It is possible that Barça will end the 2012/13 season with another Liga and Champions League, records may be broken and awards may be won, but undoubtedly the greatest achievement and the biggest victory of the season came in the 70th minute of tonight’s match with Mallorca when Eric Abidal returned to play first team football 361 days after receiving a liver transplant.
Abidal said a short prayer as he waited on the touchline to come on, and the ovation that he received when he replaced Gerard Piqué produced goosebumps. The first ball he received he controlled well before sending a typical elegant pass up the line to Alexis, and from then on it was as though he had never been away. Before his entrance there had been a football match, at least for 46 minutes, the time it took for Cesc Fabregas to score the first hat-trick of his career while Alexis Sanchez chipped in with a brace to put Barça 5-0 up.
There was disappointment when the teams were announced and neither Abidal nor Gerard Deulofeu were included in the starting XI. With the Champions League second leg with Paris Saint-Germain coming up on Wednesday many players were rested, though there was a place in the team for Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué and Andrés Iniesta From the way Barça played in the first half it is possible that Tito Vilanova, who was also returning to Camp Nou after his absence through illness, told the team before the game that he wanted a comfortable margin in order to give Abidal his chance. Something definitely seem to motivate the team and Mallorca had little chance to stay in the game.
The game was very open from the start with Mallorca showing ambition to push players forward. Barça, with Iniesta picking out the passes, began to look for Tello’s speed on the left, and it didn’t take long for Tello, Iniesta and Fabregas to shoot for goal. Mallorca kept going forward and shortly before Barça’s first goal the visitors created a worrying moment for Barça’s defence but Giovani’s cross was out of Hemed’s reach.
Fabregas was playing Messi’s false nine role and in the 20th minute he dropped deep to start the move for the first goal. After the ball arrived to Iniesta, Fabregas moved into the space between lines to receive the pass. He then sent a quick pass to Alexis on the edge of the area and the Chilean’s return was perfect for Fabregas to control and tuck inside the far post. Two minutes later and the same players were involved in Barça’s second. Iniesta played the ball into the area for Fabregas whose shot was parried by Mallorca keeper Dudu Aouate but Alexis was on hand on the corner of the six-yard box to fire home the rebound.
It was always going to be tough for Mallorca to come back though they did manage a couple attempts in quick succession. After 34 minutes Emilio Nsue robbed Montoya, and Hemed sent his shot just wide. A minute after Hutton sent over a cross to the far post but Alejandro Alfaro also failed to find to find the target with his header.
Mallorca would pay for their misses as Fabregas and Alexis continued their double act with another goal each in under two minutes. Receiving the ball in the inside right position, Fabregas found Alexis to his right and then burst into the middle to meet the cross with a sweeping shot past Aouate. The pair were inspired with Fabregas then sending a splendid pass over the top which Alexis controlled perfectly, allowing him to beat Aouate to the ball and stab home Barça’s fourth.
Four-nil up at half time, it took Barça just 53 seconds of the second period to find the net again. Iniesta intercepted a loose pass out from the Mallorca defence and quickly sent a ball into the area where Fabregas demonstrated what he is capable of when his confidence is up, with a neat pull back to leave Kevin Garcia on his arse before stroking the ball past Aouate for his hat-trick.
Vilanova now took the chance first to introduce Johnathan dos Santos for a rare appearance, curiously coming up against his older brother Giovani in Mallorca’s team. Barça might have scored more with Tello curling one just wide and Piqué getting forward to flick a header just over. Then it was time for Deulofeu to make his entrance, and he looked lively on the right side though he found it tough to get by left back Kevin.
Abidal then came on and Camp Nou could not have been happier. He was tested little by Mallorca’s attack though he managed to get in the way of one shot from Alfara, deflecting the ball out for a corner. Barça kept the ball and Abidal was cheered for every touch. The 5-0 final score now leaves Barça needing just twelve more points from the remaining eight games to clinch the 22nd Liga in the club’s history.
Fabregas and Alexis will have given Vilanova some more options when he comes to naming his team for PSG. Both players, along with Thiago have come in for a lot of criticism for their below par performances recently. Thiago again demonstrated his worrying tendency to give stray passes in dangerous positions but Fabregas and Alexis showed that on their day they are both players of exceptional quality.
Alex Song also deserves a mention after a very solid game filling in for Sergio Busquets. Song may not be the answer to our defensive problems but he does make a very good deputy for Busi, his positioning is improving and tonight he gave first time accurate passes nearly every time. The final word though has to go to today’s hero Eric Abidal. A year ago the only concern was for his life, but after a long hard struggle to regain fitness, Abidal has achieved an authentic miracle by returning to play at the top level. Fabregas’s hat-trick was sublime, Alexis’s brace was sweet, but the return of Eric Abidal quite simply the best.
Barça: Pinto 7; Alves 7, Bartrá 7, Piqué 7.5 (Abidal m70, 10), Montoya 6.5; Thiago 6, Song 8, Iniesta 8 (Johnathan dos Santos m51, 7); Alexis 8, Fabregas 9 (Deulofeu m65, 7), Tello 7.
Mallorca: Aouate; Hutton, Nunes, Bigas, Kevin; Pina (Javi Marquez m71), Tissone; Nsue (Martí m46), Giovani dos Santos, Alfaro; Hemed (Arizmendi m46).
Goals: m20 Fabregas 1-0, m22 Alexis 2-0, m37 Fabregas 3-0, m38 Alexis 4-0, m46 Fabregas 5-0.
Yellow cards: m64 Alfaro, m75 Alexis.