Welcome to the first installment of our Big Match series. Here we will analyze and examine a particular match at length. It could be a huge European match featuring clubs from England, Spain, Italy, Germany or France or perhaps a derby from Argentina, Brazil, or even Australia and Greece. It could be a World Cup clash, or possibly a lower league match-up that for some reason or another has come to our attention (mostly it’ll just be talking about a match we’ve seen on television or have gone to).
Please enjoy our first Big Match report on Sunday’s La Liga game between Barcelona and Valencia at the Nou Camp in Barcelona.
Perhaps it’s only comparisons to last season that have people questioning Barcelona’s likelihood of winning back-to-back La Liga and Champions’ League titles. Even the most optimistic of Barca supporters had to be thinking that there was no way the lofty heights of last season would be reached. Six for six in all the competitions they entered, how could that possibly be topped or matched?
In truth, Sunday’s clash against third-placed Valencia answered little to those wondering if this side is able to win La Liga and the Champions’ League again. The potential is there for a repeat of domestic and continental honors, but the question is can this side minus Samuel Eto’o and without significant contributions this season from his replacement Zlatan Ibrahimovic or fellow frontman Thierry Henry do the business during the business end of the season.
The opening minutes of Sunday night’s match against Valencia showed a Barcelona side eager to stamp their authority on the fixture. A few probing runs by a Lionel Messi and the usual bossing of the midfield by the superb duo of Xavi and Andres Iniesta suggested this one was going to be over early especially for a David Villa-less Valencia side.
But early on Valencia proved they would be making a fist of this one and the counterattacks started to come early and often. The opportunities were there for the visitors and Unai Emery’s side really should have opened the scoring as they created some moments of real danger. David Silva, Jordi Alba, and Ever Banega were slicing open a Barcelona backline that struggled to keep up in the first 45 minutes. Gerard Pique and Gabriel Milito didn’t seem to have it altogether in the middle of the park and while Dani Alves looked capable on the right more often than not, Maxwell didn’t seem as solid on the left.
This match was a back and forth affair and the attacking football was a joy to watch. It was classic Barcelona possession versus Valencia’s counterattack. Pep Guardiola (serving a suspension from the stands) would not have liked his side’s careless turnovers in the first half. It was surprising to see so many errant passes or moments of indecision that gave away the ball, even from the likes of Iniesta.
Valencia had arguably the opening period’s best chance when Banega’s cutback in the 31st minute, following a superb floated ball into the box by Silva, should have produced an opener, it was bewildering that it didn’t. That began a sequence of a few minutes of pure up and down football where Jordi Alba missed another great chance only for Messi to come incredibly close at the other end seconds later. More great work by the Argentine magician five minutes from the break created an opening for Pedro who should have done better with a shot that went wide.
Pedro was somewhat disappointing on the right. There appeared to be a real will from the youngster to do something productive, but unfortunately despite a few bursts forward there was not much of an end product to his play. His counterpart on the left side, Bojan Krkic looked really out of sorts. Only 19, it is reasonable to say that Krkic’s best days are ahead of him, though it might be difficult to convince those that saw him chip in with 10 goals as a 17-year-old of that. Krkic looked lost on the left of a three-pronged attack and either his run was always snuffed out by Valencia’s defense or his pass ended up in the wrong place.
The turning point in the match was perhaps the injury that David Albelda suffered that forced him off in the 44th minute, Valencia were never the same after that. Barcelona then replaced the ineffective Krkic with Thierry Henry for the second half and suddenly Barcelona came to life. It really was as simple as that. Henry’s introduction signaled an urgency in Barcelona’s play and their disjointed attacks of the first half were replaced by clear-headed moves that were proving to be ever more dangerous.
It was no surprise then when Messi opened the scoring on 56 minutes. It was a trademark gallop past everyone and anyone in front of him from the world’s best player and cool finish to match. Who would bet against Barcelona now? They were on top and would surely add to this.
They did add to their lead ten minutes later when Maxwell put a rebound into the net, but the effort was ruled out for offside. Then came two minutes that defined the match. If Nikola Zigic had scored in the 68th minute instead of shooting straight at Victor Valdes in a one-on-one then we might be talking of a different outcome. Not only did the incredibly tall Serb miss, but straight down the pitch Hedwiges Maduro was sent off for a second yellow card.
It was only a matter of time then and two more Messi specials in the 81st and 83rd minutes (both goals assisted by Henry it must be said), one better than the other, gave us the final scoreline of 3-0. Hopefully we will have the joy of watching this wonderful player for many years to come. Truth be told, occasionally he looks to be having a bad night, but it’s then when he goes on to produce some serious magic. With Messi in this type of form, Barcelona may be just fine despite their problems. And if Henry and the injured Ibrahimovic can begin producing on a consistent basis, the final stretch of this season could yet be another historic one for the Catalan club.
Barcelona Report: Messi’s strikes could distract from the defensive problems that Barca had in this match. Still, if they can figure it out at the back towards the end of the season they are virtually the same side that won it all last season. The question is can Messi do it himself up front or will Henry and Ibrahimovic end the season on a high? If they do, Real Madrid(top of La Liga on goal difference) and Europe better watch out.
Valencia Report: Credit be given to Emery’s side, they gave a good fight at the Nou Camp. With David Villa perhaps there would have been goals instead of missed opportunities. Still, the club look good for third place in Spain and a Champions’ League spot and also are still in the running for a Europa League trophy.
The Good: Messi’s hat-trick, full of quality, imagination, and importance.
The Bad: Barcelona’s first half display and Bojan’s overall performance. Add Maduro’s sending off to this.
The Decisive Moment(s): Take your pick between Albelda’s injury, Henry coming on, Messi’s brilliance, Zigic’s miss, or Maduro’s red. Every key moment in the match favored Barcelona and helped to their 3-0 win.