Cesc Fabregas has sometimes been described as being an anarchic player. Tonight, Fabregas stood out in a chaotic match at Balaídos, playing a major part in Barça’s first goal, scored by Alexis Sanchez in the ninth minute, before scoring the second and third early in the second half as Tata Martino’s men beat Luis Enrique’s Celta 0-3.
As expected Martino made changes to the starting XI that beat Real Madrid 2-1 on Saturday. Besides Piqué, who remained in Barcelona, Neymar, Iniesta, Xavi and Mascherano all started on the bench. Carles Puyol and Marc Bartra came into central defence while Alexis and Pedro returned to support Leo Messi in attack, but perhaps the biggest surprise was the use of Alex Song playing a more physical role in Xavi’s normal position.
With both teams playing a high press, neither Xavi nor Iniesta to put a brake on the tempo, and both goalkeepers generally kicking long, the game was played at a frenetic pace. There was plenty of movement shown from the Barça forwards with Messi and Alexis changing positions and Fabregas getting forward in support. Messi’s first run into the area in the ninth minute brought a penalty appeal after the Argentinian made contact with Fontas’s knee but referee Fernández Borbalán waved play on. However, before Celta had a chance to clear, Fabregas robbed Cabral and after a quick exchange of passes with Pedro the ex-Arsenal man was into the area and despite his shot being stopped by Celta keeper Yoel, Alexis, in his 100th appearance for Barça, was on hand to stab home the rebound.
In quick succession after the goal, Fabregas sent two excellent passes to Messi. Messi would surely have scored from the first but the linesman got it wrong and raised his flag. The second was a sublime cross-field pass that found Messi on the right, he darted inside before leaving the ball to Pedro who took the ball to the by-line before crossing to the far post where Alexis headed for goal but was denied by Yoel’s block.
The speed and intensity of the game inevitably led to errors from both sides. Celta began to look dangerous on the break and Alves needed to make an excellent tackle to prevent Nolito going through and then Puyol managed to get in the way to block Alex Lopez’s shot. As Celta pushed forward they left space for Barça also to play quick counter-attacks. From one, after Pedro recovered the ball, Fabregas sent Alexis away on a run towards goal that was only brought to an end by a foul by Rafinha who became the first of four players booked in the first half.
The contest went into overdrive as Celta raised their game for their best spell of the game between the 25th and 35th minute. Charles got into space behind Puyol while Alves failed to move forward to play the Celta striker offside, Valdés had to dive to his right to save. At the other end Song’s header sent Messi juggling into the area but after a couple of twists to create space for a shot the Argentinian sent his effort wide of the far post. Rafinha then fired wide from 25 yards and soon after Augusto Fernandez crossed from the right the ball came out to Rafinha who drove it back in and Valdés needed two attempts to grab hold of the ball.
The biggest scare for Barça came in the 30th minute when Valdés failed to hold Hugo Malla’s cross and the ball ended in the Barça net. Fernández Borbalán blew for a foul by Charles on the Barça keeper but the Celta striker will claim that he was fouled himself previously by Bartra. It was a fortunate break for Barça but the luck ran out for Adriano soon after as he felt another muscle twinge at the back of his right thigh. Montoya came on in his place and generally did a good job despite receiving a heavy foul from Augusto Fernandez soon after coming on which let him know the frenetic type of game he was now involved in.
Barça began to regain the upper hand with Pedro making a couple of decent runs. However, just before half time Alexis lost the ball as he tried to help out near the Barça penalty area, Oubinha strode forward and shot from 20 yards but Valdés dived to the left and held the ball comfortably.
The first forty-five minutes had been thrilling, with Fabregas standing out. However, things were about to get even better for the Barça number four with two goals in the first nine minutes of the second half. Just two minutes after the restart Messi exchanged passes neatly with Song before sending a low ball across the edge of the area which Fabregas met with a terrific shot from 25 yards that crashed against the crossbar before bouncing out onto the unfortunate Yoel, who was diving spectacularly, and back into the net.
Charles had a chance to pull one back soon after but he failed to get much power with his low shot from 12 yards and Valdés stretched to his right to save. Then in the 54th minute Alves played a fine ball from the right-back position to Messi just inside the Celta half. Messi controlled quickly and dashed 25 yards forwards before releasing Fabregas to his left, and Fabregas took a couple of touches before slipping the ball past Yoel at the near post.
Barça came close to a fourth after a brilliant build-up ended with Alves crossing for Fabregas who made an excellent one-touch assist for Messi but Yoel was alert to stop the Argentinian’s right-footed snap-shot with his feet. The threat from Barça’s counter-attack remained until the end but Celta kept plugging away in search of a goal. However, the intensity of the game inevitably dropped, as is reflected by the absence of second half bookings. Nolito came closest for Celta when his 25-yarder smacked against Valdés’s crossbar but Barça continued to look more likely to add to the scoreline. Pedro had an effort graze the woodwork and substitute Tello fired another chance wide of the near post, but the final fifteen minutes was marked by the singular effort of Messi to get on the score-sheet. The Argentinian had five attempts to add to his season’s tally, once he was robbed by the defence but Yoel denied him on the other four occasions.
Messi had a better game tonight than against Milan and Madrid but his marksmanship has not been at its best. He has now scored just three goals since his hat-trick against Ajax six weeks ago and he could do with a late boost if he is to win his fifth Ballon d’Or at the end of the year. The most positive aspect of the game, besides the excellent Fabregas, was the form of the other two forwards, Pedro and Alexis, who both worked tirelessly for the team with their movement in attack and pressing and recuperation when Celta had possession. All round a pretty solid performance and it is good to get a decent away win after the draws in Pamplona and Milan.
Celta: Yoel; Hugo Mallo, Cabral, Fontas, Aurtenetxe (Toni m55); Alex Lopez, Oubinha, Rafinha; Augusto Fernández (Santi Mina m59), Charles, Nolito (Orellano m69).
Barça: Valdés 7.5; Alves 6.5, Bartra 6.5, Puyol 6, Adriano 6 (Montoya m31, 7); Song 6.5, Busquets 6.5, Fabregas 9 (Iniesta m70, 6.5); Alexis 7.5 (Tello m83, 6), Messi 7, Pedro 7.5.
Goals: m9 Alexis 0-1, m48 Fabregas 0-2, m54 Fabregas 0-3.
Yellow cards: m23 Rafinha, m31 Fabregas, m34 Augusto Fernandez, m38 Cabral