Barça completed the best ever first half to a Liga season with a splendid 1-3 win over Malaga at La Rosaleda tonight. Malaga proved a tough opponent but goals from Leo Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Thiago Alcántara put Barça on the road to victory before Diego Buonanotte scored a late consolation for the home team.
The three points took Barça to the magnificent total of 55 points from a possible 57 after the first nineteen games. It was also Barça’s tenth straight away win which equals the record set by Pep Guardiola’s team two years ago, and by scoring we surpassed a 70 year old record by finding the net in 37 straight league games.
There were few surprises in Tito Vilanova’s line-up. Dani Alves kept his place at right back while Javier Mascherano was preferred over Carles Puyol to partner Gerard Piqué. Going forward Andrés Iniesta continued on the left to accommodate Fabregas in midfield. Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini brought Jeremy Toulalan back to partner Nacho Camacho in a defensive midfield double pivot while Roque Santa Cruz was chosen for the striker role leaving Javier Saviola on the bench.
The game began very evenly with Malaga attempting to play a high defence while pressing us in our own half. There was little space available which led to both teams losing the ball quite quickly early on. The first chance fell to Messi after Weligton failed to cut out Iniesta’s pass from the left and but after a good first touch from Messi, Malaga keeper Willy Caballero managed to get his arm to the ball despite slipping as he dived.
Victor Valdés was also in early action coming out quickly to dive at Santa Cruz’s feet and soon after Camacho sent Malaga’s first chance over from 20 yards. Malaga continued to play a very high tempo and Barça needed to play very well to gradually get on top. Iniesta sent a smart pass into the area that was just too far for Fabregas, and soon after it was Fabregas who sent a pass from the halfway line for Pedro to scamper after, forcing Caballero to run out of his area to make an awkward clearance with his knee – with a slight unseen handball included.
Players from both sides had problems slipping on the pitch but the class of Messi, Fabregas and Iniesta was beginning to tell. Twice Fabregas and Iniesta combined on the left side with first Fabregas sending a curler over and two minutes later Iniesta stabbing a shot too close to Caballero and the Malaga keeper reacted quickly to parry the shot.
Barça were being made to work very hard to find these openings but in the 27th minute Messi was gifted a chance from which he made no mistake. Caballero kicked long but despite winning the header Santa Cruz sent the ball back from Barça’s half towards his own goal, Camacho got in a muddle under slight pressure from Iniesta and underhit his attempted backpass and Messi sped in before Caballero and after a touch to the left he checked, leaving Caballero grounded, and then calmly slotted the ball into the empty net.
A couple of minutes later Fabregas came close to a second, shooting narrowly wide after Iniesta’s dribble in from the left. It seemed as if Barça were going to take control of the game but Malaga, with Isco, Eliseu and Joaquin looking lively, kept our defence busy. One good build-up led to a low shot from Isco that hit Piqué, and soon after there was a penalty shout from the crowd as Piqué slid to cut out Eliseu’s cross, though the referee Delgado Ferreira clearly saw that the ball hit Piqué’s body not his arm. Malaga’s best chance of the half came in the 37th minute when Santa Cruz flicked on Joaquin’s free kick but Valdés was well placed to catch the header.
The first half ended with Alves sending in a great ball for Xavi though Messi couldn’t finish the move after being flagged offside at the original pass from Alves. Then early in the second half it was Iniesta denied on a correct narrow linesman’s decision after Pedro’s clever back heel. Malaga’s first chance of the second half came from a free kick given when Fabregas brought down Isco, but Eliseu sent the free kick straight at the wall and Joaquin fired the rebound straight at Piqué. However, in the 50th minute Barça went further ahead after Messi’s splendid chipped pass found Fabregas, who switched positions with Iniesta for the second half, and the toe-poke finish in off the far post brought memories of Romario.
The class of Barça’s midfield was showing more and more with another excellent combination from Fabregas and Iniesta to escape the attentions of Toulalan and Sergio Sanchez with Camacho earning the first yellow card of the game for his foul on Fabregas. Pellegrini brought on Buonanotte with half an hour to go and their was a brief reaction from Malaga which led to Fabregas and Busquets getting booked for fouls in quick succession. In between Iniesta sent a delightful pass into Alba, who was seen less in attack than on other days, but the full back was unable to see that he had more time as he whipped in a low cross that found no finisher.
Malaga continued to put in a great effort but Barça just upped the tempo a bit more and there was some tremendous pin-ball type passing in midfield between Xavi, Messi and Busquets which left our opponents spinning on their heels. Thiago and Alexis were brought on in place of Fabregas and Pedro and in the 82nd minute they both played a part in Barça’s third goal. Alves took a throw-in on the right and received the return from Alexis before playing the ball back to Thiago who took the ball in his stride and with a bicycle dummy first, he played a wall pass off Messi before firing first time low past Caballero from 25 yards. With three minutes remaining Mascherano was penalised for a foul on Buonanotte who got up to curl a top-notch free kick over the wall which left Valdés standing.
It was a deserved consolation after the effort from Malaga, who showed themselves to be a very good team. However, Barça are really on fire at the moment and we are looking much more solid than back in September and October when our fighting spirit earned us many comeback victories. In the last few games our defence has been looking very solid and Piqué and Busquets are both in a formidable moment, while Alves and Mascherano both gave strong defensive performances, suggesting they are getting over their respective drops in form. The understanding now between our main playmakers Xavi, Messi, Iniesta and Fabregas is surely without equal and even when the other team put us under a lot of pressure we always seem capable of passing our way out of difficulty.
This team is by no means an old team though it plays with a great maturity. The players always seem well prepared for the task at hand and they seem to know how to adapt to the circumstances. Tonight we didn’t see so much of our attacking full backs though they both had strong games defensively, while we based most of our attacks through Fabregas and Iniesta on the left, and Messi.
Anyone who tries to underestimate the achievements of Barça this season really doesn’t appreciate the heights we have achieved. Malaga are one of the top 16 teams in Europe at the moment and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they beat Porto in the next round of the Champions League. Barça, however, are at a different level. We lead Atlético by 11 points and Madrid by an extraordinary 18 points after 19 league games in which we have scored 64 goals. Any concern that we needed to rely on Messi for our goals will have been dispelled by the first three games of 2013 when we have netted twelve times with only two of them coming from the four time Ballon d’Or winner.
We now face Malaga again in the Copa del Rey and tonight’s victory will have given us an added advantage. However, Malaga gave us a very good fight, resulting in a first class game of football. Looking forward to the next round of our three-game mini series on Wednesday night.
Malaga: (4-2-3-1) Willy Caballero; Sergio Sánchez, Demichelis, Weligton, Monreal; Toulalan (Iturra m69), Camacho; Joaquín (Portillo m82), Isco, Eliseu (Buonanotte m62); Santa Cruz.
Barça: (4-3-3) Valdés 7; Alves 7.5, Pique 8.5, Mascherano 7.5, Alba 7.5; Xavi 8, Busquets 8.5, Fábregas 8.5 (Thiago m73, 7.5); Pedro 7 (Alexis m78, 6.5), Messi 8.5, Iniesta 9.
Goals: m27 Messi 0-1, m50 Fabregas 0-2, m82 Thiago 0-3, m88 Buonanotte 1-3.
Yellow cards: m54 Camacho, m64 Fabregas, m69 Busquets.