Tito Vilanova’s Champions League debut ended with Barça earning a closely fought 3-2 victory over Spartak Moscow at Camp Nou tonight. Cristian Tello fired Barça into an early lead but an own goal by Dani Alves and a strike from Romulo Borges gave the visitors a surprise 1-2 lead with half an hour remaining. Leo Messi equalized in the 71st minute before heading in the winner from Alexis’s cross with ten minutes to go.
Vilanova’s XI had few surprises with perhaps the continuation of Cristian Tello in preference over David Villa on the left of attack as the only somewhat unexpected decision, while with Iniesta out injured Cesc Fabregas was chosen to return to midfield which meant Thiago started on the bench along with Pinto, Montoya, Bartrá, Song, Alexis and Villa. Spartak coach Unai Emery selected a side with nine foreigners with three Brazilians, an Argentinian, a Swede, an Irishman, a Czech, a Ukranian and a Nigerian playing, with the full back twins Kirill and Dmitriy Kombarov as the only native Russians.
In the first few minutes Spartak showed a willingness to attack, winning the first corner from which Romulo sent a hopeful overhead kick wide. However, Barça’s passing game soon forced Spartak back and the visitors also demonstrated that they had no problem in bringing all ten outfield players back into the final third of the field. With Xavi leading the orchestra, little by little Barça began to find gaps. In the 7th minute Alves sent a good ball into the area for Messi but Carioca was quick to knock the ball out for a corner. From the kick, Xavi sent in a low cross towards the edge of the box where Piqué, under pressure from Romulo, let fly but sent his shot just over. Piqué stayed down after the clash with Romulo and a couple of minutes later he signalled that he couldn’t continue and Song came on in his place. The first reports say Piqué could be out for two weeks with a twisted ankle. Just before the substitution Messi sent a magnificent pass into Tello but as the goalkeeper Andrey Dikan came out the winger sent his shot wide of the far post.
Tello’s finishing had also been disappointing in the victory over Getafe at the weekend but he got it right a few minutes later. Alves played the ball square, infield to Xavi who knocked it forward to Tello who cut in from the left past Kirill Kombarov before firing a splendid shot inside Dikan’s far post from the edge of the area.
In the 18th minute Tello and Pedro switched wings and a couple of minutes later Tello, on the right, robbed the ball, stabbing it forward to Messi who turned on the edge of the area but curled his left foot shot a touch too much, just missing Dikan’s left-hand post. Barça continued to press for a second but Messi was robbed of a great chance after receiving from Xavi when the linesman flagged for Cesc’s positional offside.
There had been little sign of Spartak going forward but in the 29th minute Emenike escaped the attention of Mascherano on the right and sent in a low cross that passed through Song’s legs and Alves in his attempt to stop the ball reaching Ari only succeeded in flicking the ball into his own net.
Barça nerves after the goal were demonstrated by an unsightly obstruction by Song on Emenike that earned a yellow card though the Serbian ref Milorad Mazic was more busy with Spartak players as Kirill Kombarov, Kallstrom and Emenike all saw yellow in the final minutes of the half. Barça’s best chance to regain the lead fell to Fabregas after Xavi chipped a ball into the area but his looping header was tipped over the bar by the back-peddling Dikan. The half ended with two promising looking attacks for Barça but Cesc ran into a cluster of defenders after Tello’s neat back heel, and then Xavi shot disappointingly wide from 25 yards.
The momentum after the promising start was lost and Barça struggled to regain it in the second half. There was a hopeful long shot from Adriano and an Alves strike that found the net after the ref had blown for Alves’s offside position but the Barça rhythm was missing. Even Xavi was guilty of giving a poor pass which caught Alves out of position, leading to a dangerous counter led by Ari but McGeady’s final shot was soft and straight at Valdés.
McGeady had another effort fly over a minute later as Spartak began to sense they might have a chance. There were more doubts in the Barça defence with a moment of hesitation between Mascherano and Song allowing Emenike another run but Adriano was back swiftly to intercept the danger.
Barça were looking too anxious and it wasn’t until the 58th minute that we had a decent effort when Messi brilliantly controlled Alves’s cross but then fired his shot too close to Dikan who saved with an outstretched foot. From a possible 2-1 Spartak came straight up the other end and made it 1-2, Ari made the run down the left before passing inside to McGeady who played the ball on for Romulo who eluded Adriano’s challenge before slipping the ball under Valdés.
Vilanova didn’t wait long before making the big decision of putting on Alexis in place of Alves. We switched to an attacking 4-2-3-1 with Alexis at centre forward with a line of Pedro-Messi-Tello behind. Fabregas moved back a bit in line with Xavi which left a back four of Mascherano on the right, Song and Busquets in the middle and Adriano on the right.
The initial effect was a bit confused and perhaps our anxiety was responsible for more individual errors than usual. There was a poor touch from Adriano at one end, a disappointing cross from Tello at the other while Song missed the best chance in this period, sending a header high and wide from Xavi’s corner.
Then in the 71st minute, Pedro who had had a quieter game than usual, sent in a cross from the right that went too long, arriving to Tello on the left edge of the area, Tello dummied to go inside before dribbling outside McGeady to the by-line, drawing the keeper towards him before pulling the ball back to Messi who side-footed in from six yards.
Soon after, Vilanova brought on Villa for Tello who received an ovation, and Villa came close to scoring after Dikan could only touch a cross from the right but the Asturian’s shot was blocked by a defender. Then in the 80th minute Pedro sent in another cross that went too deep (or who knows, there may be a game plan here!) the ball arrived to Alexis who crossed the ball back in and Messi rose at the far post between two defenders to head home Barça’s third. There was very little from Spartak in the final minutes as Barça played keep ball, though we did have to defend a corner in the final minute of injury time which may have caused us all to hold our breath for a moment but the ball was cleared and the victory was ours.
While it is always nice to win there were probably more things to worry about after this game than things to be pleased with. Song did not look so good as a defender as he has done in midfield, and with Piqué and Puyol both out we may find ourselves exposed at the back in the coming games, especially as Mascherano doesn’t seem to be in his best moment. Fabregas was restored to midfield but he had another disappointing game after his improvement at Getafe, and if he doesn’t get his act together soon he will find himself below Thiago in the pecking order. Tello will no doubt get a lot of the headlines (and quite rightly after a goal and an assist), however, I am still not convinced by him as a starter and feel he should really work on his first touch which is often too heavy. It may just be a problem with fast wingers – Marc Overmars, Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon spring to mind – that when you move so quickly it is harder to make a better first touch. However, having said this I think Tito should be applauded for his faith in the youngster as it sends out a very positive message to all the youngsters coming through.
Barça: Valdés 6; Alves 6 (Alexis m63, 6.5), Piqué 6 (Song m12, 6), Mascherano 6, Adriano 7; Xavi 7.5, Busquets 7, Fabregas 6; Pedro 6, Messi 7, Tello 7 (Villa m74, 6).
Spartak: Dikan; K.Kombarov (Makeev m45), Insaurralde, Suchý, D. Kombarov; R.Carioca, Romulo, Källstrom (Jurado m79); McGeady, Emenike, Ari (Dzyuba m83).
Goals: m14 Tello 1-0, m29 Alves (o.g.) 1-1, m59 Romulo 1-2, m71 Messi 2-2, m80 Messi 3-2.
Yellow cards: m31 K.Kombarov, m34 Song, m42 Kallstrom, m44 Emenike, m75 Romulo, m78 Suchy.