Unstoppable Barça stay top of La Liga after a splendid 5-1 victory over Athletic Club at Camp Nou tonight. The victory makes it 13 wins and a draw for Tito Vilanova’s team which makes it the best ever start after 14 league games in the history of La Liga. Leo Messi continues in excellent form, adding two more goals to take him to 84 in 2012, just one goal short of Gerd Müller’s all-time record, while Gerard Piqué, Adriano Correira and Cesc Fabregas added the other three goals.
There were few surprises in Vilanova’s starting XI. Adriano came in for Montoya at right back while Javier Mascherano was preferred over Carles Puyol to partner Piqué, Andrés Iniesta was again given the wide left position in attack which left David Villa on the bench while allowing Fabregas to continue in midfield. Athletic coach Marcelo Bielsa brought in 19-year old Jonas Ramalho in place of the injured Andoni Iraola at right back while Ibai Gomez was a late substitute for Iker Muniain who had to pull out of the game with a neck problem.
As expected Athletic employed a high pressing system. Indeed, the first time Victor Valdés had the ball at his feet there were four Athletic players pressing on three Barça defenders, forcing the keeper to kick long. Barça responded with a terrific tempo, moving the ball quickly with constant movement from the players which we combined with our own pressing game whenever Athletic gained possession which made life very difficult for our opponents to get very near to Valdés’s area.
In a change from our normal tactics our supposed wide forwards Pedro and Iniesta came inside a lot more to mix the play with Messi, Fabregas and Xavi while leaving the wings for full backs Adriano and Jordi Alba. The game was perfect for the likes of Iniesta, Messi, Xavi and Fabregas whose movement, close control and intelligent passing left their markers spinning in circles. The poor Ramalho was charged with following Iniesta but one early swivel from Don Andrés left the young right back for dead. Then in the 13th minute Messi fed Iniesta on the left and Iniesta feinted a couple of times to throw Ramalho out of line before shooting low and forcing the first save of the game from Gorka Iraizoz.
Barça were not afraid to play the long ball against Athletic’s pressing. In the 22nd minute Valdés kicked long and Ekiza slipped, giving Messi a chance to run at goal, Amorebieta did well to get back and divert Messi away from goal but the Argentinian held on to the ball, weaving this way and that before finding Iniesta on the left but Ramalho managed to get his foot in and send the ball out for a corner on the left. Messi doesn’t take too many corners from this side but this time he sent in the corner to the near post where Fabregas got the slightest touch on the ball which was enough to distract Aduriz who was hit by the ball which then fell kindly to Fabregas whose quick low shot was well saved by Iraizoz but Piqué was on hand to strike home the rebound from four yards.
Three minutes later Barça made it 2-0. Athletic’s defence were well advanced when Xavi sent a chip over the top, Messi’s rapid movement lost Amorebieta and he was again away on goal, this time Messi took his time before clipping the ball back past Iraizoz, and Amorebieta lunging back in an attempt to save the goal could only send the ball in. The replay suggested Messi’s shot might not have gone in but the goal will quite rightly go to him.
Barça’s movement in attack was causing Athletic all sorts of problems, with Pedro popping up on the left side to send a 25-yarder wide. Messi’s dribbles were also pulling defenders out of position, one run ending with the ball breaking to Fabregas who fired just wide from outside the area. Messi then sent a free kick just wide as Barça continued looking for a third.
As half time approached Barça went into overdrive as Athletic’s defence looked more and more stretched. Messi showed generosity to pull the ball back to Fabregas in an excellent position but Iraizoz made a good stop. Alba made an excellent forward run to get a leg to Xavi’s chip, sending the ball to Iniesta who was also stretching and couldn’t quite turn the ball back, sending his forced shot wide. Iraizoz had to be sharp to dart out to deny Fabregas a chance. And then in the 45th minute Pedro sent Alba into the area with a delightful back heel and Alba then crossed to Messi who fired his shot from four yards onto the underside of the bar and was unlucky to see the ball bounce out. However, Barça’s intensity was too much for Athletic. In first half injury time Messi dribbled into the area on the left before pulling the ball back to Fabregas on the edge of the area who waited for Adriano’s run before sending a perfectly weighted pass for the full back to fire high past Iraizoz from the corner of the goal area.
