350. 190. 84. On his 350th official match for FC Barcelona, Lionel Messi scored his 190th La Liga goal and his 84th goal of the 2012 calendar year. These numbers level him with Cesar for the club record of all-time La Liga goals and leaves him just 1 behind Gerd Müller’s record of 85 goals in 1 calendar year. Messi nevertheless did create a new record this evening with his 5th successive match with 2 goals or more (source: @MessiStuff). But the match was not all about Leo this evening, because the team from 1 to 11 gave a top notch performance filled with hunger, precision, and creative flair. I’d expect Manuel Traquete’s latest set of ratings to be rather high.
It wouldn’t be another La Masia 11, with Adriano and Mascherano playing in place of Montoya and Puyol. The remaining 9 spots went to Valdés, Piqué, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Fàbregas, and Messi. Yes, those 9 all have passed through the youth system at some point.
Andres Iniesta looked early on like he hadn’t skipped a beat since his wondrous performance versus Levante and it was him who created the first chance. Some silky trickery on the left wing then a cut back onto his right and a low shot to the near post which was saved well by Iraizoz.
The opening goal came soon after, in the 22nd minute, from the man looking more and more himself, i.e. elite, Gerard Piqué. From a corner kick, the ball fell to Cesc who forced another near post save from Gorka Iraizoz but this time the rebound fell smack in the middle of the penalty box and Piqué calmly and assertively slotted it home. 1-0.
3 minutes later, 2-0. There has been both spoilt and incorrect criticism of Xavi at times, citing his lack of directness. Well, after Messi dipped and jived away from Amorebieta, leaving the tough tackler dead in his tracks, Xavi spotted the space and slipped in a perfect 20 meter ball from midfield over 2 covering defensive midfielders right into the danger zone. Messi was away, went around the keeper, and dinked it towards goal. However, Amorebieta had tracked back, got to the ball but his attempted clearance sliced off his boot into the roof of the net. It’s not certain if it was going in on its own or if the Venezuelan international’s touch was critical, but as it stands now the goal has been awarded to Leo. No matter, Messi looked extra eager this evening and more goals were sure to follow. Side note, Xavi put in several other fantastically perfect direct balls the first half.
Another near post shot came in from Fàbregas, after being set up by Messi, in the 39th minute but again Iraizoz made the save. Iniesta skewed a shot wide in the 43th minute, but it was a difficult chance. Cesc put in a wonderful long ball into the diagonally sprinting Alba, who attempted to cushion the ball first time into space for the oncoming Iniesta, but Iniesta had too much momentum and the angle was too tight for a clear look.
It wasn’t to be 3-0, Messi’s 2nd, on the stroke of half time when Leo’s shot from very close range banged back off the crossbar. Pedro, on the left this time, back-heeled it cutely into the path of Alba, again showing the danger he provides, who dinked it across the center to Barça’s number 10. He hit it first time high and powerfully, beating Iraizoz but not the geometry of the bar.
But 3-0 it was moments later. The ball never went out of play and when Messi picked it up near the edge of the box, like gravity, 4 Bilbao players drifted towards him. He penetrated inside and his sublime skills kept them entertained long enough to allow Fàbregas to find space behind him. A cut back, and then one of the assists of the season from Cesc. His ball was perfection, the weight and timing dissecting through 4 opponent players via the heart of the penalty box and finally arriving at the exact correct moment for Adriano to blast it over the keeper into the net. It was the final action of a very impressive first half from FC Barcelona on route to setting the best ever pace in La Liga after 14 matches.
Barça were sumptuous tonight, totally irrepressible. The early signs in the second half screamed a 4th was not far in the distance. It came in the 57th minute from a deserving source: Cesc Fàbregas. And while the assist from Iniesta did the damage, the first point of praise must go to the special Busquets. A gritty and determined sliding effort not only intercepted a ball out but either on purpose or not, it fell directly at Iniesta’s feet. The sublime Don Andres, center middle, attracted defenders like a fly to honey but in truth it was some pretty amateurish ball watching as no Bilbao defender seemed at all aware of Cesc ghosting in on the right. Iniesta flicked it out wide and Fàbregas made no mistake from a few yards out.
Alas, no clean sheet, despite the back four until then looking composed and balanced. Must be said however, the long ball over the top from Ituraspe was fantastic as was the touch to take it down from Ibai Gómez. The attack minded Adriano did play Gómez onside, and that is something he will know, but credit the Bilbao man for his ability and composure to beat Valdés.
The 4 goal margin was quickly restored in the 69th minute. Cesc tried to feed Messi, he left it to Pedro, his shot was saved, then the man from the Canaries twinkle-toed to find some space, feed it back to Alba, who missed it but standing not far away was guess who, yes, Messi. He let the ball run across his body, opened the angle and with his weak (?) foot slotted it high into the right hand corner of the goal. A relentless performance worthy of a 5-1 score line.
With the game wrapped up, squad management by Vilanova saw Montoya (for Adriano), Thiago (for Iniesta), and Alex Song (for Busquets) all enter with about 15 minutes left. Only one more major chance and it did fall to Messi who nearly reached the record that has received widespread media coverage. A blistering counter attack saw Messi feed Pedro out wide, who then chipped in a lovely ball to Piquenbauer in the box, and he reversed the ball back for Messi but the header was very difficult to keep on target.
It is truly positives tonight. Despite conceding, the defense looked far more like what is needed. There was balance, poise, concentration, a dedication to defensive duties, while not sacrificing attacking endeavour. Piqué has played through his slump as he edges back to his best and Mascherano looked that assertive presence we have come to expect. The usual suspects, Messi, Iniesta, and Xavi, put on a high level display of movement and interplay and they were joined by brother in arms Cesc Fàbregas who should be credited for a splendid 90 minutes. Let us not forget Pedro, and yes it’s 17 games without a goal, but his contribution to the team is positive with obvious sharpness and proficient directness. One could not have asked for more tonight and with a record breaking 40 points thus far and a threatening match for Real Madrid later on, before the nights up the gap could be as much as 14. ¡Visca Barça!
Image Credit: Miguel Ruiz/fcbarcelona.cat