Perhaps in an attempt to maintain tension in his players, Barça coach Tata Martino stated before today’s league game with Valencia there is no longer any margin of error. Unfortunately for the Argentine coach, despite an excellent opening half hour from his team which saw Barça leading through Alexis Sanchez’s 7th-minute goal, a number of defensive mistakes allowed Juan Antonio Pizzi’s men to come back and earn a surprising 2-3 away win. The defeat for Barça puts an end to a run of 25 straight league wins at Camp Nou but more importantly it allows Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid the chance tomorrow to go ahead at the top of the league.
The only surprise in Martino’s starting XI was the exclusion of Andrés Iniesta which meant Cesc Fabregas continued in midfield. Fabregas, like Alexis, had played in Wednesday’s Copa del Rey victory over Levante on Wednesday, but Martino preferred to keep both players in the team and the two summer signings of 2012 started well. In the fourth minute Fabregas sent a long ball searching for Alexis and Valencia keeper Diego Alves had to be brave to come off his line, clattering into the Chilean in the process of half-clearing. Play continued with Messi and Pedro on the left but after Pedro’s cross to Xavi, Alexis was called offside in the ensuing scramble.
The signs were looking good. With Xavi moving the ball about artfully, and Valencia were, more often than not, pinned back in the final third. In the sixth minute Messi’s cross looked for Xavi coming in at the far post but a defender managed to turn the ball out for a corner. Barça took it short but Messi’s cross was cleared. Here, Barça’s high press paid dividends with first Fabregas and then Busquets recovering possession, the ball came back to Messi on the left and he fired the ball low across the face of the goal. Alexis was coming in at the far post but the angle looked too tight. Somehow, and it’s not clear if it was intentional, Alexis looped a shot (or sliced a cross?) over the goalkeeper and into the far corner.
Few would have bet on Valencia at this point. Barça continued to dominate though there was a first warning from Valencia when Feghouli turned and shot in the 12th minute but Valdés had little difficulty in diving to parry. However, the game continued to be played in Valencia’s half with the away team defending with nine outfield players, sometimes in the last 25 yards of the pitch.
Despite Valencia’s packed defence Barça began to make chances. Busquets curled a 25-yarder narrowly over. Then in the 21st minute Fabregas sent a long pass for Pedro on the left, after running at the defence the Canarian sent in a wicked cross, Alexis met the ball with a diving header but Diego Alves, moving the wrong way, managed to stretch his right arm back to make a splendid save.
A brilliant spell from Barça followed with chance after chance to add to the lead. Messi chose to go it alone in a four-against-three attack but his shot was deflected for a corner, and soon after the Argentinian dribbled past Barragan on the left but his low shot was put round the near post by the keeper. Dani Alves drove just wide from 30 yards, then after a long patient build-up Messi beat one with a nutmeg but his one-two on the edge of the area just failed to come off. Next, two great passes, first from Xavi and then from Messi sent Dani Alves into the area but his cross was put out for a corner. The pressure was building on Valencia and Mathieu was panicked into a poor pass straight to Xavi, but then after Messi exchanged passes with Pedro, Mathieu got back into the area to make a saving block on the Argentinian.
It was blistering stuff from Barça but there was nothing more to show apart from Alexis’s early goal. In the final ten minutes of the first half Valencia began to put some attacks together and it was soon clear that Barça’s defence was not at its best. Valdés had to rush out to prevent Piatti and soon after, Mascherano needed to make a good tackle on Barragan after which the the Barça player needed treatment for a whack in the ribs. There was then a massive scare as Valdés totally misjudged a corner but Mascherano just did enough to force Costa to send his header wide.
This should have served as a warning for Barça, but having played so well for 30 minutes it seemed some players felt they just had to go through the motions for Barça to earn another victory. With half time approaching Jordi Alba got harried into giving a poor pass towards Busquets who lost the challenge with Parejo. Suddenly it was five forwards against three Barça defenders, Parejo slipped it right to Feghouli who centred and Parejo beat Piqué to the ball to equalize.
