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Match report

Barcelona March on to Wembley

May 4th, 2011

FC Barcelona are through to the final of the Champions League after gaining a 1-1 draw against Real Madrid with an assured second leg performance at the Camp Nou. Despite fielding a more attacking lineup than in previous Clásicos, Real Madrid were never able to put sustained pressure on what remains a relatively makeshift Barça defence.

After dominating the first half, it was the home side that took the lead when Pedro tucked the ball past Casillas to cap a fantastic team move. With the tie effectively sealed, Barcelona could afford a little carelessness, giving the ball away at the back, with Marcelo tapping home from an Ángel di María cutback.

The build up to this decisive second leg had been tempestuous in all senses of the word. After a week of blustery claim and counter-claim in the press, a real life thunderstorm broke out in the Barcelona skies, leaving plenty of surface water on the Camp Nou pitch.

Any fears that the conditions would hamper Barcelona’s passing game were quickly dispelled though, when a first-choice attacking six started zipping the ball around with characteristic style.

The visitors reduced to spectators once again. Madrid’s main contribution in the early exchanges was to ride their luck thanks to a series of rugged challenges by Ricardo Carvalho and Lassana Diarra.

When Lionel Messi drew a full-stretch save from Casillas on the 30-minute mark, Barça scented blood and created a flurry of opportunities; Villa, Pedro and Messi again all went close, with only some spectacular acrobatics by the Spain ‘keeper preventing Barcelona from extending their lead.

Perhaps revelling in the fortune of surviving this onslaught, there was renewed endeavour from the visitors after the break. Cristiano Ronaldo had his first opportunity to run at the Barcelona defence – when the Portuguese forward forced a challenge from Piqué, the ball broke for Gonzalo Higuain who curled the ball past Valdés.

Fortunately for Barcelona, referee Franck de Bleeckere had already blown up for a foul on Mascherano. Cristiano Ronaldo had rolled past Piqué onto the Argentine defender’s heels, preventing him from putting a challenge in on Higuain.

Barcelona responded almost instantly with a wonderful goal; the move started back with Víctor Valdés and culminated in a pinpoint pass by Iniesta through to Pedro Rodríguez. The winger showed no hesitation as he slotted into the bottom right corner to spark rapturous celebrations.

Now reassured by their massive advantage, Barça opted to slow the pace. But a moment of rare sloppiness at the back allowed di María to get in on goal. The Madrid winger smashed the ball off the post before directing the rebound to Marcelo who made no mistake. It was careless play by Barcelona, but would prove to be little more than a minor bump in the road.

There was still time for a heartwarming moment – Eric Abidal’s late entrance was greeted by huge cheers, as the French defender made his first appearance since recovering from a serious health scare.

1-0 Pedro (min 53)
1-1 Marcelo (min 68)


Barcelona Slip Against Spirited Sociedad

May 2nd, 2011

FC Barcelona fell to a 2-1 defeat at Real Sociedad on Saturday evening. The Basque team capitalised on two defensive slips to condemn Barça to a first league defeat since September and boost their own fight against relegation. Substitute Diego Ifrán tapped home from close range, and Xabi Prieto converted a penalty to cancel out Thiago’s opener for the away team.

Barça will feel also somewhat aggrieved after a legitimate Milito goal was disallowed for offside when the match was finely poised at 1-1. Despite this frustration the result means that the picture remains unchanged at the top thanks to Real Madrid’s latest home defeat, this time at the hands of Real Zaragoza.

Pep Guardiola elected to field a smattering of young Barcelona B talent ahead of the crucial Champions League semi-final second leg at the Camp Nou on Tuesday. Andreu Fontàs, Martín Montoya and Thiago all provided a glimpse of the next generation.

Barcelona were largely superior early on and fashioned two quick chances, with Messi smashing a volley just wide and Afellay forcing a smart save from ‘keeper Claudio Bravo. Montoya then had his game sadly cut short after a foul by Xabi Prieto.

