Victory over Real Sociedad tonight would have put Barça back on top of La Liga. Real Madrid lost at Valencia earlier today to give Luis Enrique’s men the chance to gain a two-point advantage but a second-minute own-goal from Jordi Alba meant a 1-0 loss, Barça’s third successive league defeat at Anoeta.
There will be plenty of debate about what went wrong in this game but the starting point has to be the lack of preparation. La Real trained every day this week since Monday including New Years Day. Barça on the other hand returned to work on Tuesday and then rested on Thursday for the holiday. On top of this Messi, Alves and Neymar were allowed to return on Friday and all three started tonight’s game on the bench.
It was a brave move from Luis Enrique to leave out Messi and start with Munir, Suarez and Pedro up front. Truth be told the first-half attacking trio lacked punch with Suarez particularly disappointing at centre-forward. However, the forwards had little to do with the home side winning two early corners, the second was played short to Chory Castro who curled in an inswinging cross from the right, Alba committed himself to the header but as the ball swung away from him he was only able to head the ball past Bravo at the near post.
The game couldn’t have started more badly. Barça immediately took control of possession but failed to find the pass behind Real’s high defensive line. With the forwards having off-days it wasn’t until the 21st minute that Xavi curled a free-kick narrowly over. Pedro then fired over after Suarez’s burst through the middle and Suarez had a shot deflected for a corner. Real’s keeper Rulli struggled to save a swerving drive from Pedro with his legs but there was little more from Barça in the first 45 minutes apart from a penalty appeal when the ball deflected against Iñigo’s arm. Real were happy to defend their lead and were seen little in attack besides a dangerous low cross from De la Bella which would have been converted by Prieto if Alba hadn’t got in his way, and a good turn past Montoya and shot from Canales that Bravo saved by the post.
Messi was brought on for the second half in place of Munir, but with Suarez continuing at centre-forward the Argentinian was positioned out on the right. He immediately became the focus of Barça’s attacks but besides a free-kick and an awkward volley which both missed the target he was largely ineffective.
Neymar was more lively after he came on for Pedro in the 58th minute but his combinations with Messi and Suarez failed to find a way through. Suarez, Iniesta and Xavi tried their luck but Rulli was generally untroubled and it wasn’t until right at the end that he needed to make two decent saves to deny Suarez.
By then Barça had switched to 3-4-3 with Alves coming in on the right wing and Messi playing behind the strikers. It nearly paid off with a late push but when Xavi threaded a pass through to Suarez his attempt to dribble round Rulli was thwarted by the keeper’s fingertips. Then in the 87th minute Iniesta’s cross found Suarez six yards out but the Uruguayan’s header was to close to Rulli who reacted with a quick one-handed save.
With Messi and Neymar starting on the bench tonight was a chance for Suarez to lead the attack but sadly he struggled to find chances until the two at the end which he failed to take. Luis Enrique is losing credit and it is becoming harder to believe in him. Tonight’s team selection again demonstrated his bravery but the move was unsuccessful and the lack of attacking ideas was very worrying especially considering the undoubted talent of our forwards. It is all very well scoring eight against Huesca or five against Sevilla, Espanyol and Cordoba but we have now failed to score in four out of seventeen league games this season and we’ve lost ten points in those games against Malaga, Celta, Getafe and Real Sociedad. At this rate La Liga is going to be very difficult and there is still a lot of improvement needed if we are going to have any chance in either of the knock-out competitions.
Real Sociedad: Rulli; C.Martínez, Iñigo, Ansotegi, De la Bella; Bergara, Granero; Xavi Prieto, Canales (Yuri m93), Chory Castro (Finnbogason m66); Vela (Pardo m90).
Barça: Bravo 6; Montoya 5.5, Mascherano 6.5, Mathieu 5.5 (Alves m70, 5.5), Alba 6; Xavi 5.5, Busquets 5.5, Iniesta 6; Munir 5 (Messi h/t 5.5), Suarez 5, Pedro 5.5 (Neymar m58, 6).
Goal: m2 Alba (o.g) 1-0.
Yellow cards: m34, Mathieu, m39 Vela, m43 Iñigo, m51 Granero, m76 Alves, m89 Finnbogason, m89 Alba, m92 Bergara, m93 Neymar.