The game continued to be all Barça in the second half. Early on Fabregas escaped down the left but after a great surge into the area his final ball across the goalmouth found no finisher. Both teams kept pressing high but it was Barça who were having more success with the tactic. In the 54th minute Busquets robbed the ball in Athletic’s half before surging forward and squaring for Messi whose shot for the far post was saved by the diving Iraizoz. There was then a possible penalty on Messi after a glorious back heel from Iniesta but soon after Busquets’s pressing would provide dividends. A Barça attack broke down but as the ball came out Busquets anticipated the situation brilliantly, touching the ball forward to Iniesta who with the outside of his right foot sublimely threaded a ball through to Fabregas on the right and Iraizoz had no chance this time with the shot.
In was only after the fourth goal that Athletic began to wake up a bit. Llorente, on as a second half sub sent the visitors’ first shot wide and soon after Herrera tried his luck but also missed the target. Then in the 65th minute Iturraspe spotted Ibai’s run and sent a ball over the top of our defence, Adriano failed to stay with Ibai who brought the pass down brilliantly before slotting the ball under the advancing Valdés.
Barça didn’t take long to restore the four-goal advantage. Fabregas sent a ball forward, looking for Messi, a defender got a touch to the ball but it broke to Pedro whose shot was well blocked by Iraizoz, the ball came back to Messi who lost the ball but again it broke to Pedro but he was now running away from goal towards the left wing, Pedro continued with the ball, turned and sent a pass in, looking for Alba’s run, Alba didn’t make it but the ball ran through to Messi who swivelled and sent a right-footed shot high past Iraizoz and inside the far post.
Vilanova brought on Montoya, Thiago and Song for the last 15 minutes, giving a rest to Adriano, Iniesta and Busquets. The hard work had been done but there was still time for the splendid Piqué to make a tremendous gallop forward from the back, Pedro found Piqué with his cross to the far post but instead of going for goal Piqué preferred to set up Messi for a possible 85th but Messi couldn’t keep his header down. The smile on his face after the miss showed how much he appreciated Piqué’s gesture.
With Real Madrid’s win over Atlético, Barça now sit six points clear of Atlético at the top of La Liga while maintaining the eleven point-advantage over Madrid. It could not be a much better start to Tito Vilanova’s reign though before we get too excited we should remember that his team has won nothing yet. The records are always nice and I am especially excited at the prospect of Messi taking Müller’s record. However, the best thing at the moment is the fact that the team are really clicking well, Messi, Iniesta, Busquets and Piqué are all in great form, Pedro never stops running, Fabregas is scoring and assisting, while our full backs, whoever they may be, are proving to be the extra weapon that so often makes the difference. Unfortunately we won’t play many teams who play like Bielsa’s Athletic and the way things are going for the Basques Bielsa might not be there for much longer. However, we should be grateful for games like tonight’s as it really gave our players a chance to demonstrate how good they are. Our next game now is against Benfica in the Champions League so there will no doubt be plenty of changes to the team, then next weekend we have the always interesting and difficult visit to play Real Betis to see if we can extend this fantastic run in La Liga.
Barça: Valdés 6.5; Adriano 7 (Montoya m73, 6.5), Piqué 8.5, Mascherano 7, Alba 7.5; Xavi 8, Busquets 8 (Song m75, 6.5), Fabregas 8; Pedro 7.5, Messi 9, Iniesta 8.5 (Thiago m73, 7).
Athletic: Iraizoz; Ramalho (San Jose m73), Ekiza, Amorebieta, Aurtenetxe; Herrera, Iturraspe, De Marcos; Susaeta (Toquero m64), Aduriz (Llorente m45), Ibai.
Goals: m22 Piqué 1-0. m25 Messi 2-0, m45+1 Adriano 3-0, m57 Fabregas 4-0, m65 Ibai 4-1, m70 Messi 5-1.
Yellow cards: m26 Busquets (misses next week’s game at Betis), m33 De Marcos, m55 Iturraspe, m92 Herrera.