There was little to trouble Pinto at the other end, apart from a half-chance for Raúl Tamudo. The former Espanyol man almost notched a goal against his old rivals, directing a lobbed Griezmann pass inches past the post.

Just before the half hour mark, the mounting Barça pressure told; Xavi fired a 20-yard pass along the ground to Messi. For once in his career the Argentine failed to bring the ball under control, but young Thiago Alcántara was quickest to react and found the back of the net via a touch from Claudio Bravo and the underside of the crossbar.

By half time it looked like Guardiola’s men were taking another comfortable step towards a third successive title, but Real Sociedad came out for the second 45 with renewed purpose. Within minutes they were looking dangerous from set pieces; Pinto half-cleared a Griezmann free kick and Estrada went just wide with a long-range volley.

Barça’s defence was starting to look a little indecisive, and this was especially evident for the Erreala equaliser. After a scramble following one of many high crosses, substitute Diego Ifrán escaped the attentions of young Andreu Fontàs to find the net with his first touch of the game.

This goal was followed by the game’s most contentious moment. Gabriel Milito stooped to head home a teasing Xavi delivery at the back post, but the assistant’s flag was raised instantly. Replays suggested the Argentine defender was level.

Real Sociedad took the lead a few minutes later when a tentative exchange of passes between Mascherano, Alves and Pinto handed dangerous possession to Sociedad. Griezmann was felled by Mascherano and Xabi Prieto stepped up to squeeze home a tame penalty.

Although the defeat was frustratingly preventable, Barça’s lead at the top still looks unassailable.

0-1, Thiago (min 29)
1-1, Ifrán (min 71)
2-1, Xabi Prieto (pen, min 82)


Messi Grabs Advantage for Barcelona

April 28th, 2011

Lionel Messi struck twice to hand FC Barcelona a massive advantage in their Champions League semi-final tie with bitter rivals Real Madrid. It was another ill-humoured Clásico, repeatedly interrupted by squabbles and niggling fouls, but come the final whistle the Blaugrana side were in a justified ascendancy, taking a 2-0 lead to next week’s match at the Camp Nou.

Barcelona had the upper hand throughout, but the game’s turning point came on the 60th minute with a red card for Pepe after a crude studs-up lunge on Dani Alves. Lionel Messi then seized the initiative, poking an Afellay cross beneath Casillas from close range, then embarking on a jinking run from the centre circle, beating five players and slotting home.

In hindsight, the build-up to this monumental first leg was a sign of things to come. Pep Guardiola had elected to stand up to Jose Mourinho by bristling at the Madrid manager’s recent provocation at Tuesday’s press conference. And this tetchy atmosphere was carried onto the Bernabéu pitch.

The first half was reminiscent of the recent confrontations between these two clubs; Barcelona were trying to set the tempo, with Pedro and Villa hugging the left and right touchlines, trying to furnish Messi and Xavi with some space against a compact Madrid formation.

Their counterparts were far less enterprising – opting instead to find Cristiano Ronaldo on the counter attack and gain territorial advantage via set pieces.

There were plenty of petty fouls followed by shrill protestations and theatrics, perhaps a consequence of Mourinho’s pre-match fixation with referees. But amid the fractious exchanges Barcelona did manage to carve a couple of notable chances.

Pulling in off the right wing, Villa cut onto his weaker left foot and curled a 20-yard effort past Casillas’ right post. Later, Messi squirmed through three challenges before slipping a clever pass to Xavi, but Barça’s captain was denied at the near post.

The half-time whistle was met with an ugly skirmish at the mouth of the tunnel. The result was a red card for Pinto, leaving Barcelona without a substitute ‘keeper for the second half.

The opening minutes of the second period picked up where the first had left off. Barça were probing and circulating the ball, while Real Madrid were lying in wait for a counter attack. There was still plenty of hostility, and a series of tit-for-tat fouls eventually culminated in Pepe’s deserved red card for his reckless challenge on Aves. Jose Mourinho’s sarcastic applause for the stricken Barça fullback was also rewarded with a sending off.

