Three first half goals gave Barça a comfortable victory over Spartak Moscow at the Luzhniki stadium tonight. Dani Alves fired Barça into the lead after 15 minutes before Leo Messi added two more to take his number of goals for 2012 to an incredible total of 80, just five short now of Gerd Müller’s all-time record set in 1972. Messi also equalled the 103-year record of 25 international goals in a year set by Tottenham and England striker Vivian Woodward in 1909, while he draws level with Ruud Van Nistlerooy in second place in the all-time Champions League goals scored with on 56 netted in the competition.
Tito Vilanova made four changes to the team that beat Zaragoza 3-1 at the weekend with Alves, Mascherano, Busquets and Fabregas coming in for Montoya, Puyol, Song and Villa. Cesc slotted into midfield which saw Iniesta moved out to the left wing where he tends to be less effective. With the artifial pitch and the cold making things more difficult Barça played a patient start. The first dangerous attack came in the seventh minute after Messi dropped deep to receive the ball before surging forward and attempting the quick exchange with Fabregas though Kirill Kombarov got a foot to the ball and Suchy put the ball out for a corner.
Spartak’s first attack came down Barça’s left with Makeev sending in a cross which Källstrom needed to stretch to meet and he could only send the ball well over from 20 yards. Barça were having a few problems with the conditions and our loss of possession was giving Spartak opportunities to make quick breaks but our defence was holding firm with Piqué looking particularly imperious. On Saturday against Zaragoza Alba found plenty of chances to support the attack but Spartak coach Unai Emery knows the player well from their time together at Valencia and Makeev was instructed to cover his runs. In the 12th minute Alba made a long sprint forward but he was ignored by his team-mates as the patient build-up continued. Alba ran back to his position and from there he received the ball before finding Iniesta just inside about ten yards inside Spartak’s half. From there Iniesta sent in a splendid pass for Pedro’s run but after chesting the ball down the Canarian’s shot was pushed round the post by Spartak keeper Dikan.
With the score at 0-0 Spartak had their best chance of the game. A corner came in low from the left, Ari flicked the ball on at the near post and Dmitriy Kombarov fired over from 12 yards. Messi was having little luck with the ball as again Spartak made a break after he lost the ball, but his insistence paid off in the 16th minute. His dribble into the area was frustrated by Insaurralde but he recovered the ball and tried to play the ball back to Iniesta; the ball again bounced back to Messi off a Spartak player and he then tried to play the ball to the right, this time the ball hit Källstrom before bouncing nicely for Alves who was lurking on the edge of the area – not making the run that Messi expected – and the Brazilian delivered a fine half-volley that skidded inside the far post.
Spartak tried to react with Emenike crossing for Suchy’s late run but the Spartak defender sent the ball over, then not long after Barça struck again. Messi spotted the pass through to Iniesta who cut inside from the left before firing a shot that Dikan did well to parry but as the ball came out to the edge of the area Messi was on hand to meet the bouncing ball right-footed with a shot that was perfectly placed just inside the post and out of reach of Dikan’s despairing dive.
We continued to see some less than perfect control from some of our ‘touch players’. Fabregas, Xavi and Messi were all guilty and then in the 30th minute it was Busquets’ mistake that led to a counter that Mascherano put an end to, though he needed to go off briefly for treatment as a result. Despite the conditions Iniesta was still capable of a moment of magic out by the corner flag though some will say that Barça might have used him more effectively in midfield.
Spartak also showed some skillful footwork, one time passing the ball out from defence despite the intense pressing from Barça’s forwards, leading to a swift break down the left though Dmitriy Kombarov’s cross was just too far for Emenike to make a decent contact. However, the Russians knew it was an uphill battle now and the intensity gradually started to go from their game.
In the 35th minute Messi slipped a pass through to Pedro who seeing the goalkeeper coming out made a shameful dive in an attempt to win a penalty. I have to say here that Pedro’s action really annoyed me as I’m sure there will be fans of English clubs who will jump on it to start the usual what-a-bunch-of-cheats-Barça-are comments. The referee wasn’t fooled and Pedro got a yellow card that may prove costly later in the tournament.
However, Pedro went some way to redeeming himself four minutes later when he sent the killer ball through that Insaurralde couldn’t intercept and Messi was in to take the ball round Dikan and slot the ball into the empty net. Barça might have added a fourth in first half injury time but first Pedro failed to cross for Fabregas’s excellent run and then Dikan was out in front of Iniesta to intercept Messi’s throughball.
Spartak began the second half looking to pull a goal back quickly. However, Emenike failed to control two crosses and Valdés wasn’t troubled until his first real action of the game which was diving to gather a cross from Makeev. It wasn’t long before Barça were back in control and Fabregas might have scored after a quick one-two with Iniesta saw him burst free into the area but Dikan made a good stop. Soon after Messi sent in a chipped cross for Pedro free at the far post but his header lacked power.
There was little of note in the final half hour as Barça looked to play keep-ball. Valdés was almost steamrollered by a ridiculous fall and roll from the enthusiatic substitute Welliton. Messi showed he isn’t thinking about records by passing to Iniesta rather than shooting though the chance came to nothing as Iniesta’s effort was blocked and then Pedro’s cross was cut out by the diving Dikan. Near the end Messi intercepted a poor back pass from Ananidze but after he took the ball past Dikan, Suchy was back quickly to clear for a corner. Gerard Deulofeu got five minutes at the end but it was too short for him to make any impact. There was little more from Spartak and their day was summed up by Welliton’s mishit shot in injury time.
This was a comfortable win and we shouldn’t be too concerned about the lack of incisiveness in the second half as the team seemed to be looking to conserve energy. Despite the three goals scored there were more mistakes in the more frenetic first half and with more precision from the Spartak strikers Victor Valdés would have had a busier evening. The defence deserve credit here too as many of the counter-attacks were broken up by solid tackling, in particular from Piqué who it is great to have back. Man-of-the-match, though, has to go again to Leo Messi who despite being guilty of losing possession a lot in the first half, again showed his incredible consistency with two good finishes. Eighty goals in a year is really quite unreal: unless Messi himself repeats the feat I think it very unlikely that we will ever see it again.
Spartak: (4-2-3-1) Dikan, Makeev, Insaurralde, Suchý, D. Kombarov; R.Carioca (Bryzgalov m75), Källstrom; Kirill Kombarov (Welliton m63), Ari, Jurado; Emenike (Ananidze m64).
Barça: (4-3-3) Valdes 7; Alves 7, Pique 7.5, Mascherano 6.5, Alba 7 (Montoya m87 –); Xavi 7 (Song m82 –), Busquets 6, Fabregas 6; Pedro 6 (Deulofeu m85 –), Messi 8, Iniesta 7.
Goals: m16 Alves 0-1, m27 Messi 0-2, m39 Messi 0-3.
Yellow cards: m35 Pedro, m62 Carioca m90 Mascherano, m92 Källstrom.