Barça set up a tantalizing Copa del Rey semi-final with Real Madrid after a magnificent 2-4 win over Malaga at La Rosaleda tonight. Twice Malaga equalized after Pedro Rodriguez and Papa Gerard Piqué had given Barça the advantage but goals from Andres Iniesta and Leo Messi finally finished with the tough-tackling Andalucians and sent Barça through 6-4 on aggregate.
Except for the typical change of Pinto for Valdés for the cup, Jordi Roura opted for the same ten outfield players that won 1-3 at La Rosaleda eleven days ago which meant that with Mascherano back in place of Puyol there were only two changes to the team that lost to Real Sociedad on Saturday.
The game began at a tremendous pace with both sides pushing up on each other. It was obvious that the pitch was not in good condition with early slips especially from Barça’s players though Pinto showed the all important good footwork under pressure. The teams were looking evenly balanced but Barça delivered the first punch. Xavi and Pedro combined well to find Alves in a forward position on the right, the Brazilian full back played a quick one-two with Xavi on the edge of the area before drawing Kameni and crossing for Pedro to head home. The replay suggested that Alves was marginally offside though the officials’ mistakes would even up pretty quickly.
Just three minutes later the referee Mateu Lahoz missed a handball from Seba which broke down a Barça attack. Seba was allowed to move into Barça’s half before sending a good ball out to Duda on the right which caught Alba in two minds, Duda was quick to send in a low ball to the edge of the area, Mascherano failed to cut it out, Joaquin controlled well, Piqué might have done better to close down the shooting occasion and Joaquin took advantage to fire low past Pinto for the equalizer.
The 1-1 scoreline was not enough to take Barça through and the next few minutes a combination of the pitch and Malaga’s aggressive pressing caused us problems. Iturra had already been booked for a handball when he twice brought Messi down in the space of a minute but Mateu Lahoz must have felt it too early to be sending anybody off. Malaga had one optimistic appeal for a penalty when the ball bounced up onto Piqué’s arm but despite an electric speed to the game the next goal chance didn’t come until the 25th minute when Messi intercepted the ball 25 yards out and darted into the area, a goal looked sure but Kameni did well to get down and slow the shot and Weligton whacked the ball away. From the resulting corner Iniesta got into the left of the area and Kameni again came out to make a very good block.
Malaga continued to cause us problems. Alves managed to get in the way of Seba’s drive, then in the 35th minute Santa Cruz stole in unmarked to meet Duda’s chipped free-kick and we were fortunate to see the Paraguayan striker stab the ball wide. It was non-stop stuff now and Barça were up the other end with Messi sending Iniesta through to fire against the top of the crossbar. Two minutes later, the ref played a good advantage after Alba’s foul and Pinto had to make a double save. Straight after that, with the atmosphere in La Rosaleda reaching fever pitch, Messi missed a glorious chance after Fabregas’s chip, but there was a moment that the Argentinian lost sight of the ball after leaping for the header and his final shot was pulled and fired off a defender for a corner.
It was a breathtaking first half with the game and the tie looking evenly balanced at half time. Small details so often make a difference and early in the second half there was one that would tip the tie in Barça’s favour. Iniesta’s intelligent pressing often reaps benefits and in the 48th minute instead of tackling Gamez which would almost certainly have sent the ball into touch, Iniesta clipped the ball away from the Malaga defender, sprinted to stop the ball from running out of play, turned, dribbled past two players and then won a free kick. Many top midfielders would have conceded the throw-in and been applauded for the work but Iniesta is a notch above these other players. From the free kick, play continued and Barça won a corner. From the corner the ball came back to Iniesta who sent in a beautiful cross for Piqué to chest down at the far post and sweep the ball past Kameni before wheeling away to celebrate with the all-too-predictable thumb to mouth in dedication to Barça’s youngest new Soci.
The second goal put Barça in the driving seat with Malaga knowing a goal would only earn them extra time now. Barça tried to take advantage and pushed for a third. One brilliant build-up with Malaga snapping at our heels, ended with Fabregas threading the ball through to Alves who crossed for Messi to head from 15 yards but Kameni saved easily. Alves and Xavi had shots in quick succession in one long attack started by Fabregas’s burst in from the left, and soon after Alba sped free up the left but Weligton managed to send the cross out for a corner.
Barça were playing some thrilling stuff. Messi went past two before playing a quick one-two with Pedro but his shot was deflected for another corner. Then on 68 minutes Iniesta scooped a pass over the defence for Messi but again Kameni got the better of the four-time Ballon d’Or and as Fabregas went in for the rebound Weligton brought his studs down on the inside of our midfielder’s thigh. I’m sure Weligton will say it was accidental but we have seen his nasty side before. As Fabregas writhed on the floor Malaga took advantage to break up the left, Seba sent the ball inside to Joaquin who played it on to Santa Roque to his right and the Paraguayan fired a low shot across Pinto from the edge of the area that went in off the far post.
Fabregas didn’t take long to get his revenge. In the 76th minute Iniesta found him with 25 yards out and he turned and slipped the ball through for Don Andres who had continued his run to slip the ball under Kameni. The goal effectively killed off Malaga’s valiant challenge. Fabregas should have added another but his first touch was too heavy after Pedro’s delicious pass. But in the 80th minute Iniesta found another pass for another Alves charge up the right and the Brazilian sent in his second goal assist of the night for Messi to bury the header in the bottom corner. Messi was substituted soon after but it seems it was just as a precaution.
In the end Barça were worthy winners of the game and the tie but it was only in the second half tonight that we really made the difference. This was an excellent response from the team which will hopefully dispel some of the doubts produced after the last couple of results. We now receive Osasuna in the league at Camp Nou on Sunday (7 pm) and then it’s straight back to the cup next Wednesday at 9 pm with the semi-final first leg at the Bernabéu. Bring it on baby!
Malaga: Kameni; Jesus Gamez, Demichelis, Weligton, Eliseu; Camacho, Iturra; Joaquin (Piazon m80), Duda (Portillo m63), Seba (Saviola m80); Santa Cruz.
Barça: Pinto 7; Alves 8, Piqué 7, Mascherano 7, Alba 6.5 (Adriano m90, –); Xavi 8, Busquets 8, Fabregas 8; Pedro 8 (Alexis m87, –), Messi 7.5 (Thiago m82, –), Iniesta 9.
Goals: m9 Pedro 0-1, m12 Joaquin 1-1, m49 Piqué 1-2, m68 Santa Cruz 2-2, m76 Iniesta 2-3, m80 Messi 2-4.
Yellow cards: m14 Iturra, m26 Eliseu, m32 Busquets, m39 Weligton, m39 Alba, m45 Fabregas, m69 Mascherano, m82 Alves.