After ceding possession for an hour, Real Madrid no longer had the legs to close down space now they had to play with ten men. Chances for Villa and Pedro were followed by 15 minutes of pure magic from Lionel Messi.

After a vital first goal, he capped a glorious night for a Barça with a world-class effort that placed his team firmly in the driving seat.

0-1, Messi (min 76)
0-2, Messi (min 87)


Barça Backups Eventually Overcome Osasuna

April 24th, 2011

FC Barcelona produced a workmanlike performance to defeat CA Osasuna 2-0 and maintain their charge for a 21st Primera División title. David Villa struck midway through the first half to end an 11-game goalless streak, and Barcelona’s Ballon d’Or trio all came off the bench to help cement a low-key win.

In the end it was Lionel Messi who made the victory certain, dispatching a perfect Alves through-pass to reach a superhuman half-century of goals in all competitions for the season.

Barça’s starting XI was a mixture of fringe-players and youth stars, with Jeffrén making a rare appearance on the left wing and Maxwell at left fullback deputising for the injured Adriano and infirmed Abidal. Meanwhile Gerard Piqué was rested ahead of the midweek trip to the Bernabeu, and Messi, Iniesta, Pedro and Xavi helped make up a formidable Barça bench.

Despite the apparent low standard of tonight’s opposition – Osasuna arrived at the Camp Nou on the back of three straight defeats – Pep Guardiola’s young team needed to win to maintain the eight-point cushion ahead of Real Madrid, who had just registered a convincing victory over Valencia at the Mestalla.

Guardiola’s young charges looked comfortable in the opening exchanges without penetrating much. Meanwhile most of Osasuna’s counter-punches, orchestrated by the lively Camuñas, were neatly snuffed out by Javier Mascherano. The tenacious Argentine is looking more assured by the game in his new central defensive position.

Still, no player typified Barça’s first-half display better than Jeffrén Suárez on the left wing. The 23 year-old gave the ball away a number of times, but also conjured a couple of moments of magic. And it was from a perfect cross by the mercurial winger that David Villa notched a much-needed goal. The Asturian striker slid in at the back post to stab the ball past Ricardo into the bottom right corner.

Rather than instilling self-belief, the goal was followed by a period of Osasuna pressure. The final minutes of the first period saw the team from Navarre carve their best opportunities. And no chance was more clear-cut than the one that fell to former Barça B player Damià Abella. The midfielder found himself teed up 5 yards out by Enrique Sola, but he snatched his shot under pressure from Maxwell and Víctor Valdés produced a reflex goal-line save to turn the ball away for a corner.

The second half saw the introduction of Iniesta, who was followed by Messi and Xavi. This injection of quality helped to add a measure of stability to Barcelona’s second half performance, with Osasuna unable to build on their pressure at the end of the previous half.

Messi put the game to bed in the 87th minute when he was found by an incisive Dani Alves pass and drilled a right-footed shot beneath Ricardo, adding a little gloss to an unspectacular though professional win on St George’s day in Barcelona.


Barcelona Fall to Extra Time Goal in Copa del Rey

April 21st, 2011

FC Barcelona had to settle for runners up medals on Wednesday as they were edged out of the Copa del Rey final by a Cristiano Ronaldo goal in extra time. Facing off against a determined and well-drilled Real Madrid team, Barça only produced flashes of the kind of football that has dazzled La Liga this season.

Pep Guardiola was able to pick a strong side for the decisive match at the Mestalla – Mascherano stepped in at a centre-back to replace the injured Carles Puyol, and Pinto took his customary place between the posts for the cup.

Picking up from Saturday’s league meeting, the first half got off to a frenetic and tetchy start, with a host of fouls and angry recriminations. And although Barcelona were monopolising possession, Los Blancos were pressing higher up the pitch than before – when they won the ball they attacked with real speed and intent.

