There was no holiday hangover for FC Barcelona as the team began 2013 as it ended 2012: winning. It was no surprise but certainly warming to have Tito Vilanova (dressed Guardiola-ish) back on the bench after the shock and melancholy felt just a couple of weeks prior. No shock either in the lineup as Vilanova went chiefly with the form players of 2012 starting with Valdés; Alves, Puyol, Piqué, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Cesc; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta. Fàbregas returned from injury over the holiday break to fill the spot of either Alexis or David Villa, whose frustrations continue. But let’s focus on the good stuff: Barça is back and Barça is still winning.
Just nine minutes were needed to score the first goal of a new year. It was not 2012 goal machine Messi, but maestro Xavi Hernández. The ball was sprayed out left to possible FIFA Ballon d’Or 2012 winner Iniesta, who lasered a cross into the path of the midfielder, who directed it past the reach of Espanyol keeper Casilla. Iniesta then almost made it 2-0 four minutes later, stopped by the keeper this time, after Cesc controlled sublimely to create space and nutmegged the defender with his pass out left.
It may not have been pretty but Pedro finally broke his drought of nearly 20 games. Fifteen minutes into the game and a very sharp looking Barça made it 2-0 after a quick and incisive move. FC Barcelona countered with pace, led by Dani Alves who then turned the ball over for Lionel to lead the charge. Penetrating the opponent, number 10 made the necessary space before knocking it out left, a zone where Barça was finding a lot of joy, for Cesc. He did superbly on the side, beating a man to create an angle then cutting the ball back into the middle to Messi milliseconds before it crossed the line. His finish looked true but it took a touch on the way in. Truthfully, Pedro didn’t know much about it, but Messi’s attempted finish did just clip his leg and the goal was given to the Canario.
For the evening’s third goal, this time, Pedro knew all about it. A fantastic example of the much discussed directness
of this seasons’ play. Busquets played a perfect through ball from deep, slicing the defense wide open. Pedro left the Espanyol marker for dead and he finished it wonderfully with a chip. That kind of goal should have been happening all 2012 for Pedrito. He was doing it regularly and stylishly for Spain and was rather unlucky with his finishes at the club level. Let’s hope the flood gates open. 3-0.
Moments later, penalty. A deflected ball fell into the box, Casilla committed, Cesc got there first and the keeper clearly took him down. No question about the decision, and no question about who was going to step up and take it. League goal 27 was slotted in coolly by Lionel Messi after sending the keeper the wrong direction. 4-0 with not even 30 minutes gone. Emphatic.
The chances didn’t come thick and fast in the second half but hunger was not lacking. Both Messi and Pedro were chasing down balls like the score was 0-0 or 0-1, while Iniesta tracked back to tackle in the 82nd minute for no apparent reason but to get ‘his’ ball back. Try finding that with stars at other big clubs. (I wish you good luck in that endeavor.) To conserve energy and control the game without getting lazy and unfocused, which they did not, is a strategically correct decision and not one that merits critique. The focus was still ball, possession, attack: just that bit extra burning of energy
was inappreciably curtailed. Honestly, it could even be unfair to say that much because many passages of the second 45 were played at the same pace as the first, producing some silky passing movements and several goals (though disallowed).
Xavi was pulled out on the 62nd minute for Thiago, right after he nearly put Pedro through again (called offside). Pedro then had his hattrick incorrectly ruled out when Cesc was flagged off after latching onto Messi’s majestic through ball. That was to be our number 4’s last action as David Villa was introduced and given 25 minutes to strut his stuff. It was not long before Messi fed Villa and he tried to poke an attempt home.
The young linesman in the 72nd minute again denied Pedro a third after it was judged he was off from Alves’s wonderful onetime delivery from a Messi cross field pass. Alves definitely was not offside, Pedro looked about level but may just have been too advanced. He would not get three tonight but Pedro’s brace will be most welcomed, and now it was time for Alexis to get in on the action with 15 minutes remaining. Messi cracked the bar in the 80th minute with a freekick. Those really are now a serious weapon in his arsenal, to the great benefit of FC Barcelona.
The critics of La Liga will scoff at the scoreline, the stats, the seeming ease, then cite the boring rhetoric about the quality of the league. (Lest they forget, 2011/12’s European competition had 5/8 Spanish clubs at the semi-final stage and this year 4 from 4 made it past the Champions League group stage, while another rather boastful league only had 2 of 4 last time I checked.) Sure Espanyol are having a lowly year, but Barça was genuinely excellent tonight, especially the first 45. Not many teams anywhere, at any level of the league table, would have handled that onslaught of pace, purpose, and precision. Plus the pressure from the forward line was relentless, they swarmed anything white and blue without mercy. The directness of passing, including several over the top, worked to great effect and it will be interesting to see if a trend emerges in 2013. I predict high marks across the board, skewed slightly forward, as the defenders had little to do but
when they did it was done cleanly and coolly. Well except for Piqué’s horrid back-pass which nearly marred a nigh perfect outing. Both lateral defenders had top games. That aside, 2013 began in style with 4 goals, nearly more, a clean sheet, and Tito Vilanova.
Images: Alberto Estévez – EFE, Lluis Gene – AFP