A second half comeback with goals from David Villa and Leo Messi earned Barça a 2-1 victory over Sevilla. Ex-blaugrana Alberto Botía headed the visitors in front just before half time on a cold night at Camp Nou but the 57,629 fans in attendance were warmed by the second half reaction which takes Barça another step closer to a 22nd La Liga title.
With an eye on Tuesday’s Copa del Rey semi-final with Real Madrid, Barça made six changes to the supposed once de gala that lost at Milan. Javier Mascherano, Martin Montoya, Alex Song, Thiago Alcántara, Alexis Sanchez and Villa came into the team in place of Carles Puyol, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro Rodriguez. There was no surprise place on the bench for Eric Abidal who was left out of the game squad along with Johnathan dos Santos, Puyol and Fabregas. Sevilla also have a cup semi-final this week though they made fewer changes to their theoretical best XI. However, their top scorer Alvaro Negredo was left on the bench which meant a chance up front for the Senegalese striker Babá Diawara.
Barça began the game in lively style with Iniesta and Messi combining well through the middle. In the third minute Botía had to make a spectacular overhead kick intervention to prevent Iniesta’s pass from reaching the Argentinian. Then a minute later Thiago robbed the ball in Sevilla’s half, Messi nipped by one challenge before finding Iniesta who cut in from the left but his shot was blocked. The attack continued with the ball coming to Alexis on the right and he played it back for Alves whose shot also hit a Sevilla defender.
Alexis was busy on the right, doing well in winning the ball back, but failing to find a way past left back Fernando Navarro. In the 16th minute the Chilean robbed Navarro and won a dangerous free kick 25 yards out but Messi fired the free kick straight at the wall. Messi had two more efforts from free kicks in the first half but he sent both over the bar. There were few occasions from open play though Alves sent a shot that hit Manu del Moral before taking a wicked loop that went narrowly over. With Villa relatively quiet on the left wing and Alexis looking less confident as the half went on, the best connections continued to be between Iniesta and Messi. In the 23rd minute Iniesta found Messi in the right of the area and after a good control he nipped past a defender but Sevilla keeper Beto did well to beat out his right-footed strike.
This would be Barça’s best attempt in the first half as ideas began to dry up. With Iniesta in the most advanced midfield position it was Thiago and Song who had the Xavi and Busquets roles and the team doesn’t seem to work so fluently. It wasn’t as if there was much danger from Sevilla with Valdés only needing to come into action to gather two awkward crosses from the right in the 18th and 39th minute. Then just three minute before half time Sevilla won a free kick fifteen yards into the Barça half by the left touchline. Rakitic sent in a long cross which was misjudged by Montoya which allowed Coke the chance to cross from the right and Botía rose above Alves to head the ball down to bounce past the diving Valdés. Barça then had two attacks which might have brought a quick equalizer but there was nobody in the middle to get on to Montoya’s and Iniesta’s crosses from the left and Barça went in a goal down at the break.
There has been plenty of talk since the Milan game about the problem of Tito Vilanova’s absence. There seemed to be a lack of tactical ideas on Wednesday but tonight we made a half-time switch that would be crucial. Tello came on for Alexis – according to Jordi Roura due to Alexis taking a knock – and played on the left while Villa moved to a more central position with Messi in the hole behind him. This freed up the right wing for Dani Alves who played a more advanced role, while the midfield played a little deeper to compensate and Piqué, Mascherano and Montoya moved across at the back.
Tello immediately began to look active on the left but when the equalizer came the source was Alves on the right. In the 52nd minute Piqué sent a pass forward for the Brazilian to cross and Villa was left free in the middle between Fazio and Botía to head firmly past Beto. Barça looked refreshed and the second goal wasn’t long in coming. In the 60th minute Thiago made a dart forward before finding Messi 25 yards out, there was a wall of defenders facing him so the Argentinian swept a pass out Tello on the left, the winger checked and picked out Messi who had slowed his run to gain a yard of space from the retreating defenders, and the low finish was typically clinical.
Sevilla refused to lie down. With Kongdogbia and Negredo on as substitutes they began to search for an equalizer. First Kongdogbia blazed well over from 30 yards but within a minute Navas was sent free on the right and he pulled it back to Rakitic who hooked a good chance wide of the far post. Barça brought on Xavi in place of Iniesta to try and control things more but almost immediately Manu had another chance after getting the wrong side of Piqué but his angled shot went straight at Valdés.
Sevilla continued to press and Valdés had to dive to stop a 25-yarder from Manu while Barça tried to react at the other end with Tello’s deflected shot going just wide. Sevilla’s best chance of an equalizer came in the 75th minute after Rakitic chipped a pass over Piqué for Negredo who stormed into the area but shot just over as Valdés came out.
It was a narrow escape and Barça made a conservative final substitution with Busquets coming on for Villa and playing a right-sided midfield role with a heavy emphasis on covering Dani Alves. The Brazilian continued to mount attacks from the right, finding Messi who shot just wide from the edge of the box, and provoking Botía into a yellow card foul after another run up the right. There was one late counter from Sevilla that looked dangerous but Mascherano held his ground well against Sevilla’s third substitute Alberto Moreno.
It’s good to get the victory today after the defeat in Milan but we made hard work of it. Iniesta got a twenty minute rest at the end but Alves, Piqué and Messi have now played two games in four days with a big game with Madrid on Tuesday. There weren’t too many positives to take from tonight’s game though Villa and Tello will have improved their chances for more minutes in the big games coming up. The best thing for me was the tactical switch. We have become a little too predictable this season and it would do us good to keep opposition coaches guessing a bit more. Could we see Villa or Tello starting in the cup on Tuesday?
Barça: Valdes 7; Alves 7.5, Pique 6.5, Mascherano 6.5, Montoya 6; Thiago 6, Song 6.5, Iniesta 7 (Xavi m69, 6.5); Alexis 5.5 (Tello m45, 7), Messi 7, Villa 7 (Busquets m79, 6.5).
Sevilla: Beto; Coke, Fazio, Botia, Navarro; Maduro (Moreno m82), Medel (Kongdogbia m54); Navas, Rakitic, Manu del Moral; Babá (Negredo m61).
Goals: m43 Botía 0-1, m52 Villa 1-1, m60 Messi 2-1.
Yellow cards: m33 Navarro, m86 Botía