Cristiano Ronaldo was set free down the inside right channel and drew a smart save from Pinto after 11 minutes. Barcelona, on the other hand, were struggling to find a way through, and the game soon descended into a turgid stalemate punctuated by niggling fouls.

It was a scenario that suited Mourinho’s team perfectly, and just before half time they mustered another opportunity; Mesut Özil found some space down the right flank and whipped in a teasing cross that Pepe powered onto the inside of Pinto’s right post. Fortunately the ball bounced across the face of goal and out to safety.

Barcelona needed to improve in the second half, and the Blaugrana fans got their wish with a far more fluent performance, forcing Real Madrid to the edge of their penalty with some smart combinations.

Messi went on a spellbinding run, evading four Real Madrid challenges before releasing Pedro who shot low past Casillas, only to see the goal chalked off by the offside flag. Barcelona upped the pace even further – Messi, Pedro and Iniesta all drew stunning reaction saves from the Madrid ‘keeper.

And then, after forcing the opposition onto the ropes, Barcelona slowly started to lose the upper hand. In the closing minutes of regulation time, Real Madrid began to find their feet once more, bringing Pinto into action, who had to tip a Di Maria shot over the bar moments after an Alves block denied Cristiano Ronaldo a scoring opportunity.

Extra time ensued, and Los Merengues started to look increasingly menacing on the break, before breaking the deadlock in the 102nd minute. Di Maria led a counter attack down the left flank, and his cross was met with a powerful header by Ronaldo to leave Pinto stranded. FC Barcelona then tried to raise the tempo, but just didn’t have the legs to drag themselves back into the match.

The result is a bitter blow, but more exciting challenges lie ahead, as Guardiola’s team returns to the Ciutat Esportiva to regroup ahead of the Champions League semi-final.

0-1 C.Ronaldo (102′)


Barcelona Continue Title March After Vital Draw in Madrid

April 17th, 2011

FC Barcelona took a huge step towards a third successive Primer Division title after securing a 1-1 draw at the Santiago Bernabéu in the first of four climatic Clásicos. Pep Guardiola’s team bossed possession and arguably had the best chances, but had to settle for a point after Los Blancos came back from a goal and a man down to win a debatable penalty with ten minutes to go.

Nevertheless, the result leaves Barça in a practically insurmountable position; eight points clear at the top of the table, with a superior head-to-head record against their historic rivals.

Barcelona went into the game with their strongest XI for months, with captain Carles Puyol making a surprise start after recovering from a long-term injury that had kept him out of action since January.

For all of the hype, and column inches in anticipation of a memorable spectacle, the game got off to a relatively subdued start, with play frequently broken by niggling fouls. Both coaches spent much of the opening at the edge of their technical areas marshalling a fraught tactical battle.

The pattern that finally emerged was one of Barcelona dominance, and no little negativity from their opponents; Madrid’s midfield was effectively composed of three holding players sitting tight in front of their defence. It was no surprise that the first chance fell to the Blaugrana team – Iniesta crafted one of his signature looped passes to set Messi free, but the forward saw his lob saved easily by Casillas.

On the half-hour mark Barcelona had a great shout for a penalty when Villa raced onto a through pass after a stylish move, appearing to reach the ball before the Madrid ‘keeper who brought El Guaje to the ground. Referee Cesar Muniz Fernández wave the Barça protests away and even saw fit to book a livid Gerard Pique.

This fortunate escape appeared to stir Real Madrid, who finally began to emerge from their shells. Los Merengues’ best opportunities came via set pieces and the brutal right boot of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese forward slammed a trademark free kick off Valdes’ right post and had a header saved off the line by the increasingly impressive Adriano.

