Ten-man Barça held on to win a nine-goal thriller over Deportivo de La Coruña at Riazor tonight. Despite Barça taking a three-goal lead in the first twenty minutes, defensive mistakes allowed Depor back into the game, which combined with the sending off of Javier Mascherano early in the second half led to a thrilling finish. Leo Messi`s hat-trick was vital to Barça’s victory though the man-of-the-match award should go to Cesc Fabregas who played arguably his best game in a Barça shirt, providing three excellent assists.
With an important Champions League game with Celtic coming up on Tuesday, Tito Vilanova chose to start with Xavi and Pedro on the bench as Barça lined up with Valdés in goal, Martin Montoya, Alex Song, Mascherano and Jordi Alba in defence. A midfield of Busquets, Fabregas and Iniesta, while Tello, Messi and Villa started up front. In the two previous games that Xavi has been rested, at Osasuna and at home to Granada, we suffered to find our normal rhythm. However, with Fabregas, Iniesta and Messi combining well from the beginning, the chances didn’t take long to appear.
Just over two minutes into the game, Iniesta squared the ball inside to Fabregas who picked out a pin-point pass through to Alba, haring into the area, to finish with a side foot shot under Depor’s keeper Dani Aranzubia. It was 0-2 after eight minutes, Messi found Iniesta who looked like he was about to lose the ball but managed to nudge it back to Messi from the floor, Messi brought it forward before finding Tello, coming inside from wide on the right, Tello received the ball, feinted to go left, but went right past Ayoze before shooting between Aranzubia’s legs from about eight yards.
There was little sign of Depor as Barça kept pushing forward, Cesc was called back incorrectly for offside, and Iniesta sent in a dangerous low cross before Depor’s first moment after 15 minutes when Song allowed Riki too much room to send in a cross that Valdés had to dive to punch away. However, it was a minor glitch and Barça came forward again, Mascherano threaded a pass through to Cesc who controlled before rolling the ball back with the sole of his boot into the path of Messi who strode through before letting fly from the edge of the area with a bullet that flew past Aranzubia into the roof of the net.
Barça were coasting but the first sign of things to come came with Mascherano getting booked for a tackle from behind on Riki, then in the 23rd minute Bergantiños was allowed to shoot and Valdés had to tip over. Barça attacked again with the ball coming from Tello through Messi across to Villa on the left, Villa slipped the ball into Messi whose shot was turned past the post for a corner. However, from Barça’s corner Depor launched a quick counter attack. Riki was allowed to run and run, Busquets pulled out of a tackle as he knew it would result in a foul, and as Mascherano slid across along the edge of the penalty area Riki saw his chance and left his leg to collide with Mascherano’s slide. The contact was an inch outside the area. The ref Jose Luis Paradas Romero pointed to the penalty spot and Pizzi sent Valdés the wrong way from 12 yards.
With the score at 1-3 Barça looked to control things more and dampen Depor’s renewed energy. However, it wasn’t long before our hesitancy to take risks led to us conceding another corner on the right. When the ball came in Mascherano only half cleared and Bergantiños fired the ball back through the crowd and the ball slipped through Valdés’s hands and in.
From a dubious penalty and a poor mistake from Valdés and Depor were back in the game. However, Fabregas and Messi hadn’t finished their first half show. In the 43rd minute Messi played the ball forward to Fabregas who turned inside before pushing a brilliant pass with the outside of his right foot that found Messi who’d continued his run to shoot first time, right-footed, across Aranzubia and into the far corner.
Four-two up at half time seemed a fairer balance for the merits of the two teams. However, right at the beginning of the second half Depor won a free kick thirty yards out and Pizzi sent a fine curler into the top corner that Valdés touched, but might have done more to stop. Then in the 49th minute Mascherano brushed off Riki, using his arm in the process, and Paradas Romero decided it was Mascherano’s second yellow card and Barça were down to ten men.
Messi almost hit back immediately with a free kick that bounced out off the inside of the post, and then Vilanova quickly brought on Adriano and Pedro in place of Villa and Tello and Barça reorganised. Pedro might have scored with his first touch after a tremendous run from Fabregas on the left, but he skewed his shot wide of the near post.
It was Fabregas’s last offering before being substituted by Xavi who was brought on to help control things more. Barça switched to a 4-4-1 with Messi alone up front with support coming from Pedro’s ability to do two men’s work on the right side. We continued to play our possession football very well despite our numerical disadvantage, with Busquets and Xavi playing very important roles. Messi saved the goal of the match for the 77th minute, receiving the ball 45 yards out he looked to be falling as he turned past Marchena, but he stayed up to dart away towards goal. Faced with Laure and Ze Castro, Messi threw them both off balance with a shimmy to the right before taking the ball left and firing low into the far corner from just inside the penalty area.
It was breathtaking stuff but then Depor hit back in the most bizarre fashion. As a cross came in from the left, our back four forgot to stay in line with Alba coming out while Song stayed back, the ball arrived to Pizzi who made a good first control but then Alba, who was running back to recover his position, nipped in to nudge the ball away from Pizzi before flicking the ball in a loop that cleared Valdés and dropped under the bar.
There were still ten minutes to go but Barça continued to play a complicated game of keep ball. Ze Castro fired a volley just wide but it was the closest Depor would come despite keeper Aranzubia coming forward for a 90th minute corner. In injury time Depor sent in three crosses from the right but Bergantiños failed to control Laure’s final cross and the ball ended up in Valdés’s hands.
It was thrilling stuff and Depor should be congratulated for their part in what turned out to be a closely fought contest. Some of Barça’s first half football was sensational with Cesc Fabregas giving a splendid performance. Regular readers will know I was not the biggest fan of the decision to bring Cesc back to Camp Nou in August 2011 and I have been critical of him for some of his performances. However, if we can get him to play like this regularly we will not need to worry too much about Xavi’s eventual retirement. Messi lost a few balls in the first half but he again rose to the occasion when we most needed him with yet another hat-trick to add to the list. Unfortunately our makeshift defence didn’t fair so well though the major errors came from the more recognisable first team defenders Valdés, Mascherano and Alba, not from ‘substitutes’ Song, Montoya or Adriano.
In the end, considering we played so long with ten men, we should be very very happy with these three points.
Depor: Aranzubia; Laure, Ze Castro, Marchena, Ayoze; Abel Aguilar, Alex Bergantiños; Bruno Gama (Oliveira m61), Valerón (Camuñas m61), Pizzi; Riki (Salamao m81).
Barça: Valdés 5; Montoya 7, Song 6, Mascherano 5.5, Alba 6.5; Busquets 8, Iniesta 7, Fabregas 9 (Xavi m61, 7.5);Tello 7 (Pedro m56, 7), Messi 8.5,Villa 6.5 (Adriano m53, 7).
Goals: m3 Alba 0-1, m8 Tello 0-2, m18 Messi 0-3, m26 Pizzi (pen) 1-3, m37 Alex Bergantiños 2-3, m43 Messi 2-4, m47 Pizzi 3-4, m77 Messi 3-5, m79 Alba (o.g.) 4-5.
Yellow cards: m21 Mascherano, m39 Iniesta, m40 Alex Bergantiños, m49 Mascherano (2nd = red), m52 Ayoze, m57 Valeron, m60 Laure, m85 Messi