La Liga review: Real Zaragoza 1, FC Barcelona 4, Or, Battle in a Field of FlowersBy: Ade C. | April 8th, 2012
Let us get the complaining out of the way first, so we can focus on the football or what passed for it last night. It’s one thing to keep the pitch at your stadium at a length and state of irrigation that favours your particular style, but it’s something completely different to force visiting teams to frolic through meadows in full flower like a footballing version of The Sound of Music; soon, teams will be growing carnivorous plants around their goals in an attempt to stop Messi.
Considering the amount of midweek matches Barça have been and will be playing, Pep decided that this was a reasonable time to indulge in some rotations. Well, a lot of rotations. Barça’s starting XI was VV, Alves, Mascherano, Puyol, Adriano, Keita, Thiago, Cesc, Pedro, Messi and Alexis, with Pinto, Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi, Cuenca, Tello and Montoya left on the bench.
Now, I’m the first person who complains when players aren’t rested enough *cough*Messi*cough*, but resting Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets at the same time is more than risky; last time Pep did that, Barça lost to Osasuna. Rest one of them, and the other two can pick up the slack and inspire the replacement to new heights (like it has happened when Thiago has had to replace Xavi); rest two of them and things get dicey, but at least there’s one of them left to conduct the troops; rest the three of them and things begin to descend into chaos. While it’s true that we have three world-class midfield replacements on the bench (Keita, Cesc and Thiago), none of them yet can reach the control and understanding of the game of our regular trio.
This lack of football vision became pretty evident as soon as the ball was in play. Barça struggled to reach the final third and even when they had possession, they didn’t really seem to know what to do with it. Zaragoza defended with numbers, but they were also quick on the counter and most of the dangerous occasions as the match got started were for them. Keita at DM didn’t help any (love the guy, but that is so not his best position) and the Barça defence was as porous as usual (particularly on the left, where Adriano left gaps the size of monster trucks for Masche to cover).
It wasn’t even on the first or second or third Zaragoza attempt that Barça conceded a PK as VV brought down Lafita in the box after Aranda had hit the post and a goal was all but inevitable. Showing marked improvement since the Granada PK Fiasco, VV saved the PK to keep the scoreline 0-0, though now he’s at 4 yellow cards and dancing on the edge of suspension (of those 4, two are for
not keeping his big mouth shut dissent and one is for time-wasting).
But alas, the clean sheet wasn’t long for this world. Six minutes after the PK save, Aranda took advantage of Barça’s left flank to go one-on-one on VV; although our keeper blocked the shot, the rebound went straight to Aranda’s bald head and into the goal. It was Bojanesque in its execution and it’d be funny if it weren’t so frustrating.
30 minutes in and one goal behind (which could’ve easily been two); frustrated, Pep seemed to encourage Thiago to take charge of Keita’s defensive duties, but it was from one of the much-maligned Barça set-pieces that the equaliser would arrive. Cesc saw a shot blocked then deflected and, from the ensuing CK and a butterfingered intervention by Roberto, Puyol scored and not with his head!
Three minutes later, Messi again put things in their proper place. Alexis went on a lovely run, and then Messi did all the rest, as he does.
Though perhaps more impressive than the goal is this control that followed soon after:
In the meanwhile, the ref was busy giving out yellows like candy, with the result that former Barça B player Abraham was sent off with two yellows shortly before the end of the first half.
1-2 at HT and with the rival team down to 10 men. You’d think we’d feel at ease, but no. The lead was fragile, Barça was still far from its best and numbers said it all: though with 70%+ possession, Barça had 4 shots on goal to Zaragoza’s 5. Time to admit that Pep’s risky midfield experiment had not worked?
The second half started with the Zaragoza coach being sent off to the stands, but with the team itself pushing forwards in search of the equaliser. It took me longer than it should have to remember that the home team had one player less; Barça’s numerical superiority absolutely did not show at all. Zaragoza had a shot on goal, an arguable Keita-handball-in-the-box PK call that the ref didn’t see, and another shot before Pep admitted defeat and brought in Busquets for Keita (a sub before the 60th minute is a clear sign that Pep could see things weren’t working).