Yet it was Barcelona who were dictating play. And when the industrious Villa chased another clipped pass over the Real Madrid backline, Raul Albiol clumsily hauled the striker down by his collar – penalty, red card and Messi dispatched the spot-kick to take his tally to 49 and counting.

Puyol was withdrawn with a recurrence of his thigh injury, and Barça opted to slow the tempo, knowing Madrid had to chase the game with ten men. The strategy was paying off until Marcelo took on Alves down the left side of the penalty area. The right back appeared to win the ball with his sliding tackle, but Fernández pointed to the spot to allow Cristiano Ronaldo win a share of the points for Madrid ahead of Wednesday’s cup final.

0-1, Messi (pen, min 52)
1-1, Ronaldo (pen, min 83)


Messi Breaks Record to Put Barça Through

April 13th, 2011

FC Barcelona are through to the semi-finals of the Champions League after a measured 1-0 victory in the Ukraine. The upshot is a likely encounter with Real Madrid in the next round, with four Clásicos looming on the horizon. It’s proving to be a thrilling conclusion to a campaign that could yield an historic treble for Guardiola’s men.

Tonight the outcome of this quarterfinal tie was rarely in doubt. An early spell of Shakhtar pressure was negotiated thanks to the safe hands of Víctor Valdés, and, when Messi notched a record-breaking 48th goal of the season in the final minutes of the first half, a potentially testing evening became a lot easier for the Blaugrana side.

Still, Shakhtar Donetsk are a club with considerable European pedigree, and had a home record in the Champions League strong enough to suggest that Barcelona still had some work to do. Despite the 5-1 first leg score-line Pep Guardiola certainly wasn’t taking the challenge lightly, selecting his strongest available lineup, with Afellay taking his place on the left of the front three as Pedro continues his careful reintroduction to the first team.

As expected from a side hoping to overcome a four-goal deficit, Shakhtar took the reins in the opening minutes, attacking with style and pace. Much of their best work came though the Brazilian Jadson, who produced an early chance for Douglas Costa, but the winger’s near-post effort was matched by a wonderful reaction save from Valdés. More smart interplay found Jadson alone on the penalty spot, but his shot was easily gathered by the Barça goalkeeper.

They would prove to be Shakhtar’s best opportunities of the match. By the 20-minute mark FC Barcelona had found their feet. Mascherano had slipped back into defence with Sergio Busquets pushing forward into his favoured holding midfield role and the Blaugrana side was starting to look very comfortable, producing opportunities for Adriano and Afellay before Messi capped a stylish move to end the match as a contest.

The Argentine star was found by Dani Alves on the edge of the area, evaded one desperate Shakhtar challenge and dispatched the ball past Pyatov into the bottom-right corner. It was his 48th goal of the season – a new Spanish record, beating his own tally from last season and surpassing Ronaldo’s record for Barcelona in 1996-97, and Puskas’ effort for Madrid in 1959/60.

The second half was largely uneventful. A succession of attacking Shakhtar substitutions failed to loosen Barça’s grip on the game, and the away team nearly doubled their lead when Messi went on a spectacular run, dodging two tackles before laying the ball off to Afellay whose shot was palmed away by Pyatov.

Shakhtar mustered one final chance when Víctor Valdés denied Mkitaryan with a dazzling save to help Barça close out the tie as impressive 6-1 victors. The result also ends a run of eight winless knockout-stage matches for Guardiola in the Champions League.

0-1 Messi (min 43)


Barcelona See off Spirited Almería

April 11th, 2011

FC Barcelona edged a little closer to the title on Saturday night with a display of steely determination to overcome a stubborn Almería team. After a disjointed first-half, Barça swept the Andalucian visitors aside, but not before going a goal down.

Once again Lionel Messi will deservedly take the plaudits after raising his tally to a staggering 47 goals for the season. Much like his team tonight, the Argentine genius’ performance was a little below his best. But it was his sheer will to win that was most remarkable; as late as second-half injury time he chased an apparent lost cause to force a mistake from Marcelo Silva and seal the game for his team with a delicate close-range chip.

