It finished 1-1. And that seems fair. There was something just so ‘middle of the road’ about the game: it wasn’t dire, but it was far from pulsating. While certain passages were precise, others were a mess. It was quick at moments, a snail’s pace at others. Fatigue possibly? Lest one forget Barça have played 8 games in 33 days prior to tonight. Either way, a far from memorable match but a decent result nevertheless. The trip to the Mestalla is in the top percentile of match difficulty, arguably the 3rd toughest match of the season, and leaving with a draw is no shame. The goal was never to win 38 games, the goal is to win the league and this result is a step forward in that direction.
The First Half
Vilanova/Roura went with FC Barcelona’s strongest 11 (aside from Puyol perhaps) of Valdés, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba, Cesc, Busquets, Xavi, Pedro, Messi, Iniesta.
The pattern of the game showed itself from the onset. Valencia pressed high with the midfield at the halfway line, the defense not too far away, but as soon as Barça broke through that first line, the Valencia defense would retreat quickly and again a battalion of 9 white shirts would play zone and block the spaces. Valverde’s men ran vigorously for 90 minutes and were not afraid to put in a tackle, which made the game difficult throughout.
FC Barcelona dominated the first 30 minutes yet created nothing. Valencia had one dangerous freekick in that opening third, after Soldado far too easily rolled Piqué then Mascherano put in a crude tackle to take him down. That tackle absolutely warranted the yellow it was shown. Valencia’s counter attacks began to prove more frequent and more forceful, and in the 33rd minute bore fruit. A Soldado cross aimed at Cissokho was weakly cleared by a Piqué header, Banega controlled it, then buried it. 1-0.
The home team however squandered their advantage within minutes. Portugese right-back Pereira put in a clumsy tackle into the back of Pedro. Pedro may have had his back to goal and was seemingly going nowhere, but that’s irrelevant; the rule is a foul in the penalty box is a penalty kick and Pereira fouled Pedro in the box. He has only himself to blame for that rash action. Messi lashed it into the top corner to take his consecutive league scoring run to 12 and his total goal tally to 45. 1-1.
That’s how a forgettable 45 ended, and Barça could not complain with a mere 3 total shots and just the 1 on target.
Second Half Action
The second half had its moments, and on the balance perhaps Barça may feel it had the better of chances to win the match. Fàbregas had a glorious opportunity early on, and for my money he should have scored. Messi played a through ball of perfect pace and angle from nearly the halfway line cutting Valencia’s stalwart defense in a single stroke. Cesc got behind his defender but could not hit the target with this left foot.
Just past the hour mark another clear Barça chance. The team countered with speed and numbers, Fàbregas held onto the ball well to allow space to open up, and found Messi free on the right. But his ball across was met by no one, in fact it was barely anticipated by the Barca attack. Pedro in particular should have gambled on it. Maybe Messi could have taken it himself.
The final golden Barça chance fell to David Villa, who had come on for Fàbregas, in the 77th minute. Xavi drilled a flawless ball out right to Dani Alves, the Brazilian took the ball in his stride expertly and with his second touch put in an inch perfect cross to the unmarked Villa. His cushioned attempt agonizingly missed wide.
Sandwiched between that action, Valencia could have won it too, using their dangerous counter-attacks effectively. Valdés will have put the lid on critiques tonight with several good and one world-class save. A decent Sergio Canales attempt was parried in the 68th minute but it was at the death he truly showed up. 89th minute and Piqué looks comfortable with the ball then his brain turns off suddenly, Cissokho nicks it off him, sets up Piatti with a cross. Valdés comes out to block the attempt then gets up lightening fast and flies through the air to majestically block a certain Roberto Soldado goal. Focus, anticipation, reflex. Those are the attributes Victor has built a legendary career upon and without those Barça walk out tonight 1 point poorer.
Valencia were the last team to hold Barça to below 2 league goals, and they did it again tonight. To reiterate, a 1-1 draw in Valencia requires no moans and groans. But, there appear to be areas to consider. I am a staunch supporter of Piqué but one cannot ignore that in just this singular match report he was “too easily rolled”, “cross…weakly cleared” leading to the goal, and then that horrid error at the end that almost leads to a defeat.
Pedro was also quite poor today and I was bamboozled that he lasted the 90. While his industry can never be questioned, tonight all of these other aspects were substandard: passing, first touch, dribbling, shooting, and most importantly decision making. Near the end of the 1st half Barça had a great counterattack opportunity. He passed to Messi when clearly Jordi Alba was the option. Alba is the single fastest player at Barça, perhaps La Liga, and with his forward momentum and the Valencia defenders backtracking on their heels a properly executed ball out left results in a 1-on-1. End of story.
But what does that say about our options? How does that impact the already low morale of Alexis? Is the team overly reliant on Messi and looking for him even when a better option presents itself? Who is going to step-up in front of goal to ease the pressure off Leo? If the team is fatigued, why not more rotation? If both Alexis and Pedro are misfiring, didn’t Tello (who was dropped as a technical decision) prove last season he has a goal or two in him? Are we missing Tito Vilanova because it seems that the lineups of late create predictability and perhaps hamper competitiveness? Why is the team conceding so many goals? There is no need to have definite answers to all these questions, in reality they don’t exist, but all are worth considering.
Still, with a match every 4.25 days this year, including trips to Málaga (twice), Valencia, and Real Madrid, is it reasonable to complain about 4 wins, 3 draws, and a single defeat? Tonight FC Barcelona sleep with a 16-point advantage over Real Madrid and at worst 9 over 2nd place Atlético. Not a bad position. This midweek FIFA matchday is a proper nuisance but subsequent fixtures against Getafe and Granada will hopefully lead to less energy draining affairs.
Image: PEP MORATA [MD]