With Busi in, things calmed down considerably, but they didn’t magically improve. Though Zaragoza stopped threatening VV’s goal quite so much, Barça weren’t making Roberto sweat either, getting hopelessly tangled in the defence and sending most shots harmlessly wide.
We had a moment of worry when Dani Alves asked to be subbed out, but medical reports indicate that it’s only a slight hamstring strain in his left leg (same injury as Piqué last week… coincidence?) and though he’s doubtful for Getafe on Wednesday, it doesn’t look serious. Montoya came in to occupy the RB position and did pretty well, considering.
The epic injury moment came a bit later, when Puyol got a small cut on his forehead and went to the sidelines to get it stapled shut; he was back playing in about 20 seconds, while I was still queasy from seeing the doctors stitch him up.
With 15 minutes left and the 1-2 scoreline… Zaragoza still looked the braver team. Heck, they looked like they hadn’t had a player sent off at all. The threat of a last-minute equaliser hung like a pall over La Romareda until, with 5 minutes to go, Paredes brought down Alexis in the box and Barça were awarded a PK which Messi -of course- scored, to become the first player to score 60+ goals in single season for European top flight club since Gerd Müller scored 67 for Bayern in 72-73. And he still has at least 10 matches to play still, should the Injury Fairies respect him.
With a 1-3 scoreline and one minute of regulation time, then, it was the perfect time to bring in tired, injury-prone Xavi in… wait, what’s that? That it doesn’t make any sense, you say? Yeah, I wondered too. In any case, Xavi replaced Cesc, who got a silly yellow and will be suspended on Wednesday against Getafe.
And then, to make the temptation to make Easter jokes almost too strong to resist, Pedrito rose from the obscurity in which he had been wallowing all match to go on the scoreline with a Messi assist, like so:
1-4 and the match was done, the three points in the bag, and the frustrations at simmering point. This was an ugly match. Barça didn’t play well, didn’t take advantage of Abraham’s sending-off, and scored only off isolated opportunities. Though I’ll give them credit for getting the goals in even when the match wasn’t going their way, what happened to taking and keeping control of the ball? Obviously not every match can be a display of style and possession, but really, that’s the best they could do?
Or maybe I’m just grumpy and you should take my player ratings even less seriously than usual…
VV: 7,5. Stopped a PK, which I’d almost forgotten he could do, and wasn’t especially at fault for the Aranda goal either.
Alves: 7,5. He defended more than usual, which was nice; let’s hope his injury doesn’t keep him away long.
Puyol: 8. With 4 goals this season for Barça, he’s doubled his previous season record. And he defends, too!
Mascherano: 7. Some really good moments, but he could’ve done more in the Aranda goal; he was stretched thin with Adriano going his way, though.
Adriano: 6. Minimal contribution in defense, he was a bit better going forwards, but still our left flank remains our weak point.
Keita: 7. He did his best, as he always does, but DM is not his best position.
Thiago: 7. On and off; sparks of brilliance followed by moments of near-invisibility.
Cesc: 6,5. Had some good passes, a chance on goal or two, but didn’t step up in the midfield at all.
Pedrito: 6,5. It was great to see him score, so let’s hope that signals the end of his Slump of Doom.
Messi: 8,5. What would we do without this guy? No, seriously, have you thought about it? Even when he’s not scoring himself, he’s giving assists, setting up goals and frustrating defenders everywhere. It’d be nice if his teammates could help him out more significantly at times.
Alexis: 8. Hard work, a good assist for Messi, and got us a PK… would it be churlish to wish he’d score from time to time, too?
Busquets (for Keita): 8,5. He’s no Xavi, obviously, but he is a fundamental piece of the team and it shows.
Montoya (for Alves): 8. One of the few natural fullbacks to come from La Masía at a level fitting for the first team, he’s the reason we’re not sobbing in despair after the news of Dani’s injury.
No time to catch our breath, as the team is already preparing to meet Getafe on Wednesday. Now, it’s all midweek games and crucial matches as far as the eye can see… can we do this? Yes we can!
Aaaaaand on happier news, after training today the team gathered at Pinto’s house to throw Abidal a good luck party, since it seems his liver transplant surgery is definitely scheduled for Tuesday. Check our Twitter for more details and see the pictures here… as if we needed more reasons to love this team!