Barça’s poor recent record at Anoeta continued tonight with a 3-1 defeat to Real Sociedad that sees Tata Martino’s men concede top place in La Liga and a three-point advantage to Real Madrid. Martino made six changes to the team that beat Manchester City on Tuesday but the rotations backfired with Alex Song scoring in his own goal to give Real the lead after 32 minutes. Leo Messi shot Barça level soon after but second half goals from Antoine Griezmann and David Zurutuza gave the Basques a deserved victory. This was Barça’s first league defeat by more than one goal since the 0-2 home defeat to Hercules in September 2010 and things can get worse tomorrow if Atlético win their game at Osasuna.
Martino’s team selection raised plenty of eyebrows before the kick-off. It was not surprising to see Neymar and Pedro return to the side with the intention of trying to get behind the Real defence though the Brazilian had a game to forget and Pedro missed one of Barça few chances after a good combination with Iniesta. More surprising was the decision to play Sergio Busquets in a more advanced position in midfield with Song taking a deep defensive midfield role. In defence Adriano replaced the injured Jordi Alba as expected but Martino then saw it appropriate to rest Alves and Mascherano to give a start to Martin Montoya and Marc Bartra. The number of changes may have had the intention of supplying fresh legs to the team but the result was confusing with Busquets particularly looking out of place.
Right from the start Barça struggled to find any space and lacked control while the home team defended deep when they needed to but often broke in numbers with Canales and Griezmann supporting Vela well. Griezmann forced Valdés into the first save of the game with a curling free-kick after five minutes and Barça were looking hesitant.
If Martino wanted a more vertical game he wasn’t getting it as neither Neymar nor Pedro had any luck getting in behind the Real defence. It might have been a sign that Neymar’s evening wasn’t going to be a good one when the Brazilian had to go off to change his boots after 15 minutes. The referee David Fernández Borbalán – who it should be said was a tosser throughout – refused to allow Neymar back on the pitch while Barça were in possession, which led to almost two minutes of the ten men playing keep-ball until Iniesta exploded with a 1-2-3 with Pedro who sent his shot well wide.
It was a brief moment of inspiration from Barça as Real continued to look the better team. Valdés added to Barça’s shakiness with a missed punch from a free-kick into the box, and Barça’s defensive core of Bartra, Song and Piqué, who had begun the game quite well, started to show some cracks. The situation wasn’t helped by Busquets’ problems with his unfamiliar role, he’d already been booked after getting caught in possession by Canales, and in the 29th minute he was caught out of position which allowed Zurutuza the chance to cross but Vela fired wide from 20 yards. The Mexican striker had another try a couple of minutes later, this time from further out on the right and Valdés had to follow the flight well to save.
Eventually Real’s pressure won them their first corner on the right. Now, I have my suspicion that Martino’s team selection (Song/Montoya/Bartra taller than Xavi/Alves/Mascherano) may have been based on having more height at set pieces, though the coach is unlikely to admit this given what happened next. Canales took a short corner to Vela who played it back for Canales to cross, Elustondo stole half a yard on Song but then missed his header, the ball hit Song on the upper left chest and Valdés had little chance to react. 1-0.
Real’s lead lasted only four minutes as Barça hit back with a fine goal. Adriano played the ball inside to Messi who moved play the other way to Montoya coming inside from the right and the full-back pushed a quick pass towards the edge of the D where Busquets played a delightful dummy to take Mikel out of position and Messi collected the ball before driving it low into the far corner in typical style.
However, the equalizer did little to settle Barça. Bartra was correctly booked for a push and pull on Canales, a decision that Martino protested, and Piqué was soon guilty of an awful control which gifted a chance to Vela. Fortunately for Barça the Mexican blazed his shot over from 16 yards. Vela continued to threaten and when Piqué wasn’t firm enough with a challenge he nearly surprised with a quick overhead kick that flashed wide. The first half ended with Fernández Borbalán stopping a Barça attack on 45 min 04 secs despite an early stoppage after Mikel brought down Neymar.
