Barça began 2013 with another superb display to destroy city neighbours Espanyol at Camp Nou. With Tito Vilanova directing from the bench Barça blew their rivals away with four first half goals in the space of twenty minutes from Xavi, Pedro (2) and Ballon d’Or favourite Leo Messi. The victory put Barça on 52 points which equals the best ever first half of a season with a game to spare, while we also equalled a seventy-year old record by scoring in the 36th consecutive league game.
There were few surprises to Vilanova’s starting XI. Adriano was left out due to an ankle strain which left Alves to continue at right back while Cesc Fabregas returned to midfield meaning Iniesta played further forward, relegating Alexis to the bench. Espanyol’s Mexican coach Javier Aguirre opted for a defensive 4-1-4-1 with just Sergio Garcia left up front to battle against Puyol and Piqué.
Alves showed himself keen to get forward right from the start but his crossing was somewhat imprecise while on the left Alba and Iniesta combined a couple of times but Iniesta’s dangerous low cross found nobody to finish. After nine minutes Alves got forward on the right again but instead of crossing he played the ball inside and back to Busquets who moved the ball quickly square to Messi to his left and Messi threaded the pass through to Iniesta on the left of the area and from his quick cross Xavi stole in at the near post to side foot past Kiko Casilla.
Before the game there had been some talk about the preparation of the two teams. Barça only started training on Wednesday while Espanyol had returned to training before the new year. However, any doubts about Barça not being completely back in shape after the Christmas break quickly disappeared as our high pressing game asphyxiated the visitors. Iniesta forced Casilla to save with his legs but there was no stopping the onslaught as Barça turned up the tempo. In the 16th minute Alves again surged forward through the inside right lane before finding Messi who sent the ball on to Fabregas on the left, Messi’s pass was slightly long but Cesc chased the ball before slipping past Javi Lopez to get to the byline and crossing, Messi had a stab at the ball which flew on via Pedro’s knee and into the net for Barça’s second.
Valdés had been a spectator until this point with any hopeful long ball out from Espanyol’s defence being easily swept up by Busquets or Piqué. However, a long kick from Casilla gave Sergio Garcia a chance after Busquets and Puyol both missed the header but fortunately the pony-tailed forward blasted well over. It was a brief hiccup in Barça game. In the 26th minute Alba, Iniesta and Messi showed great skill in a rondo type situation just inside Espanyol’s half on the left. As Espanyol tried to close the space the ball pinged between the three players before Iniesta played the ball inside to Busquets who shaped as if he was going to spread the ball out to the right wing but then whipped in a splendid pass for Pedro who’d made a diagonal run towards the middle to clip the ball over the advancing lunge from Casilla and in to make it 3-0.
There was no letting up from Barça. A minute later Pedro came forward on the right but his pass inside was cut out by the stretching Forlín who could only send a dodgy ball back towards Casilla, Fabregas nipped in quickly, getting a touch on the ball before going down from Casilla’s challenge. There was no dive from Cesc as his knee clipped Casilla’s shoulder which brought him down but the goalkeeper’s slight touch on the ball just before should have been enough to stop referee Gil Manzano from awarding the subsequent penalty and booking the goalkeeper. It all made no difference to Messi who sent Casilla the wrong way from the penalty for his opening goal of 2013.
There was a brief response from Espanyol with Verdú assisting Simao who shot wide, but it was generally all Barça. Iniesta had a couple more efforts blocked while there was time for Xavi to show his class with a donkey kick pass to Puyol. The team’s understanding with constant changes of position was demonstrated by Fabregas covering at centre back after a surge forward from Piqué.
The first half had been generally quite clean for a derby, though early in the second half Baena became the second player to see yellow after a hack on Iniesta. He was lucky he hadn’t been booked for an earlier shirt-tug on Messi. Barça stayed in control though the intensity wasn’t as high as in the first half. Piqué got forward for a flicked header from Fabregas’s cross that Casilla saved, and then Xavi sent a great ball through but Pedro lobbed the ball over. The skill level continued very high as shown by one wonderful combination in midfield from Fabregas and Iniesta.
Thiago and Villa replaced Xavi and Fabregas for the last 25 minutes, and Pedro then twice had the ball in the net only to be incorrectly denied his hat-trick for offside. Having to settle for two goals Pedro was then substituted to an ovation with Alexis coming on. However, Barça had already finished the job. Messi missed out on his customary brace when the crossbar denied his 30-yard free kick, while Valdés had to make his only save of the game after Albin intercepted Piqué’s underhit backpass. The game was over well before the final whistle but with the crowd singing “Rivers of Babylon” it was still worth watching just to see Iniesta who continued to display delightful flashes of his exceptional skill.
All in all it was a very satisfying way to begin the new year and great to see Pedro finding the net again. There were a couple of defensive lapses- the failure of Busquets and Puyol to cut out Casilla’s long kick and Piqué’s late back pass – but generally we were totally on top of things throughout. Fabregas showed he is over his injury and straight back into a highly constructive mode while Alves showed he has lost none of his energy, stamina and effort despite some characteristic wayward crossing. Messi didn’t go on mazy runs but he was involved in all four goals and showed some excellent link up play, though for me his Ballon d’Or rival Iniesta deserves the man of the match.
Barça: Valdés 7; Alves 7.5, Piqué 7.5, Puyol 7.5, Alba 8; Xavi 7.5 (Thiago m63, 7), Busquets 7.5, Fabregas 8 (Villa m65, 6); Pedro 8 (Alexis m75, 6.5), Messi 8.5, Iniesta 9.
Espanyol: Casilla; Javi Lopez, Colotto, Hector Moreno, Capdevila; Forlín; Baena (Cristian Alfaro m59), Victor Sanchez, Joan Verdu (Stuani m63), Simao (Albin m77); Sergio Garcia
Goals: m10 Xavi 1-0, m15 Pedro 2-0, m27 Pedro 3-0, m29 Messi (pen) 4-0
Yellow cards: m28 Casilla, m47 Baena, m73 Stuani, m85 Moreno.