Surely this was just a blip. Barça had looked so dominant. Now for the second half we just needed to play again like in the first 30 minutes and surely the points would be ours. Valencia had other ideas. Just two minutes after the restart Feghouli sent a good ball inside Alba and Barragan got to the line to cross, Alcácer reached the ball at the near post, looping a header up behind him, Valdés half came and then realised he wouldn’t arrive, while Dani Alves hesitated and failed to jump for the ball which allowed Piatti the chance to make a spectacularly leap and loop a header that just evaded Valdés’s desperate dive and dropped into the net.
Messi tried to respond with a decent effort after shifting onto his right foot but Alves made a fine save, now the possibility that this might not be our day was becoming very real and anxiety began to creep in. However, a stroke of luck arrived in the 52nd minute when referee Pedro Jesús Pérez Montero gave an absurdly harsh penalty after Pedro’s volleyed cross hit Ricardo Costa on the top of his arm. Messi took advantage of the ref’s generosity by blasting an unstoppable penalty high past Alves’s dive to the left.
At 2-2 the game looked fascinatingly balanced. Valencia were still encouraged, having already seen the easy pickings in the Barça area, but with more than 35 minutes to play surely Barça would now raise the tempo to achieve an epic win. Again Valencia hadn’t read my script. Costa did brilliantly to cut out Alexis’s killer pass for Messi, and in the next attack Feghouli burst into the Barça area only to be denied by Alba who then did well to prevent the ball going out for a corner. Valencia got a throw-in instead but it would lead to the visitors’ winner as Barça collectively forgot how to defend. Busquets and Mascherano both failed to stop Feghouli run inside the area and this time Feghouli pulled the ball back to the near post where Piqué allowed Alcácer enough space to clip the ball past Valdés.
There was still half an hour to play but Barça were stunned by Valencia’s third. Messi tried to pick up the gauntlet but his individuality proved fruitless as time and again he lost possession after taking on one too many. Iniesta came on in place of Xavi but it was clear now that Barça had lost the early momentum and Valencia looked more and more assured in defence.
There was a definite lack of belief in Camp Nou and in the 77th minute whistles accompanied the substitution of Tello for Fabregas. A minute later, Jordi Alba, who’d been booked early in the second half, got a second yellow card for an obstruction on Feghouli, and Barça were down to ten men.
Barça switched to 3-3-3 to attempt a final assault in search of at least a point. Dani Alves fired a powerful shot from 25 yards that keeper Alves just got a fingertip to, though Pérez Montero failed to give Barça the corner. Then in the 87th minute the referee completed a pretty awful performance by failing to see Javi Fuego’s pull on Leo Messi’s shirt as the Argentinian entered the area. Messi’s second half had been full of failed dribbles but in the 91st minute he combined brilliantly, first with two exchanges with Alves, then with a quick one-two with Iniesta, then he skipped past a defenders challenge but, with Camp Nou ready to explode for a magical equalizer, he side-footed his shot past the far post.
February has often been a difficult month for Barça, I recall home defeats to Atlético Madrid in 2006 and Espanyol in 2009 but in both those seasons Barça ended the season with both La Liga and the Champions League so maybe we shouldn’t be overly worried. Javier Mascherano received his fifth yellow card today so Martino will have to make do without both Mascherano and Jordi Alba for next weekend’s visit to Sevilla.
Barça: Valdés 5; Alves 5.5, Piqué 5, Mascherano 5.5, Alba 5; Xavi 7 (Iniesta m65, 6), Busquets 5, Fabregas 6.5 (Tello m77, 5.5); Alexis 6, Messi 6, Pedro 6.
Valencia:Diego Alves; Barragán, Ricardo Costa, Mathieu, Bernat; Javi Fuego, Oriol Romeu; Feghouli, Parejo (Michel m92), Piatti (Fede m87); Alcácer (Vargas m78).
Goals: m7 Alexis 1-0, m44 Parejo 1-1, m48 Piatti 1-2, m54 Messi (pen) 2-2, m59 Alcácer 2-3.
Yellow cards: m45 Parejo, m51 Alba, m52 Costa, m78 Alba = red, m79 Mascherano, m94 Diego Alves, (after the final whistle) Busquets.