It was an unfamiliar Barça side to take to the pitch tonight. The recent defensive injury crisis was exacerbated by one-match suspensions to Víctor Valdés and Busquets, while Bojan began in place of Villa, and Pedro continued his slow reintroduction to the side by starting on the bench. Young La Masia graduate, Thiago was rewarded for his mature performance away to Villareal with another midfield start.

Perhaps understandably, Barcelona were unable to assert their usual tempo on the match in the first half. Bojan produced a rare moment of excitement as he crafted an opportunity for Thiago after a great run. But his game was ended by an awkward collision with Marcelo Silva, and Villa entered the fray in his stead.

Almería’s performance belied their status as the league’s bottom club, working hard to deny Barcelona time and space in the final third. In truth the Blaugrana side was starting to look more than a little frustrated when the half time whistle blew.

A much-improved second half was needed, and at the offset it was clear that Barça were upping the ante. Villa drilled the ball onto the post after just three minutes. Still, this team has been a little vulnerable on counter attacks lately, and so it proved when Almería broke from a corner and Miguel Ángel Corona was set free to tuck the ball below Pinto.

Gabriel Milito was perhaps culpable for the goal by dropping a little too deep, but the central defender atoned for his error moments later with a wonderful raking pass to release Villa, who was felled by Diego Alves to win a vital penalty. Messi stepped up and made no mistake, smashing the ball into the bottom right corner.

Pedro soon took to the field, allowing Iniesta to drop back to his midfield role and start conducting affairs with his usual panache. A second goal was starting to look inevitable, and it came from Barcelona’s youngest player; Thiago met a Messi corner with a perfect glancing header to give Alves no chance.

From then on, the visitors posed no real threat, and Messi struck at the death to add a little gloss to another crucial win.

0-1 Corona (min 49)
1-1 Messi (min 52)
2-1 Thiago (min 63)
3-1 Messi (min 90)

Team P W D L F A Pts
1
Barcelona
31
27
3
1
85
16
84
2
Real Madrid
31
24
4
3
72
22
76
3
Valencia
31
18
6
7
51
35
60
4
Villarreal
31
16
6
9
48
36
54
5
Sevilla
31
13
7
11
48
46
46
6
Atlético Madrid
31
13
6
12
48
41
45
7
Athletic Bilbao
31
14
3
14
47
45
45
8
Espanyol
31
14
2
15
38
43
44
9
Levante
31
11
6
14
33
41
39
10
Mallorca
31
11
6
14
33
42
39
11
Sporting Gijón
31
9
11
11
29
35
38
12
Racing Santander
31
9
10
12
31
45
37
13
Osasuna
31
9
8
14
36
37
35
14
Real Sociedad
31
11
2
18
40
54
35
15
Deportivo
31
8
11
11
25
40
35
16
Getafe
30
9
7
14
41
49
34
17
Zaragoza
30
7
9
14
29
43
30
18
Hércules
31
8
6
17
28
48
30
19
Málaga
31
8
6
17
39
62
30
20
Almería
31
5
11
15
32
54
26

Barça Overcome Shakhtar in Emphatic Style

April 7th, 2011

There were five different scorers for FC Barcelona as they overcame tricky opposition with staggering ease at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night. Guardiola’s men will take an apparently insurmountable 5-1 lead to Donetsk next week, although the manager will be anxious to warn against complacency.

As the Blaugrana side has experienced in the past, Lucescu’s Shakhtar team are a smart outfit, boasting plenty of pace and creativity thanks to a quartet of young Brazilians and two of Europe’s most exciting attacking fullbacks. And in truth, some stiff resistance had to be overcome in this match.

Iniesta opened the scoring in just the second minute, taking advantage of a deflected through ball to slot home at Pyatov’s near post. As ever, Barcelona were taking the initiative, pressing high and circulating the ball at speed. Messi looked lively, beating three men before having his shot blocked by a last-ditch challenge.

