For a day at least Barça moved 11 points above Real Madrid in Liga after two very late goals earned a nervous 2-0 victory over Granada. Barça were frustrated all night until substitute Xavi Hernandez finally found a way through with just three minutes left on the clock. An injury time own goal from Borja Gomez after Messi’s cross makes the victory look more comfortable but there was nothing easy about this game and points could easily have been lost.
With Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué both out injured Tito Vilanova finally decided on playing Alex Song again at the back alongside Javier Mascherano, leaving Marc Bartrá on the bench wondering when he will get a chance. Xavi was rested which meant Cesc Fabregas started again in midfield with Thiago, while there were changes up front with Messi being flanked by Alexis on the right and Villa, who finally got to start a game, on the left.
Right from the start we looked disjointed with Alves guilty of giving the ball away in the first minute leading to a dangerous cross from Siqueira which forced Valdés to bash into Adriano as he punched clear. The first danger from Barça came in the sixth minute after a short corner between Messi and Cesc ended with the ball coming back and across to Alves who sent in a fine cross for Messi who had ghosted into the area but despite a good first control his shot was blocked for another corner.
The blocks from Granada defenders would be a recurring theme in the first half as the Andalusians showed they were happy to pull everybody back as far as necessary to deny Barça space. However, it would be unfair to say Granada parked the bus as they worked hard to get men forward when they countered and also pressed up on our defenders whenever Valdés had the ball which forced him into kicking long. Granada forced the first save of the game in the ninth minute when a poor header out from Song fell to Floro Flores who shot straight at Valdés from 20 yards.
Granada keeper Toño’s first save came in the 12th minute after Iñigo Lopez cut out Alves’s cross but nearly poked the ball past Toño who had to be alert to save, but there was little more to talk about until the 23rd minute when Song won the ball just inside Granada’s half, Cesc and Thiago exchanged passes before the ball came to Messi whose attempt to break through the middle was thwarted by three defenders but the ball broke free to Cesc who fired in a powerful shot but it was too close to Toño.
We were missing Xavi’s passes as Cesc and Thiago were not finding Villa or Alexis who were both pretty isolated and when they did get the ball neither looked capable of getting past a defender. Then in the 31st minute Busquets gave the ball away which led to a break from Siqueira on the left, Alves had been caught upfield, and Alexis couldn’t quite stay with Siqueira who bore down on goal before shooting, only to be denied by Valdés tipping the ball over.
Messi was having an off day but he tried to get more involved as the half drew to a close but twice he was denied by blocks by Iñigo Lopez, and Toño again saved under the bar from a back header from a defender. The frustration was beginning to show and we were treated to the rare sight of Messi and Villa arguing for a good ten seconds after another attack broke down. For good measure Messi ended the half by spraying a wayward pass at least twenty yards too far in front of Villa.
The attitude seemed slightly better at the start of the second half with Toño forced into two saves from Villa’s quick shot and from Song’s header from Alves’s cross. In the 53rd minute Vilanova called for Xavi and Pedro who replaced Thiago and Villa, but little changed at first and Granada occasionally broke dangerously to keep our defence on their toes. In the 60th minute there was a break after Messi had again lost the ball and Mascherano was forced to concede a corner from which Torje at the near post flicked the ball a yard wide. The next danger from Barça came in the 65th minute from Adriano who sent in a dangerous cross towards Messi but Siqueira managed to get in the way and divert the ball out for a corner. A minute later Song slipped the ball through to Messi but Toño made a good low save.
With still no luck Vilanova played his final card in the 73rd minute bringing on Tello for Adriano and converting to a defence of three. The move led to a very open final fifteen minutes with clear chances at both ends. There were two dubious appeals from Alexis for penalties but after the second Messi forced the ball on to Cesc who sent a good chance just wide of the post. Then Tello crossed low to Xavi who looked sure to score from 12 yards but Toño managed to recover his lost position to make a diving save on the line.
It really wasn’t looking like Barça’s day and in the 84th minute there was a massive scare when Orellano escaped through the middle but Valdés held his ground brilliantly to block the shot. The game was end to end now with Messi going through after a double one-two but again he was denied by Toño, and soon after Alves had to do well to break up another Granada counter that had us three on three at the back.
Finally, Barça broke the deadlock after 87 minutes. Pedro sent in a cross towards Alexis around the penalty spot but a defender got his foot to the ball, stabbing it out of the area where Xavi stretched to control before firing a beautiful wicked shot that beat Toño and crossed the line after crashing down off the underside of the crossbar.
Granada were understandably devastated by the goal and in the final minutes there were plenty more chances, but now only for Barça. Cesc clipped the ball over Toño but the ball also cleared the bar, Messi’s shot touched the keeper slightly before bouncing out off the outside of the post. Then finally, in the second minute of injury time Messi dribbled his way into the area after a short corner, forcing his way past challenges before firing in a low cross that Borja Gomez could only deflect over the line.
There will be plenty of question marks over this performance but at least we got the points which is the most important thing. There was concern over our defence today but I don’t think our defenders were that responsible for the all-round underwhelming performance. Until the substitutions we had looked very unconvincing going forward and perhaps a few of us may now understand why Villa has not started before as he was particularly disappointing. However, Villa should be forgiven as he needs time to get back to his best, the other forwards Alexis and Messi were also well below par. I’d like to have another look at the various penalty appeals we had before I say too much but it does seem that Alexis goes down too easily, while Messi lost the ball far too often, though to be fair he was still responsible for creating more danger than anybody else and even when things aren’t going for him he never ever hides from the ball and his immense desire to win is clear for all to see.
Despite our record of seven wins in eight official games there are some worrying trends. Individuals are all entitled to their off days but I am beginning to wonder if the mentality is the same without Guardiola. Could it be that without Pep to get the players in the right frame of mind we are going to see more sloppy play than we were used to? We have seen some good things but the first 30 minutes at the Bernabeu and the poor performance at Osasuna as well as today’s game were all well below standard. It’s quite possible that Madrid have bigger problems than us which may leave us top of the league without needing to do anything special, but we need to tighten things up considerable for when the knock-out stages of the Champions League begin.
Barça: Valdes 7; Alves 6, Song 6, Mascherano 6.5, Adriano 6.5 (Tello m73, 7); Fabregas 5.5, Busquets 6, Thiago 6 (Xavi m53, 7); Alexis 5.5, Messi 6, Villa 5.5 (Pedro m53, 7).
Granada: Toño; Nyom, Iñigo López, Borja Gómez, Siqueira; Iriney, Mikel Rico; Torje, Brahimi (Romero m75), Orellana; Floro Flores (El-Arabi m58)
Goals: m87 Xavi 1-0, m92 Borja Gomez (o.g.) 2-0.
Yellow cards: m24 F.Flores, m45 Toño, m72 Borja Gomez