Just three days before the vital Champions League return match with AC Milan, Barça returned to winning ways with a 2-0 victory over Deportivo de La Coruña thanks to goals from Alexis Sanchez and Leo Messi at Camp Nou tonight. Messi’s goal took him to 40 in this season’s Liga and it was also his 17th consecutive league game scoring which is a world record, beating the Polish player Peterek who scored in 16 straight games for Ruch Chorzow in 1937/38.
With such a big task facing the team on Tuesday night in the Champions League Messi, Andrés Iniesta, Pedro Rodriguez, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba were all left out of the initial lineup. With Victor Valdés suspended and Xavi still trying to get fit, Barça started with an XI of: Pinto, Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano, Thiago, Song, Fabregas, Alexis, Villa and Tello.
The game began with a somewhat subdued atmosphere. As a protest at the board’s decision to drop plans for a young people’s section at Camp Nou, three blocks remained empty behind the south goal which Barça were attacking in the first half. There was just one shot from Barça in the first ten minutes which Tello sent well over from 25 yards. At this point Carles Puyol showed his captain’s qualities by gesturing to the crowd to get behind the team. The crowd reacted by increasing the volume and the team began to lift the rhythm.
The first real chance came in the twelfth minute. Thiago found Alves forward on the right and the Brazilian sent in a cross that was just too high for Villa but the ball carried to Tello who headed the ball back across goal to Alves who sent in a low shot from an angle which Depor keeper Arunzubia did well to save with his legs.
Alves was being particularly active and a couple of minutes later he sent an excellent long ball to Fabregas who controlled on the run with his right foot but could then only fire over with his left. From here on the first half was a just a series of chances for Barça though the goal took a while to come. Thiago threaded a pass through for Tello but Arunzubia came out bravely at the winger’s feet and Adriano fired the loose ball wide. Villa then put Tello away on the left but Silvio did well to get in front of Alexis as the cross came in. Then Thiago showed tremendous skill to twirl away from two players before sending a glorious long pass to Tello on the left, the winger darted into the area and sent in a low cross which hit Aythami and an own goal was only prevented by an excellent reaction save from Aranzubia who touched the ball against the post.
In the 24th minute Tello sent Villa clean through and a goal seemed certain but Aranzubia stood his ground well and managed to stick out an arm to stop El Guaje’s shot, Adriano, following up, fired his shot straight at the Depor keeper and then Tello fired the second rebound well wide. Alexis was looking more confident than in recent games and he made a good run into the area after Song’s pass but his final cross was cut out by a defender.
Barça kept pushing with Villa firing a quick shot on the turn that Aranzubia read well, while there was practically nothing from Depor at the other end. The only concerns for Barça at the back had been self-inflicted with one early dribble round the area from Pinto and then a poor crossfield ball from Thiago inside Barça’s half that went straight to an opponent. However, Depor didn’t manage their first shot until Oliveira shot well wide from distance in the 36th minute.
Two minutes later another timid Depor attack was broken up by Mascherano. Barça moved forward with the ball coming to Fabregas who sent a long crossfield ball to Alves on the right, the Brazilian lobbed in a cross to the unmarked Alexis whose header bounced down and over the line before Arunzubia could get his hand to the ball in a desperate dive backwards. Barça might have made it two-nil soon after following a splendid build-up which included full-backs Alves and Adriano playing one-twos through the middle. The ball came to Alexis on the right and his cross found Villa who hooked his shot wide from 16 yards.
The second half was less intense as Depor showed a lack of ambition to attack and Barça looked to reserve some energy for Tuesday. The exceptions were Alves, Puyol and Alexis who continued to work very hard. The little danger that Barça were creating was mainly from Alves’s forward charges but his crossing wasn’t so precise. Messi and Iniesta were brought on to try and find a second goal, with Iniesta forcing Arunzubia’s first save of the second half in the 74th minute, Messi buried the rebound but he was correctly flagged for being offside.
Busquets was brought on for the disappointing Fabregas to strengthen the midfield as Depor started to attempt a push forward in the final minutes. However, Pinto continued without needing to make a save and Barça began to find more room going forward. In the 86th minute Messi had a good chance but completely missed his kick as he swung at Alves’s cross. It seemed that Messi would have to settle for sharing the consecutive-games-scoring record, but in the 88th minute he received the ball from Iniesta about 30 yards out in the inside left position, he spun away from Aythami before skipping past Aguilar and darting diagonally to the centre, Insua blocked his way so he sent a pass out to Alexis on the right and then darted into the box to receive the Chilean’s quick return pass with a delightful flick past Aranzubia.
Messi’s records were of course secondary today, and although he did not need to work very much, one can’t help wondering if it would have been better to keep him as fresh and hungry as possible for Milan. The Champions League game is going to be one helluva tough test. There were few clues to who will start against Milan though it would seem logical that the players who started on the bench tonight will start on the pitch on Tuesday. Of these I have to say I’m not so sure about Pedro. Alves has looked good in recent games, especially when he hasn’t had Pedro in front of him and the options of playing the Brazilian in an adaptable role, switching between a back three and back four, could be a useful option. Besides that, there are various players who are pushing for a place and of these Alexis and Tello will have done their options no harm with tonight’s performance. The defence all looked solid in helping to keep our first clean sheet since the start of January but I imagine Mascherano and Adriano on Tuesday will be benched in favour of Piqué and Jordi Alba. On a slightly negative note Fabregas continued with his recent drop in form, Thiago demonstrated that despite his class he is still a liability with too many mistakes in dangerous positions, and Villa failed to score from a couple of decent chances. Just for the record my team for the Milan game, depending on Xavi’s fitness, would be: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Alba; Xavi (or Fabregas), Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Tello.
Barça: Pinto 6.5; Alves 7.5, Puyol 7.5, Mascherano 7, Adriano 6.5; Thiago 6 (Iniesta m67, 7), Song 6.5, Fabregas 5.5 (Busquets m75, 6.5); Alexis 7.5, Villa 6 (Messi m62, 7), Tello 7.
Depor: (4-2-3-1) Aranzubia; Manuel Pablo, Insua, Aythami, Sílvio; Assunção (Juan Dominguez m77), Abel Aguilar; Bruno Gama, Valerón (Camuñas m62), Pizzi; Oliveira (Salomao m70).
Goals: m38 Alexis 1-0, m88 Messi 2-0
Yellow cards: m70 Puyol, m70 Aguilar, m83 Song