Barça take a healthy 2-0 lead into next Wednesday’s Copa del Rey second leg against Real Sociedad at Anoeta though Tata Martino will feel his team missed an opportunity to kill off the tie completely after playing the entire second half against ten men. The game was evenly balanced until just before half time when Sergio Busquets fired Barça ahead and Real’s Iñigo Martinez was sent off for protesting an earlier incident when Javier Mascherano appeared to pull back Carlos Vela as he broke through on goal. An absurdly unlucky own-goal from Real’s second choice keeper Eñaut Zubikarai was all Barça could manage in the second 45 minutes but the result leaves the Catalans clear favourites to go through. Following Real Madrid’s 3-0 win over Atlético there is now the mouthwatering prospect of a Barça-Madrid Clásico final on April 19.
Having seen his team thumped 4-1 at Camp Nou in La Liga back in September, Real’s coach Jagoba Arrasate sacrificed an attacking midfielder in order to bring in another central defender in a defensive 5-3-2 formation. Tata Martino stuck with what he considers his best available line-up, making just one change to the XI that lost 2-3 to Valencia on Saturday with cup keeper José Manuel Pinto replacing Victor Valdés.
Barça defence was poor against Valencia and tonight there was a shaky start with Real’s forward partnership of Carlos Vela and Antoine Griezmann causing problems. After just two minutes Javier Mascherano misjudged a long clearance allowing Vela to steal the ball before playing it left to Griezmann who hit the ball with power from 20 yards but too close to Pinto who made a good stop.
Barça came back with Pedro sending a viciously swerving shot narrowly over, and the pattern was set with Real sitting deep while looking for quick counters. In the 12th minute Messi opened play to Alves who sent a dangerous centre across the face of the goal, Fabregas arrived at the far post but Zubikarai did well to turn the ball out for a corner. Barça took the corner short with the ball coming back to Fabregas who cannoned in a 25-yarder that Zubikarai could only parry into Alexis’s path but the Chilean was caught by surprise and sent the rebound wide.
Fabregas was looking a constant threat from midfield while Pedro was also giving headaches to Real’s 21-year-old right back Joseba Zaldua. Real’s problems were increased when Mikel Gonzalez had to go off injured in the 19th minute to be replaced by Carlos Martinez which left Real without any more central defenders on the bench which would be noted later with Iñigo’s sending off.
Leo Messi was noticeably quiet, preferring to stick to a more fixed number nine position rather than coming back to midfield to mix the play. However, he had a tremendous opportunity to put Barça in front in the 26th minute after Pedro did well to keep in Alves’s long cross, the ball came back to Alba and then to Fabregas who whipped in a cross to Messi who connected well with his first shot but then after Zubikarai’s excellent save the Argentinian made a mess of his right-footed rebound and the keeper collected easily.
Barça continued to work hard to create chances but there was still the occasional hiccup in defence such as when Alba lost the ball trying to shield it out for a corner. Alexis and Messi both had headers over as Barça piled in the crosses, one deep cross from Fabregas missed everyone but bounced awkwardly as it curled goalwards and Zubikarai had to make a good save and push the ball round the post.
Barça couldn’t make the dominance pay. Messi curled a beautiful free-kick over the wall which left Zubikaria rooted to the spot but instead of going in the top corner the ball smacked squarely against the crossbar. Then in the 42nd minute a long clearance out of defence from Real led to the moment that the visitors will feel was determining in tonight’s result. Mascherano again allowed Vela to get the better of him and as the Mexican shaped to shoot Mascherano locked onto his arm in an attempt to hinder the shot, Vela still managed to shoot forcing Pinto into a quick save with his right foot which may be why referee González González chose to ignore Mascherano’s challenge which would surely have been punishable with a red card.
It might not have seemed quite so important at the time but two minutes later Real were a goal and a man down. Xavi sent in a corner from the right which Piqué headed on, Pedro scurried to volley the ball back across goal and after clipping Alexis it arrived to Busquets who swept it inside the near post from eight yards. The frustration overflowed for Iñigo who followed the ref to complain about the Mascherano-Vela challenge, it’s not clear what was said but González González showed less leniency with Iñigo than with Mascherano and the Real defender was sent for an early bath.
Griezmann moved back into midfield as Real switched to 4-4-1 for the second half with the obvious intention of keeping the scoreline down. The threat of a possible breakaway was greatly reduced as the visitors sat back deep and Barça worked the ball patiently from side to side trying to open the gaps. However, as Real kept a very disciplined shape there were few gaps and Barça usually ended up coming wide only to send in unproductive crosses. Pedro tried a more direct route in the 54th minute fizzing in a low shot that Zubikarai could again only stop at the expense of a corner, but generally there was a lack of punch in front of goal.
Real’s packed defence might have held out the entire half but in the 60th minute the visitors were drawn forward just enough to allow Fabregas to send a splendid pass through for Alexis’s run behind the defence. It was a golden chance but the Chilean was unfortunate to see his shot bounce out off the far post – the luck immediately swung sharply against the Basques as Elustondo attempted to whack the ball clear but only succeeded in blasting the ball straight at Zubikarai who couldn’t get out of the way as the ball bounced off him and flew comically into the net.
The blow should have killed off the visitors but they stuck doggedly to the task of keeping the score down. Barça pushed more and more forward with Alves and Alba almost playing as wingers but the crosses continued to disappoint. Pedro managed to stretch to volley Alexis’s cross but the ball flew over, and Alves headed over after Fabregas’s juggling skills on the left.
Iniesta came on for Alexis and he had a couple of efforts from distance fly over the bar, and as the game entered the last ten minutes Barça pushed for a third. Fabregas sent another great pass over the defence but Pedro’s control let him down, then in the 84th minute Fabregas found Pedro on the right and his cross was met by Messi searing in with a stretching volley which forced a magnificent save from Zubikarai. Tello came on for Fabregas for the final five minutes but Barça had run out of ideas. Real will have a very tough task to turn the tie round but they can be satisfied that with eleven against eleven for 90 minutes next week at Anoeta they are not totally out of it yet. As for Barça the result will help to heal the wounds caused by Valencia though there was a double stroke of luck in favour and the feeling that the team will have to improve on current form with the big challenges coming up in the next few weeks.
Barça: Pinto 7.5; Alves 6, Pique 6.5, Mascherano 5.5, Alba 6; Xavi 6.5, Busquets 7, Fabregas 8 (Tello m85, –); Alexis 6.5 (Iniesta m73, 6.5), Messi 6.5, Pedro 7.
Real Sociedad: Zubikarai; Zaldua, Mikel González (Carlos Martinez m19), Ansotegi, Iñigo Martínez, José Ángel; Elustondo, Gaztañaga, Zurutuza, Griezmann (Seferovic m83); Vela (Canales m73).
Goals: m44 Busquets 1-0, m60 Zubikarai (o.g.) 2-0.
Yellow cards: m26 Busquets, m36 Mascherano, m39 Vela, m44 Iñigo Martinez, m44 Iñigo Martinez (= red), m57 Elustondo, m62 Gaztañaga, m73 Messi, m86 Zubikarai.