Tito Vilanova pointed to the danger coming from the speed of Celta’s strikers during the pre-match press conference but he may not have adequately heeded his own advice when selecting Adriano, Mascherano, Busquets, and Alba to play in a defence that constantly fluctuated in the first half, often with only 2 defending. Xavi, Fàbregas, and Iniesta made up the midfield, so there was no traditional anchor, while Villa joined Pedro and Messi upfront. It never looked like Barcelona would struggle to score, but evidence early on also pointed to the improbability of a clean sheet.
It was refreshing to see an opponent come to the Camp Nou, a newly promoted opponent no less, and not just default to the “park the bus and hope” strategy. Chances presented themselves in the first 20 minutes, with Messi failing twice to chip his goalkeeping nemesis Javi Varas and Xavi also seeing his goal bound chance saved. Varas has just saved a curling effort from Messi when in just a few passes Celta turned defence into a golden opportunity for the quick Iago Aspas. Aspas dropped into the center circle, Busquet’s tracked him, Mascherano was nowhere to be found, and a simple ball from Iago to the right was returned back to the middle into complete open space. Valdés was the only thing left between Aspas and 0-1 for Celta and as he has so often in his legendary career, Valdés won the one on one duel. That play epitomized our keeper’s strengths: awareness, positioning, and reflex. There are few keepers as strong on the pure one-on-one.
Just a few minutes later Barça finally capitalized with right back Adriano showing the effectiveness of defenders sneaking into the box. Adriano played it out wide to Pedro before accelerating into the box and sliding into the cross to knock it past Varas. 0-1 quickly became 1-0 but just minutes later the darker side of using 2 attacking full backs showed its face.
FC Barcelona did not heed their warning and with Alba out of position and both Mascherano and Busquets ball watching, Dan Krohn-Delhi easily played Fernàndez through. Victor Valdés managed to stop the initial shot but it bounced right in the danger area and Celta’s Mario Bermejo tapped it in. Valdés was furious with possibly himself a little but definitely with the effortlessness Celta were having with getting behind his defense. With Bartra’s natural and calming influence on the defence again on show versus Aláves, one wished for his presence. Unless Vilanova was saving him for what is sure to be an energy sapping night into Glasgow midweek.
But hey, as long as you score more you still win the game. In the 25th minute, David Villa scored his 6th of the season to make it 2-1. It was rather a lovely goal too. Iniesta received the ball just inside the opponents half without any apparent dangerous options. There were 3 light blue Celta shirts within 10 meters of Iniesta and another 3 watching Villa on the left. Andrés turned his first man, knocked it out left to Villa who quite casually turned in, but having spotted Iniesta ghosting in behind him backheeled the ball into free space. If one freeze frames that moment, Iniesta literally slipped in right through 3 defenders. He slickly took it past the defender, cut it back for number 7 and out of nothing 2 FC Barcelona players had alone created a simple chance for one of the world’s best finishers.
Again one has to commend Celta because they refused to just lie down and die. They wanted to hang onto the ball and try release Aspas in the spaces created with Adriano and Alba pushing. Though Alba did become more attentive in his defensive duties when Barça took the lead. Messi could have made it 3-1 in the 37th minutes when it appeared Celta defender Hugo Mallo wanted to give the new dad a congratulatory gift with a woeful backpass that was about 40 meters too short. Messi latched onto it but did not convert an opportunity he does 90% of the time. Credit Varas however. The keeper came out brilliantly and did not commit himself to ground. He even tracked Messi out wide wonderfully and once again our genius could not get past the former Sevilla keeper.
Vilanova was forced to bring in Alves (39th minute) when Adriano picked what looked like a muscle pull. Soon after Marc Bartra was warming up on the side-lines. The lack of a natural anchor and center back was proving too risky and kudos to Tito Vilanova for reacting to it.
Bartra did come in during the interval, for Cesc, but it was not enough to prevent another great Celta chance. Fernàndez again played a ball from the right behind the back, this time Mascherano’s inability to block the passages can be noted, and Aspas was in. But despite the forward looking too wide, Aspas managed to turn his body and manipulate his foot to generate incredibly curve and was so unlucky to see his effort bobble out wide. But from here on, a more familiar shape had the desired effect as Barcelona created control and stability without sacrificing noticeable attacking potential.
Little to report until to everyone’s astonishment Jordi Alba was not flagged offside and made it 3-1 after the hour mark. David Villa performed another fluid backheel into space, Alba was miles offside but no whistle and he dragged it past Varas to knock it in with his right foot. Sincerely though, that was an easy offside call, but as they say, calls usually even themselves out over time.
No need to drag this out any longer. A lot of positive tonight, with the team looking sharp on the ball and intelligent with their movement plus Bartra again showing that a traditional defender in a 4 back system creates a much safer foundation. The fixtures come thick and fast over the next 2 months and wins like tonight in these less illustrious occasions will prove vital come May. The only disappointment tonight was Messi. Firstly, and most superficially, because he didn’t score and surely had some special message under his shirt to celebrate the arrival of Thiago and present his joy to the Camp Nou and world alike. But mainly it was the images of him wincing in pain after he seemed to hyperextend his knee late in the game. He continued and seemed to assure to teammates he was fine but Messi was constantly touching his knee. Come back to totalBarça later for the details that will follow.
Image: MANEL MONTILLA [MD]