As FC Barcelona prepares to take on Malaga CF for the third time in less than two weeks, here are the things to keep in mind as we get ready to watch the game:
1- Malaga is and has been one of the strongest sides in Spain, and in Europe, judging by their Champions League group stage performance this season.
2- Malaga was dangerous in both games so far, including the first of these three matches that they lost 1-3 at home.
3- And as always, it’s Barça’s level that will decide this game.
Barça was better in the first game. As good as Isco and co. might be, they do not compare to Barça when we are at our best. So the question is, will FC Barcelona play at its best so as to avoid elimination from the Copa del Rey?
The scores of the last two games might suggest that Barça is playable in these last couple of weeks. However, upon deeper inspection, it becomes easier to say that the team can overcome last Wednesday’s hiccup.
The obvious difference between the first two games is the presence of Sergio Busquets in the first game, and his resting on the sideline in the second game. Any game is harder without Busquets, but it isn’t the reason why they won a game, and then drew the other. Barça lost to Real Sociedad over the weekend, with Busquets in the team (although he wasn’t at his best).
The reason for this folly in results is errors.
In the first leg of the Copa del Rey against Malaga, Thiago was at fault for losing the ball in front of the box. However, much of the blame was on Jose Manuel Pinto, who played it to the middle of the pitch, in a congested area, to Thiago with his back to the opposing players, blind to their movements.
Pinto is superb in reflex saves, and in many different methods of defending the goal, but his most frightening habit is poor distribution. A hesitation too long, or a pass too dangerous is a common aspect of his game, and I’m sorry to judge him this way. Thankfully, most of the time, the ball ends up leaving the danger area. But other times…
Other than needing to carefully distribute the ball from the back, without reckless risks, the team should not give away cheap free kicks such as they did in the last 2 games against Malaga. In the first game, Mascherano’s foul didn’t end up denting the scoreline by much, and Barça won anyway. However, Xavi’s foul in the 2nd game forced a draw with a team that looked defeated in the 2nd half after Monreal’s expulsion. There was no need for that foul, but it happened.
Barça play a very high risk game. When a team relies on possession and a high line of defense (a defense that is part of the attack), this team becomes obviously vulnerable to any errors it makes, and any quick counter attacks. This is part of the blaugrana game, and it has to be accepted as such. However, most of the goals that Malaga scored in the last 2 games were from free kicks, and not from counter attacks that are part of the risk they take. These goals were a result of uncommon errors outside of the box, and defensive errors covering them.
The obvious solution would be not to giveaway cheap free kicks. Easier said than done of course, but they didn’t have much trouble doing it earlier.
Speaking of defensive errors, our defenders rarely make mistakes. However much pundits like to question the “natural defender” status of Mascherano, or the aging legs of Puyol, they remain superb defenders in getting rid of any unexpected attacks by the other team, once we are caught on the break. No one can question Mascherano’s amazing interceptions and tackles, or Puyol’s last ditch blocks, because most of the time, this is what Barça’s style of play demands. It demands intuitive blocks, and positioning, which is a tough ask for most defenders, and which is, again, risky.
Mascherano’s own goal in the 3-2 loss to Real Sociedad wasn’t about bad defending. It was just bad luck. One may argue that he could have tried to body-block the shot instead of trying to punt it away with his leg and prevented it from being deflected and catching Valdes wrong-footed.
However, the bad defending was in the first goal, when Pique rose wrongly in the air, allowing the Sociedad player to skirt in behind him, and then the ball reaching the left flank of the Sociedad attack, which had Alves missing because he was shadowing Puyol in the center of defense. That is two mistakes during a single attacking move by the opposite team. These are the kinds of errors that the defense cannot afford to make against any team, especially against teams like Malaga.
That leaves us with the attack. The last few games were full of chances, and goal attempts. Sadly enough, most of them ended outside the goal frame. No one can say that this is an error in the attack because most of them were really good attempts. Yet again, if a team takes more advantage of their scoring attempts, they can cover up for any mistakes done at the back.
So after a draw and loss in the last 2 games, what to expect in this one…
Predicted Starting XI:
Barcelona: Pinto; Adriano, Mascherano, Puyol, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Fàbregas; Iniesta, Messi, Villa
Malaga: Kameni; Sánchez, Onyewu, Weligton, Monreal; Iturra, Camacho; Fernandez, Buonanotte, Eliseu; Saviola
Honestly, I can only expect Barça to go in firing on all cylinders, creating more chances on goal, and focusing harder than ever in being more ruthless in taking them. The past couple of games are a wake up call for a team that wasn’t actually sleeping, but might have been resting on its laurels a bit; not in its attempt to win a game, but in its expectation that it will win anyway. Now, it has really sunk in that there are teams who are out to get them, and I can only feel sorry for the teams who are yet to come.
Malaga CF 0-3 FC Barcelona
Editor’s note: This preview has been written by one of our new writers, Ramzi Ibrahim. He hails from Lebanon and is an avid FC Barcelona fan. Please watch this space for more articles from Ramzi.
Image Credit: Manu Fernandez/Mundo Deportivo