After eight straight league wins since the start of the season Barça could only manage a goalless draw at Osasuna tonight. With Real Madrid beating Malaga this afternoon, Barça’s point means the lead over Madrid is down to three points a week before next Saturday’s Clásico, while Atlético Madrid defeat at Espanyol leaves them a point behind Barça in second place. The best news for Barça was the 90 minutes played by Carles Puyol on his return to the team after more than seven months on the sidelines.
It’s fair to say that at the start of the season there was plenty of concern about Barça’s apparent weakness in the centre of defence. Of the four recognised centre-backs, Bartra was still not looking the finished product while Puyol, at 35, was recovering from a dodgy knee. Tonight the pair played together for the first time and they hardly put a foot wrong between them in a very solid performance. Bartra might have been the hero of the night if he had kept down his header from Xavi’s corner just before half time but the unmarked youngster sent the ball well over and Barça’s best chance of the half was gone.
There was little of note before that. Martino began with Messi on the bench and the three forwards Pedro, Fabregas and Neymar found few chances to test Osasuna’s keeper Andrés Fernández. Montoya offered the most danger with his attacking runs from deep. Early on he played a one-two with Pedro but he was going at such speed that he failed to control Pedro’s return. Then after half an hour the Barça right-back put in a dangerous cross but it was just too far in front of Fabregas who was booked for touching the ball on with his hand.
There was plenty of nice play in the middle third of the pitch with Iniesta and Neymar offering some skilful touches and dribbles. However, the final pass was nearly always over-hit while the shots from distance generally came from Iniesta but he only forced one easy save from Fernandez as most of his efforts failed to find the target. At one point Neymar set off on a terrific run through the middle, weaving past four challenges, but it was all for nothing as Pedro failed to keep possession at the end of it.
Osasuna had needed to reorganise after the early injury to Sisi but the home team worked hard to maintain a good shape and close down Barça’s routes to goal. There was little to threaten Victor Valdés as Puyol and Bartra dealt well with Osasuna’s occasional excursions into Barça territory and the Barça keeper had only had to deal with one low cross from substitute Omwu until Torres fired in a low 30-yarder on the stroke of half time which Valdés saved comfortably with a dive to his right.
Despite the frustrating lack of action in the first half there was the feeling that Barça’s passing game would eventually wear down the opponents and the chances would come. Osasuna began the second half well enough and their awareness in defence was demonstrated by Arribas excellently getting to Neymar’s through-ball before Pedro. However, Barça began to find some gaps and again it was Montoya’s forward surges which gave Osasuna the biggest headache. In the 54th minute Fabregas’s stylish pause, turn and pass sent the young full-back into the area but instead of shooting he played the ball across the face of goal and Neymar couldn’t quite get the touch to finish.
The chances suddenly started coming quick and fast. Fabregas had two in three minutes, both after Xavi’s assists, but first he failed in his attempt to lob Fernandez from about twelve yards and then he blazed over from a similar position. Next Adriano found no finisher to his dangerous ball across the goalmouth. Then in the 66th minute Neymar made a splendid crossfield run, waiting for the advance of Montoya before sending a perfect assist into the area. This time Montoya should definitely have shot but he hesitated a moment to look for a pass and the defence had the chance to intervene. A minute later Fabregas tried his luck from outside the area but his low drive went narrowly wide.
Martino called for Messi and the stage seemed set now for the Argentinian to come on and finish the job. Xavi went off with Fabregas moving back to midfield but Messi’s impact was minimal, while taking off Xavi seemed to have a negative effect and Barça’s chances dried up. Messi had two attempts, pulling a shot from outside the area well wide and then failing to get any power to a shot after receiving Busquets’ chip into the area though it’s fair to say he was closely marked at the time.
Martino made only one other substitute, bringing on Tello in place of Pedro but the impact was equally minimal. As time ticked by Osasuna seemed encouraged as they saw the finishing line approaching. There was no final great push from Barça and neither goalkeeper was troubled in the final minutes. A big disappointment as a game but at least the draw puts Barça a point clear at the top of La Liga. With Madrid creeping up in third place a victory for Barça in next week’s Clásico becomes even more imperative.
Finally, a quick apology for my preview which said the game was to be played at Mendizorroza which is of course the home of Alaves. It seems I must have somehow got confused with Barça B playing there earlier today. The B-team managed an entertaining 2-3 win over Alaves. After eight years as the Reyno de Navarro, Osasuna’s home is back to being called El Sadar. Just a shame the big boys couldn’t repeat the youngsters success earlier.
Osasuna: Andrés Fernández; Marc Bertrán, Loties, Arribas, Damiá; Lolo, Silva; Sisi (Omwu m6), Roberto Torres, De las Cuevas (Oier m81); Oriol Riera (Puñal m68).
Barça: Valdés 7; Montoya 7, Bartra 7, Puyol 7, Adriano 6; Xavi 7 (Messi m68, 6), Busquets 6.5, Iniesta 6; Pedro 5.5 (Tello m76, 6), Fabregas 6, Neymar 7.
Yellow cards: m32 Fabregas, m77 Bertran, m84 Adriano, m89 Torres, m91 Omwu