Barcelona expected, and hoped for, an easy match against Real Zaragoza – a game where players could stretch their legs and work their technique without too much exertion. Unfortunately for the Catalans, games like that do not occur often in La Liga. Barcelona soon realized that, and luckily not too late to make adjustments and earn those precious three points. Although the end of the season is not far off, now more than ever is the time for the club from Catalunya to keep fighting.
Head coach Pep Guardiola fielded a somewhat second-string lineup in an effort to rest some legs after the midweek Champions League victory over AC Milan. Valdés, Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano, Cesc, Keita, Thiago, Pedro, Messi and Alexis all received the start against Zaragoza.
The beginning of the game was lackluster, to say the least. Barcelona had very few, if any, chances and the fatigue from Champions League exertions was evident. Zaragoza found itself on a more equal playing field with Barcelona than probably ever before. The home team took no time taking advantage of that.
The first real drama of the match came in the 23rd minute. Zaragoza was on the attack and kept firing away at Barcelona’s net. After the ball rebounded back into the box, Valdés dove to grab the ball but instead tripped up a Zaragoza player. The goalkeeper was shown a yellow card and Zaragoza stepped up to the penalty spot. Aranda took the spot-kick, but Valdés repented for his previous error by blocking the goal. The ball bounced around the box dangerously as Zaragoza scrambled for the rebound but it was eventually cleared.
Barcelona managed to hang on to the even score line for a few minutes more. In the 27th minute, Zuculini received a yellow card from the referee for a foul. However, just three minutes later, Zaragoza pulled ahead. Aranda made a break for the goal and aimed his strike directly at Valdés. Although the goalkeeper pushed the first attempt away, the quick, headed rebound sailed past him. Puyol attempted to clear the ball but just shoved it further into the back of the net.
A goal down, Barcelona’s chances to turn around the first half looked grim. Zaragoza did all it could to preserve its lead by fouling any Barcelona player ready to score. In the 35th minute, Abraham challenged Alexis and was booked for it.
Just a minute after, though, the momentum shifted to the blaugrana. Barcelona won a corner kick and played it traditionally into the box instead of short. Zaragoza’s goalkeeper got a hand on it but only pushed it far enough so Puyol could tap in the rebound. Just like that, the score was level again.
With the first half Barcelona had played so far, a 1-1 draw into halftime was more than could be asked for. Except that Barcelona did ask, and it received. In the 39th minute, Alexis passed to Messi who classily dribbled around his defenders. La Pulga then chipped the ball straight to the top near corner to put Barcelona into the lead.
As if a goal lead was not enough for the Catalans, the team enjoyed one more advantage before the referee called 45 minutes. Although one of Barcelona’s own, Keita, earned a yellow card in the 43rd minute, two minutes later Abraham tugged down Alexis and was shown his second yellow card of the game. The Zaragoza player was sent off and Barcelona now only had to contend with ten men for the rest of the match.
Considering the way the first half began, the turnaround was staggering and made for a much more exciting game. Culés could only hope that this momentum carried into the second half as well.
There was some early drama to start off the next half, but it again took Barcelona close to a half hour to really start playing. In the 48th minute, the referee sent Zaragoza’s head coach Jiménez to the stands after a furious reaction to Thiago’s challenge on Lafita.
In the 55th minute, Barcelona made its first substitution when Keita came off for Busquets after failing to make much of an impact on the game. Three minutes later, the two teams came to blows over a free kick. Alves stepped over Barcelona’s free kick, but Zaragoza players approached him before he had shot the ball. Both teams argued and Adriano and Micael were both shown yellow cards for dissent.
Zaragoza made a double substitution in the 66th minute. Postiga and Lanzaro replaced Aranda and Obradovic, respectively. Two minutes after, Barcelona switched Alves with Montoya.
The game continued in a similar, routine fashion for the next minutes. It was not until the 82nd minute that Barcelona experienced its first great chance of the second half. Messi received the ball and broke away from his defenders. He went for the classic chip over the goalkeeper but misjudged his power and floated the ball over the net. That same minute, Lanzaro was shown a yellow card and Micael changed with Juan Carlos.
Messi had a shot at redemption for his uncharacteristic miss in the 85th minute. A Zaragoza player took down Alexis in the box and Barcelona was awarded a penalty. Messi stepped up and sunk the ball in the back of the net to bring Barcelona up 3-1.
Cesc made way for Xavi in the 90th minute, but not before he was written down in the referee’s book for a tackle on Lafita. With just four minutes of added time, not much more action was expected, but Barcelona again delivered late excitement. Pedro scored in the 92nd minute after a Messi assist to solidify Barcelona’s lead even more. Two minutes later, Thiago tallied a yellow card for a late tackle.
For a league game after a tiring midweek clash against AC Milan, tonight’s performance was not terrible. However, the team needs to play from whistle-to-whistle if it wants to hold on to any La Liga hopes. It took far too long for the players to warm up and really start challenging for goals in both halves. With the end of the season looming, now is not the time to become complacent. Although Barcelona managed to finish strong, it needs to realize that starting strong is just as, if not more, important.
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