After an unbeaten first half of the league season Barça went down 3-2 to Real Sociedad at Anoeta this evening. As occurred in the same fixture last season Barça took an early 0-2 lead, through goals from Leo Messi and Pedro Rodriguez. Last season the game ended at 2-2, but tonight after Chory Castro had pulled a goal back for Real, Gerard Piqué was sent off in the 56th minute for a second yellow card and ten-man Barça failed to hold on as an unlucky own goal from Javier Mascherano and an injury time strike from substitute Imanol Agirretxe gave victory to the Basques.
There were no surprises in Tito Vilanova’s line-up with arguably our best XI on show. Iniesta continued on the left while Alves and Puyol got the nod over Adriano and Mascherano in defence. Barça didn’t take long to see Real’s advanced defence with Iniesta chipping a ball through for Messi which you would normally expect him to bury, however, having darted into the area he pulled his left foot shot well wide of the far post.
Both teams were playing a high pressing game but Barça got the first benefit when on six minutes Real’s keeper Claudio Bravo kicked straight to Iniesta, about 35 yards out. Don Andrés moved the ball inside towards Fabregas who allowed the ball to pass through his legs on for Messi’s run behind him. The Argentinian controlled the ball with four quick touches with the outside of his left foot which took him to the edge of the area from where he picked his favourite spot just inside the left hand post. One-nil up and everything at this point looking perfect.
Real insisted with their high pressing but besides a Xavi Prieto shot into the side-netting after a well worked free kick and a low shot wide from Antoine Griezmann they had little to show for it. Barça’s attacks were looking much more dangerous, after 14 minutes Iniesta’s dribble into the left of the area led to the ball breaking to Pedro who fired a quick shot that beat Bravo but came out off the far post. Then after 25 minutes Barça went further ahead. Iniesta found himself about 35 yards out on the right side, he played the ball inside to Xavi who carried on moving left before checking and sending a diagonal cross for Alves’s run into the area, Pedro had freed the space for Alves with a run towards the middle and he was on hand at the far post to slide in and meet Alves’s cross to score from close range. Things still looking extremely good.
The first sign of any problem came in the 33rd minute when Piqué got himself a first yellow card for not getting out of the way as Carlos Vela took a free kick. A minute later Real had the ball in our net though the linesman had spotted an offside against Vela. The linesmen were kept busy as both sides continued playing high defences but when Xavi sent a long ball from deep, Messi was onside and his speed got him away from the Real central defenders. Bravo came storming out of the area but Messi was there first, flicking the ball over the keeper, but the ball bounced onto the post and two Real defenders got back to clear the danger.
It should have been 0-3 but a couple of minutes later it was 1-2. A cross from the right hit Jordi Alba and looped up in an arc, coming down just outside the area where Griezmann beat Busquets to the header, the ball came to Vela and Alves came across to cover leaving Chory Castro free on the left. The pass was simple for Griezmann and Chory fired hard and low into the far corner, giving Victor Valdés no chance.
At this point both sets of players must have been thinking of last season’s game. Before half time Chory forced Valdés to parry another powerful effort, and after the half time break you could see the belief in the home team. There wasn’t too much danger towards Barça’s goal though Xavi Prieto fired the first shot of the half well over from 25 yards. The problem now was that Barça began to look as though we were just trying to play out time rather than looking for a third goal. The only decent Barça attack ended with Alba’s low cross being gathered by Bravo, but almost immediately after Piqué tripped Vela in a not-particularly-dangerous position but referee Undiano Mallenco, who frustrated Barça’s players throughout, pulled Piqué’s second yellow and Barça were down to ten men with just over half an hour to go.
Vilanova brought on Mascherano for Fabregas but the writing was on the wall now. We have survived similar situations in the past but now, apart from Puyol who was very strong at the back, we seemed to lack character as Real poured forward winning a series of corners. Busquets twice saved us with excellent blocks but in the 62nd minute after a short corner on the right Illarramendi sent in a deep cross which arrived to Chory on the left side of the area, Iniesta failed to close him down sufficiently and his shot took a deflection of Mascherano which gave Valdés little chance despite getting a hand to the ball.
With ten men it was now very difficult against a team on a high. Messi fired a disappointing free kick over and Alves kept trying to get forward though his crossing failed to find the target. Having booked Illarramendi for a foul on Busquets in the 78th minute Undiano Mallenco somehow didn’t produce another card for the same player after he brought down Messi three minutes later, however, he then let Iniesta off a second yellow for a foul which stopped a Real counter-attack.
It was frenetic end-to-end stuff in the dying minutes but without much success with the final pass. Then as the game entered injury time Busquets and Alba failed to close down Carlos Martinez on the right and his inswinging cross was not cut out by Mascherano who also lost Agirretxe who stole in behind the Argentinian defender and beat Valdés from six yards.
As under Pep Guardiola in 2010/11 we couldn’t make it to the eleventh away win. Before today’s game there were some who questioned the timing of Victor Valdés’s announcement this week, and its possible effects on the team. A win tonight and those questions would have disappeared pretty quickly. Valdés himself had a pretty solid game, though he might have come a little quicker for the third goal. We played very well for most of the first half and if it hadn’t been for the posts and Messi’s early miss we could have been five goals up. However, the second half showed a pretty big drop in our play and it seemed clear to me that Real showed more fight and belief. The Piqué sending off will be seen as a turning point and obviously it didn’t help at all, but it was Real’s first goal that really changed the game. I don’t believe the Valdés situation had much to do with tonight’s result, if anything it was the memories of last season’s game when Vela scored Real’s first that had the positive effect on Real’s players and the negative effect for us. Time to move on and look towards Thursday’s tough return game at Malaga in the Copa. A defeat there and the alarm bells will start ringing.
Real Sociedad: Bravo; Carlos Martínez, Mikel Gonzalez, Iñigo Martinez, De la Bella; Markel Bergara, Illarramendi; Griezmann, Xabi Prieto (Pardu m78), Chory Castro (Ifran m73); Vela (Agirretxe m83).
Barça: Valdés 6.5; Alves 6, Piqué 5, Puyol 7, Alba 6.5; Xavi 6.5, Busquets 6, Fabregas 6.5 (Mascherano m59, 5.5); Pedro 6.5 (Adriano m89, –), Messi 6.5, Iniesta 6.
Goals: m7 Messi 0-1, m25 Pedro 1-1, m41 Chory, m62 Mascherano o.g. 2-2, m91 Agirretxe 3-2.
Yellow cards:m33 Piqué, m36 Iñigo, m56 Piqué (=red), m58 Iniesta, m73 Busquets, m79 Illarramendi, m92 Griezmann.