La Liga Review: FC Barcelona 2, Osasuna 0, Or, Getting Stuff Out Of The WayBy: Ade C. | April 23rd, 2011
As Brandon shrewdly pointed out in his match preview, this was an annoyingly important match, and it became even more so after Real Madrid steamrollered Valencia 3-6 at home with what could be called, at best, their B team. Dropping points would not only mean reducing our lead and giving RM an outside chance at La Liga, but it would also be a heavy blow to our confidence after last Wednesday’s defeat and in the face of next Wednesday’s challenge.
It was a must-win, in other words. And against a bottom-of-the-table, scrappy team, which is just the kind of team we struggle against (see, Hércules, Sporting, et al).
Pep needed to reach an equilibrium between resting the players that had played an intense 120 minutes on Wednesday and fielding a strong enoug team on a weakened squad. For this, he played VV, Alves, Milito, Masche, Maxwell, Busi, Keita, Thiago, and a completely innovative front three of Jeffren, Villa and Afellay. Piqué and Puyol were told to watch the match from the stands (the former in good company, and the latter with Bojan), while Pinto, Montoya, Fontas, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, and Messi made up an illustrious, and yet strangely depleted bench.
Osasuna, though plagued with injuries and suspensions, put forth a pretty strong team: Ricardo, Nelson, Lolo, Flano, Monreal, Damia, Cejudo, Nekounam, Vadocz, Camuñas, and Kike Sola.
There were no high expectations from this game, which was just as well, because it wasn’t anything to write home about. Barça controlled possession, tried to conserve energy and made timid forays into Osasuna’s goal, while trying to stop the occasional counter with a defence that had more holes than Messi has hat-trick balls. The best, more energetic player of the first half was Afellay: given the ball more often than when Xaviesta are playing, he had some excellent runs, lovely crosses and overall good work.
VV, on his 400th match for Barça, had some excellent chances to strut his stuff as an uncharacteristically wobbly day by Busi, paired with Milito’s general tendency to slip at the worst possible moment, meant that Osasuna kept having chances.
And then Villa scored. After 11 goalless matches. After ‘Oh Villa’ was starting to become a catchphrase on the level with ‘But Bojan’s only 20!’. To a Jeffren assist, after an Ibi Afellay play. The roar of happiness and relief he gave as a celebration was fantastic… welcome back, Villa Maravilla!
(video thanks to 101greatgoals)
Min 23, and the match looked like it was going to go smoothly for us.
It was an interesting match to watch, not so much in terms of strategy or tactics (there wasn’t much of that), but to see players that we don’t get to see much. Afellay was putting a great show of speed and lovely crosses, Jeffren was making up for lost time by owning the left wing, Keita did his underestimated you-don’t-notice-me-but-all-your-midfield-are-belong-to-me, Thiago showed that he is mature enough to pass for a first team player, Mascherano cemented his position as our best CB option… it was a good showing, considering how improvised the team was.
And then, of course, was VV making ridiculously amazing saves to keep a clean sheet. I shudder to think how many goals we would’ve conceded so far, with our back-four troubles this season, if VV weren’t in a state of grace.
HT came at just the right time for us, as Osasuna was getting uppity on the counter.
Before the start of the second half, Pep brought in Iniesta for Jeffren, I imagine that to give Don Andrés, who had been napping on the bench, some playing time to get him ready for next Wednesday. This didn’t change the design of the team, as our Ghostface played on the wing, but it did give us more control to our attack.
Nothing much of interest happened, though, until Villa -who had, after all, already bagged the goal he needed- got subbed out to get a bit of a rest, and Messi came in his place.
Messi is Messi. Even if he’s tired, even if he’s in a bad mood, even if he has that weird ginger scruff that sometimes takes over his face, his presence always makes a difference to the team. And it did today, as our attack flowed easier with him and Iniesta linking up, although this was to the detriment of Afellay, who stopped seeing the ball so much.
Then Xavi came in for Milito, who had had a bad fall and was limping, because resting key players ahead of crucial matches is for dummies. Now Masche and Busi were at CB and Keita was at DM, leaving the midfield to Xavi and Thiago, while Iniesta, Messi and Ibi attacked.
Osasuna were still sharp at the counters, so while Barça was playing on energy-saving mode, we weren’t quite at ease… until Messi was Messi, got an assist from Dani, and scored his 50th goal of the season.
(video thanks to 101greatgoals)
It wasn’t a match that will go on the history books. It wasn’t a crazy goalfest, like Valencia-Real Madrid. But we got the three points, Villa got his goal and confidence back, Messi broke his records, VV got a clean sheet in his 400th match (as a captain, even), the ’subs’ got their chance to shine, and no one made efforts that would cripple them for the first leg of the CL semis…
… wait, what was that? Oh, Milito has a muscle strain in his right calf, bringing the number of our available natural CBs down to three, incluing the inexperienced Fontàs and Puyol, who might not be fully fit. And Maxwell is suffering from a groin strain, bringing the number of available LBs to a big, fat ZERO. They will have medical tests tomorrow to see how long they’ll be out, but if I were Pep, I’d be making alternate plans for Wednesday; plans like playing Keita, Fontàs, Puyol, or even Jeffren as LB!
VV: 9. He keeps doing better. If he keeps this up, he will go on to score the winning goal at the CL final or something.
Alves: 8. Solid, and more reliable on the defence than usual. Great linking with Messi, too, they must have been having telepathy classes from Xaviesta.
Milito: 6. At this point in time, I don’t know if he’s really doing very poorly, or if I just can’t see anything but his mistakes.
Mascherano: 8,5. Multipurpose!Masche is amazing. He covered excellently for Maxwell at LB and did his CB job well.
Maxwell: 7. Pretty hair, but nothing more than average defending. He did do well in going forwards and linking up with Jeffren and Ibi, though.
Busquets: 6. Poor game by Busi. Well, if he has to have one of those, better against Osasuna than against RM.
Keita: 8. Solid work. Nothing brilliant, but then that’s not his forte.
Thiago: 8. Save for a silly foul here and there, no one would’ve said that he wasn’t a first team player.
Jeffren: 8. Love this kid. He comes back so eager after his injuries or his long spells on the bench… and his assist to Villa was great.
Afellay: 8. Great to see more of Ibi. Good work with the ball, lovely crosses that no one has learnt how to get to, and pretty good control when they actually give him the ball.
Villa: 7,5. Finally he scored again; let’s hope this restores his confidence for the matches to come.
Iniesta (for Jeffren): 7,5. Didn’t go terribly out of his way to do anything, which was great, as he’ll be reasonably fresh for next week.
Messi (for Villa): 8. An average match for Leo, which means that he was amazing. Pretty good goal, too.
Xavi (for Milito): 7,5. Another one who did the least amount of work possible and did it well. I do wish he trusted Ibi more, though.
So, we keep out 8-point lead at the top of La Liga, have seen what out bench options look like when we decide to use them (except for Fontàs) and washed the taste of the CDR defeat off our mouths. Now, to focus on that CL semi…