Two more goals from the unstoppable Leo Messi earned Barça a comfortable 0-2 victory over Racing Santander at El Sardinero this evening. Messi’s pair took him to fifty goals this season and kept our slim title chances alive. The fact that this was the first time we have completed four straight league wins may go a long way to explaining why we are ten points behind rivals Real Madrid.
Carles Puyol passed a late fitness test and started in a defence of three with Alves and Mascherano with Sergio Busquets often dropping back to make a line of four. However, given the lack of attacking threat from Racing, Barça might well have played with just Mascherano at the back. The game followed a typical pattern of games against unambitious teams with Racing’s new coach Alvaro Cervera adopting a defensive formation with just the big Senegalese forward Babacar to chase hopeful balls out of defence.
Racing were without first choice keeper Toño but his substitute Mario Fernandez dealt well with early low crosses from Cuenca and Pedro, and then he palmed Messi’s curling free kick away for a corner. It was Messi’s first threat but then in the 22nd minute his quick free kick led to Cuenca assisting Iniesta on the left and Iniesta came close with a chip that curled onto the top of the bar.
Our attacks were looking more dangerous now. Messi set up Cesc with a chance that Fernandez saved, Xavi scuffed a shot wide and Iniesta failed to get by a defender in the area. Then in the 29th minute Xavi dribbled through the middle, forcing the ball through to Fabregas on the right, Cesc screwed the ball powerfully back across the face of the goal and Messi was on hand to stab the ball home.
The pattern of the game didn’t change with the goal. Pedro missed a chance for a second, firing left footed into the side netting as Barça continued to dominate and the play remained almost exclusively inside the Racing half of the field. Pedro’s low cross was nearly converted into an own goal by Alvaro, then just before half time we saw a promising run from Messi but as so often today his shot hit a defender.
In the second half it just seemed a matter of time before we scored again. Fernandez saved from Cesc after nice work from Xavi and Iniesta. Then in the 55th minute Alves played in Iniesta who pulled the ball back to Cuenca whose shot was stopped by Fernandez, the play continued and as Fabregas tried to get past Cisma the Racing defender slipped slightly and his arm shot out against Cesc who went down. Given some of the penalties we haven’t received this season perhaps it was time we got a soft one like this. Messi sent Fernandez the wrong way from the spot.
Valdés had practically nothing to do, his one slip saw Racing put the ball in the net but the goal was disallowed for a clear offside. There were more chances for Barça and it would not have been strange had we scored a couple more. Xavi sent a magnificent through ball to Cuenca who smacked his shot against an upright. Xavi left Iniesta’s pass for Messi but Fernandez saved again. Tello came on but his finishing was not so hot despite a couple of chances, and Messi was denied his hat-trick near the end by an excellent saving slide from Alvaro.
A pretty uneventful game against a defensive opponent. Our wide attackers Pedro and Cuenca had a tough time given the lack of room but they stuck to their roles well and were important in stretching the Racing defence, while Fabregas and Messi showed less precision than on other days though they were both vital in the goals. The most impressive players for me were Mascherano and Busquets for the understanding they showed to combine the tactical options. As the game went on Busquets moved deeper and generally played more as the left sided central defender but the fluency that he moved between positions showed a great footballing brain for a 23-year-old.
As the weeks pass the gap with Madrid gets more and more difficult to overcome. However, there are still twelve games to go and if we can win them all we will have a fair chance. Next up is a toughie at Sevilla next Saturday. But at least we can expect Sevilla to attack us a bit so hopefully we will see a more open game than the one we witnessed today.
Racing: Mario, Francis, Álvaro, Bernardo, Cisma, Diop, Colsa (Adriano m62), Gullón, Munitis (Jairo m69), Arana, Babacar (m45 Stuani).
Barça: Valdés 6; Alves 7, Mascherano 8, Puyol7; Busquets 8; Xavi 7 (Keita m83), Iniesta 7.5, Fabregas 7; Cuenca 6.5 (Tello m73, 6), Messi 7.5, Pedro 6.5 (Adriano m87).
Goals: m29 Messi 0-1, m56 Messi (pen) 0-2.
Yellow cards: m11 Francis, m23 Babacar, m55 Cisma, m55 Alvaro, m58 Diop, m87 Stuani.