Barça had to settle for a point after a complicated game against Valencia at Mestalla tonight. Ever Banega fired Valencia deservedly in front after 33 minutes but a Leo Messi penalty five minutes later after Pedro was brought down by Joao Pereira brought Barça level. Chances fell to both teams in the second half to take all three points but Cesc Fabregas and substitute David Villa missed Barça’s best opportunies while Valencia were denied at the end by a splendid double save by Victor Valdés.
Jordi Roura made only two changes to the team that drew 1-1 at Madrid on Wednesday. Victor Valdés returned in goal while Javier Mascherano replaced Carles Puyol in defence. For Valencia, Vicente Guaita was preferred over Diego Alves in goal while Ernesto Valverde’s decision to play Banega suggests the player was not drunk, just late, for Friday’s training session.
Games at Mestalla are rarely easy and Valencia worked very hard when Barça were in possession to close down space while keeping a compact shape. Barça rarely looked comfortable throughout the game and goal opportunities were scarce, though early on Fabregas wriggled into the area before his shot was deflect for a corner. When Xavi sent the cross over from the left Piqué was free at the near post but he sent his header disappointingly wide.
Guaita has appeared on quite a few lists as a possible substitute for Victor Valdés, but like Osasuna’s Andrés Fernandez last week, he made an early mistake with his footwork, allowing Xavi to chase him down, though the ball bounced off Xavi out towards the corner flag.
Valencia began to create danger at the other end. First Guardado hit a shot well wide from the left and soon after Rami headed over from a corner. Valencia’s pressing was giving Barça problems and there was always the danger of losing the ball in a dangerous position. In the 23rd minute Soldado managed to close down Piqué, and after a couple of bounces in his favour Soldado got a run towards goal which only ended with Mascherano getting a yellow card after bringing him down on the edge of the area. Tino Costa’s free kick went into the wall, Valencia, not for the first time appealed for a handball, but although the ball struck Xavi on the elbow there was clearly no intention.
Barça were struggling to make inroads into the last third of the pitch while at the same time whenever Valencia won the ball they got the ball forward quickly with Bernat, Banega, Guardado and Soldado giving the Barça defence plenty to think about. In the 33rd minute Alba allowed Soldado to slip past and when the cross came in from the right Piqué could only head the ball as far as Banega who controlled just inside the area before shooting low between Piqué and Alves, and past Valdés.
At this point of the game Valencia’s lead was deserved. Soldado might have made it 2-0 a couple of minutes later but he failed to get good contact on his attempted overhead kick. Then, when things were beginning to look pretty bad, Messi made his first meaningful contribution, finding Pedro who was clumsily brought down by Pereira sticking in his knee and referee Gonzalez Gonzalez had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot. If Messi’s penalty against Osasuna had been impressive, this effort was even more so, driving the ball at top speed into the top corner. Unstoppable.
One-all and neither keeper had made a save yet. This changed just before half time after Tino Costa dispossessed Iniesta before finding Guardado on the left, the Mexican let fly from outside the area but Valdés saved without too much problem. The problem with our midfield failing to take control continued in the second half. In the 51st minute Fabregas lost the ball which led to Guardado crossing from the left and Soldado heading narrowly wide.
Messi continued to be well controlled by Valencia but then he created Barça’s next scoring chance with one moment of pure genius. Turning on the halfway line somehow picked out an extraordinary forward pass inside the full back that sent Fabregas into the area for a shot that clipped the outside of the post.
Soon after Puyol replaced Mascherano, presumably because he already had a yellow card, but if anything the Barça defence looked more shaky as Soldado’s diagonal runs into space were difficult to control. Valdés had to save from a long shot from Tino Costa, and soon after Costa found Soldado who’d got the wrong side of Puyol but the final shot went well wide.
The game was opening up now with Messi firing one wide at the other end. Soon after an excellent run from Fabregas opened space for Messi on the right of the area but instead of shooting, perhaps because the ball was on his right foot, the Argentinian inexplicable crossed to nobody. Valencia replied with another shot wide from Soldado and then in the 68th minute Guardado got away on the left before pulling the ball back to substitute Sergio Canales whose shot brought a diving save from Valdés, tipping the ball past the far post.
With 18 minutes remaining Roura brought on Villa for Fabregas, with Iniesta moving back to midfield, and the move nearly paid off soon after. Xavi sent an splendid pass into space for Alves’s forward run and when the Brazilian crossed Villa was in an excellent position but his finish was disappointing, sending the ball a foot wide of the far post.
With time running out Valencia appeared to be tiring and there seemed a chance that Barça could steal the win. Iniesta made a delightful turn to dribble in on the right of the area but he was prevented from sending in the killer pass by Ricardo Costa’s last ditch tackle. Then in the 83rd minute Villa sent the ball from the left into Xavi who moved the ball onto the right to Pedro but after cutting back onto his left foot Pedro’s low shot was easily saved by Guaita.
There was one final golden opportunity for Valencia. In the 89th minute Piqué got in a mess near the corner flag, allowing Cissokho to rob him, when the French full back crossed Valdés did well to beat Piatti to the ball at the near post and when the ball broke free to Soldado, Valdés was quick to spring up and dive to his left to parry Soldado’s goalbound effort.
In the end we will have to be happy with the point though we cannot take much from the performance. Whether the players were tired or not after the efforts of Wednesday’s clásico I couldn’t say. If anything it was the Valencia players who were tiring more at the end but that was probably due to their greater effort on the night. Basically, I think it’s fair to say we were outfought and outrun tonight and Valencia’s intensity meant we were never very comfortable. Whether things would have been different if we’d made more changes to the team is impossible to say.
There were plenty of reasons for playing our so-called best eleven tonight as it is one of the toughest away games of the season, however, with Adriano, Thiago and Villa as possible options we might wonder how fresher legs might have done if they’d had the chance from the start. However, the way Valencia played tonight I feel it would have been a tough one to win whatever our lineup had been.
Valencia: Guaita; Pereira, Rami, Ricardo Costa, Cissokho; Victor Ruiz, Tino Costa; Bernat (Piatti m70), Banega (Canales m64), Guardado (Jonas m86); Soldado
Barça: Valdés 7.5; Dani Alves 6.5, Piqué 6, Mascherano 6.5 (Puyol m54, 6), Alba 6; Xavi 6 (Thiago m91, –), Busquets 7, Fabregas 6 (Villa m72, 6); Pedro 6, Messi 6.5, Iniesta 7.
Goals: m33 Banega 1-0, m38 Messi (pen) 1-1.
Yellow cards: m23 Mascherano, m40 Cissokho, m47 Soldado, m76 Guardado.