I don’t know what happened at half-time but Martino received a red card for his protests to the referee and he didn’t reappear on the bench for the second half. Given the way Barça played after the break one feels the coach might have spent his half-time minutes better by trying to sort out the team. As it was, things went quickly from bad to worse. Song was robbed by Vela which led to a dangerous real counter. Canales had a shot deflected for a corner. And when Canales sent the corner in Griezmann headed over at the near post and it was still only the 48th minute.
Bartra headed Neymar’s corner straight at Real’s keeper Claudio Bravo but there was little more seen of Barça in attack. Piqué was booked for a late sliding tackle on Zaldua then Valdés came and missed Canales’ inswinging free-kick and Barça were fortunate to see Mikel head over. However, Barça’s luck couldn’t last much longer and in the 54th minute Bravo sent a long kick which Bartra misjudged, heading the ball backwards, Song failed to cover the space and Vela crossed for the unmarked Griezmann who struck Real ahead again.
Barça might have hit straight back again but Bravo did well to tip Song’s header over from another corner. Real didn’t give Barça another chance and in the 58th minute Griezmann was given too much time to cross from the right, the defence concentrated on playing a stray forward offside but failed to pick up the late run from Zurutuza who found himself alone in the area and Valdés was beaten for the third time.
Barça brought on Fabregas for Song but the damage was done. The team continued to struggle as the Anoeta crowd increased its volume in anticipation of a famous victory. There wasn’t a decent move from Barça until the 70th minute when Montoya’s cross was excellently touched by the otherwise ineffective Neymar to Messi but Mikel managed to close in quickly to make a good block. Fabregas’s best contribution was a dangerous cross towards Neymar but Zaldua did well to dive and head the ball out for a corner.
Alexis came on for Montoya but it only led to more problems at the back with Piqué getting robbed by Prieto who then set up Vela with a chance but Barça were saved by the post. The comeback never looked likely and there was the feeling some players just wanted the game to end as soon as possible. The final shots off target from Neymar and Iniesta just summed up an overall performance that deserved little and resulted in a painful defeat.
The league is not lost but it is going to be so much more difficult after tonight’s setback. Mathematically, it is still in our hands if we win our remaining 13 games, however, too often we have seen below-par performances which doesn’t offer much optimism for a consistent winning streak. At Getafe and Sevilla we escaped with wins after poor 30-minute spells but the draw at Levante and defeats to Athletic, Valencia and tonight against Real have seen us blow our lead at the top and suggest we don’t possess the intense concentration of a hungry team.
Martino’s decisions are beginning to concern. Last week we had a reasonably easy game at home to Rayo Vallecano and only Alba, Mascherano and Xavi were rested, tonight for a much tougher game and with Alba injured, Martino decided we could do without Mascherano and Xavi again, as well as Alves and Fabregas. On top of that he puts Busquets out of position which only had the effect of disorganising everything. Since the new year we have been playing twice a week and some players have had little rest, if they needed a break then surely Rayo, coming three days before City, was the game for rotations, not tonight when for once we have no midweek game to follow.
Real: Bravo; Zaldua, Mikel Gonzalez, Iñigo Martínez, José Ángel; Elustondo (Pardo m92), Markel Bergara, Zurutuza; Canales (Ansotegi m84), Griezmann (Prieto m74); Vela
Barça: Valdés 5.5; Montoya 5 (Alexis m77, 5.5), Bartra 5.5, Piqué 5, Adriano 5.5; Busquets 5, Song 5 (Fabregas m61, 6), Iniesta 6; Pedro 5.5, Messi 5.5, Neymar 4.5.
Goals: m32 Song (o.g.) 1-0, m36 Messi 1-1, m54 Griezmann 2-1, m59 Zurutuza 3-1.
Yellow cards: m21 Busquets, m23 Jose Angel, m39 Bartra, m52 Piqué, m69 Canales.
Red card: Tata Martino at half time.