analysis | 2016-12-19
Match Report - Barcelona 4:1 Espanyol - Messi's Bohemian Rhapsody
Messi performs yet another masterpiece in the second half and leads Barcelona’s thumping over the city archrivals
“Is this the real life?... Is this just fantasy?” wrote a musical genius some 50 years ago and yesterday for two blistering minutes this was the feeling of football fans around the world watching a kind of magic mastermind making the Camp Nou his personal stave.
The expectations were high for this Derbi Barceloní despite the fact Espanyol had not beaten Barcelona in their home since 2009. Quique Sánchez Flores men arrived with a nine La Liga games undefeated streak, displaying solid defensive performances along the way which carry them to obtain seven clean sheets in that run.
On top of that, after Sevilla’s victory against Málaga, the Blaugranas saw themselves dropping to the third place in the league table, therefore you can really say the players were under pressure because of the three points urgency. Luis Enrique said it himself before the clash: “We will have to control our emotions facing a tough rival who defends like a block and has many solutions with their counterattacks”. Thus, the Asturian purpose was to have his footballers brisk from the get-go.
With that in mind, the Barça coach presented the novelty of Denis Suárez in the starting lineup over André Gomes, looking to achieve a speedier ball movement and overcome Espanyol’s defensive set up with his pace and midfield link ups with Iniesta and Busquets. Mascherano formed the defensive tandem with Piqué in the back and more attacking-prone flanks were occupied by Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba. Up front, the three tenors were as ready as they always are for the show. The Pride of Barcelona -as a giant banner said in the Espai d’Animació- were all ready to battle the Periquitos.
Like in Mercury’s masterpiece, the match began with a slow tempo with both teams assessing each other and not risking too much. Espanyol mixed a discipline pressure on Barça’s build up plays with a patient waiting at the halfway line in a tight 4-4-2 formation but the Catalan team was able to surpass the first pressing line with relative ease.
On the 7th minute, Barça’s first clear chance came oddly enough from a counterattack. Luis Suárez received from Iniesta before the halfway line, skillfully dribbled past the oncoming defender, opened to the left flank to Neymar and the Brazilian crossed the ball to the far post where Messi’s shot ended on the wrong side of the net. It was just a glimpse of what was in store from the Argentinian.
As the match progressed, Barcelona controlled the possession but without posing much of a threat to Diego López’ goal with Espanyol’s ranks forming sometimes a 5-man defensive line before his goalkeeper.
All that would change with a stroke of brilliance from Andrés Iniesta. Mascherano -who was superb last night with his timing and anticipations- cut off a rival pass, the ball landed at Iniesta’s feet and the Manchego sent a magnificent long pass to the Uruguayan who made a terrific oriented ball control with his first touch, used his body to protect the ball from the defender and placed it to the back of the net with a flush shot towards the far post. A wonderful goal which resembled the one scored by Suárez in the 2014/15 Clásico from a Dani Alves pass.
Iniesta’s influence on his teammates is profound. He makes everyone around him a better player and offers the harmony when the team is out of tune. Especially Busquets looks more comfortable as of late with the Manchego by his side, gaining back his own confidence and best shape. Up until this point, Barcelona were not displaying their best football in the game but with Iniesta’s leadership and delicatessens -such as that almost no-look ball control- the Blaugranas went ahead in the scoreboard.
The music sheet didn’t change much after Barça’s first goal: the Catalans maintained the ball possession but mostly with horizontal passes and Espanyol continued to wait for their chances with the counterattacks. However, in the first half last minutes there was a quicker ball movement and triangulations from the culés because perhaps they were feeling that the advantage was a short one. The first act ended with an impeccable Mascherano in the back, an Iniesta working as the orchestra director and a more confident creative Sergio Busquets.
The second half started without any substitutions from both teams, although that would change five minutes into the half when Diego López blocked a Luis Suárez shot but the subsequent clash in the play against the Uruguayan striker got him injured and he had to be replaced by Roberto. Barcelona were recovering the ball swiftly suppressing any attempt of a Espanyol counter with the audience roaring from the animation stand for a second goal.
And then Brian May’s guitar solo took over Lionel Messi’s body. Andrés Iniesta passed the ball to the Argentinian who like in the school playground nutmegged one opponent and broke through three more rivals while carelessly humming the tune of “Don’t Stop Me Now”. His shot was deflected by Roberto but Luis Suárez picked it up to blast the ball in and double the lead.
The show did go on just one minute later when Neymar drove the ball to the inside from left to right and left it to Messi who -as if he was covered in soap- glided through the defenders and out of balance passed it to the left flank where Jordi Alba put the 3-0 to the far post. Two minutes -Is this the real life?- and two works of art by La Pulga. Quique Sánchez Flores’ look in the bench was one of hopeless agony, like a heartbroken man looking for somebody to love.
After the gale, there was a more open match with lots of spaces in front of the players and Espanyol took advantage of that in the 79th minute with a great counterattack goal finished by the Catalan David López.
It looked almost impossible and was certainly unfair that Messi ended up the match without scoring his goal but that changed on the brink of the final whistle. Sergi Roberto recovered the ball and sent a long pass towards Messi who combined with Suárez at the entrance of the area. The Uruguayan returned a lobbed ball -so subtle it was an innuendo of a pass- to the Blaugrana crack who gently placed it between the goalie’s legs with his first touch to made his mark on the scoresheet. It was the 4-1 and the performance was complete.
“Nothing really matters...anyone can see” -Messi seemed to mumble on his way to the locker room- “nothing really matters to me”. Neither statistics nor earthly individual awards matter to him, just the ball, the turf and the beautiful game.
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