves, and Mascherano, while Keita made his first start since the African Cup of Nations in lieu of Busquets, and what a return it would be. The front three were Cesc, Pedro, and Cuenca.
The pattern of the game become abundantly clear early on with Clemente setting out his team in a 5-4-1. We attacked, they defended, and almost always we couldn’t find the space needed to make a clear chance. Nevertheless, Pedro nearly broke his massive Camp Nou goal drought (over 1 year) in the 9th minute after he slotted in a neat backheel from Iniesta (man of the match), but the man from the Canary Islands was clearly offside. The rest of the half droned on as many a Barça have when attacking the “parked bus” tactic with only a penalty shout on Alves and blocked Keita shot to report.
But, as is needed in these matches, the team showed the necessary patience and broke through in the 42nd minute. This shouldn’t surprise us by now, as the 400 seconds between the 40-45th minute are the period we have been most goal abundant. It’s clearly a factor of tiring our opposition both in the legs and the head. A very quick series of passes from Adriano centrally to Keita, who one touched it back to our Brazilian left back, before whipping it into the middle where Iniesta was all alone to touch it in for his first La Liga goal of the season. 1-0 at last and one thought a second would seal it.
Not so fast though. Directly from the kickoff, eventually a deflected clearance bounced straight into the path of Miguel de las Cuevas. The young man had the position and legs on Piqué who despite trying to make it seem as accidental as possible, professionally took our opponent down and was shown a red. Some will say Adriano and Alves were nearly close enough to not make him last man, but he illegally stopped a pretty clear goal scoring chance so I have very little issue with the decision.
Astutely, the experienced coach Clemente sensed an opening and brought on 2 attacking players immediately, striker Barral and midfielder Carmelo. The confident forward Barral, club top scorer with 9 (now), struck the ensuing freekick. It hit the wall, but the rebound found itself right with Mendi, who skipped too easily past Adriano and whipped in a low cross that Valdés expected to scoop up. Barral had other ideas, showing true grit and determination to cut infront of VV and direct it past him. 1-1.
As mentioned, I felt the red card benefited Barça. Two reasons: 1, Gijon felt the game was more winnable, removed 2 defensive players as a result left more space in the final third and 2, it gave Barça a much needed scare and sense of urgency.
Alves created a chance for Pedro in the 55th minute, but lacking goal confidence he tried a overly ambition return ball rather than a shot and nearly moments later Gijon could have made it 2-1 if not for a combination of indecision and poor finishing from Barral and Castro respectively.
Pep reacted early (60th minute) to the stalemate and a bit bravely considering our numerical disadvantage sent on Alexis and Tello for Pedro and Cesc, both with games to forget. The Chilean almost proved immediate dividends but whether he hesitated or it was his first touch of the evening, he did not convert a seemingly easy chance in the area after Iniesta wonderfully found him. At first I really thought Alexsis mucked it up, but the defender did put decent pressure. Still, had that not been his very first contact with the ball, a sharp Sanchez slots that away.
The next 20 minutes were frustrating but 10 minutes from time, Seydou Keita topped off a fine performance with his first goal of the season, and a proper pearler it was. Mascherano penetrated forward, as he did all game, unsettling the Gijon structure, he nudged it forward to Alexis who delicately flicked it right into Keita’s intelligent run into space. The Malian eyes looked up, flashed with intent (great camera shot), and perfectly curled it into the top left hand corner. A really lovely, and important, goal for a man that has so often been underappreciated and misunderstood.
Guardiola brought on Puyol for Cuenca as soon as he could, despite the ref not allowing the substitution befor the kickoff, and with that we saw off the remaining 10 minutes with a more solid back 4. Xavi secured the points with his 12th goal of the year (2 above his all time record) with a delicate chip over Juan Pablo. Most of the credit must go to Iniesta though, who was super all game, beating man after man and driving territory forward. Andresito first anticipated to intercept a pass, he then advanced, sucked 2 defenders in before dinking it at the last second between the pair to a wide open Xavi. Our captain on the night waited for the last possible millisecond to chip it over Juan Pablo and cap off a difficult evening, but one that has a lot of merit.
The true downer tonight was the image of Alexis grabbing his groin. If the game had proved less difficult, I’m sure Pep would not have wanted to play him tonight and it has cost us. We all hope it’s nothing of importance. Luckily we have a solid cushion for Wednesday, and resting him may not be costly. I watched Bayer Leverkusen beat Munich 2-0 this afternoon, and they are no slouches. Bayer approached Barça all wrong a few weeks back, it was far too obvious how high in esteem and respect they held us. They were overly defensive, but the moments they did attack it was fast, precise, and deadly. The extent of admiration even got to the point that two players argued pre-match about who would get Messi’s jersey, resulting in Lionel having to give 1 away at both half time and full time. Leverkusen manager Robin Dutt was quite rightly irked by his team seemingly more concentrated on Messi’s number 10 than winning the match and made both players donate their shirts to charity. With nothing to lose, the Germans will attack with more purpose Wednesday and if our focus isn’t up to scratch, it could be a tougher night than expected.
Goals: 1-0 – Iniesta (41), 1-1 – Barral (49), 2-1 Keita (79), 3-1 Xavi (87)
Ratings: Valdes – 7.5, Alves – 7.5, Pique – 6.5, Mascherano – 7.5, Adriano – 6.5, Iniesta – 8.5, Keita – 8, Xavi – 7.5, Pedro – 6 (Tello – 7), Cesc – 6 (Alexis – 7.5), Cuenca – 5.5 (Puyol – n/a)