Still, Shakhtar possessed startling pace and directness in the counter attack; Striker Luiz Adriano spurned a one-on-one opportunity, shooting woefully wide after being released by fellow countryman, Jadson. The Ukrainian side also looked dangerous on the flanks through Willian and Douglas Costa, and Dani Alves appeared tentative as he sold Víctor Valdés short with a weak backpass.

Recovering from these early scares, Barça began to tighten their stranglehold on the game, and Shakhtar Donetsk, like so many before them, struggled in the face of such concerted pressure.

Just after the half-hour mark the home side crafted a goal of real beauty. A lofted pass by Iniesta found an angled Dani Alves runs. The Brazilian wingback controlled the ball on the penalty spot with his instep, before rounding the ‘keeper and flicking home to double the lead.

The dormant Shakhtar threat resurfaced early in the second half; Luiz Adriano lacked composure as he failed to control a dangerous deep cross.

Once again the away team was punished almost instantly, as Piqué latched onto a low corner by Xavi and sent the ball home via a deflection off centre half Rakitskiy. Minutes later, the same Shakhtar player scored a potentially crucial away goal at the other end, guiding a neat header past Valdés to make the score 3-1.

Aware that their cushion was suddenly looking a bit slim, Barcelona bit back straight away.

Just a minute after Shakhtar’s goal, Keita increased home side’s lead, lashing a ferocious first-time shot into the top-left hand corner after wonderful work by Messi on the right. The Blaugrana side pushed on and produced their best football of the night during the last half hour, with some lovely combinations.

Although largely subdued, Shakhtar Donetsk did muster one late counter attack, culminating with Luiz Adriano striking the post from an acute angle. Once again Barcelona retaliated with a goal – Alves created space on the right side of the area and found his captain Xavi, who made no mistake from 10 yards and capped a satisfying night’s work for Guardiola’s team.

1-0, Iniesta (min 2)
2-0, Alves (min 33)
3-0, Piqué (min 53)
3-1, Rakitskiy (min 59)
4-1, Keita (min 60)
5-1, Xavi (min 86)


Barcelona Seal Crucial Villareal Win

April 4th, 2011

FC Barcelona have extended their lead at the top of La Liga to eight points after a controlled 1-0 victory against Villarreal at El Madrigal. Piqué struck in the 66th minute when an Alves corner found its way to the elegant defender, who chested the ball down before slamming home into the roof of Diego López’s net.

The Blaugrana side also had goalkeeper and captain Victor Valdés to thank for a number of fine saves and decisive interventions. His best contribution came in the match’s dying embers when he produced a fantastic reaction save with his legs to deflect a powerful close-range Cazorla volley over his crossbar.

Even before kick-off Guardiola’s team was given a huge lift by the news that Real Madrid had fallen to a 0-1 defeat against Sporting Gijón. This potentially fatal slip might even have influenced the manager’s team selection, opting to start partially fit Lionel Messi on the bench, even with stars like Pedro, Xavi, Abidal and Puyol all unavailable.

One of the deputies tonight was midfielder Thiago Alcântara, who was making his first league start and is yet another precocious young Barcelona B star. Playing in the Xavi role, the 19-year-old was at the heart of some of the most dangerous Barça moves early on, displaying impressive balance and composure to beat two defenders and get Iniesta in behind.

Still, it was Villarreal who conjured the first half’s best opportunities. Santi Cazorla twice released rumoured Barça target, Guissepe Rossi. Valdés snuffled out the first opportunity with a well-timed dive at the Italian striker’s feet, before displaying lightning reactions to push a low drive around his left-hand post.

Both managers had erred on the side of caution with their team selection – Guardiola and Garrido elected to start with two rugged central midfielders each. In Barça’s case Mascherano and Keita provided plenty of brawn and grit but not much by way of creativity.

The second half brought an altogether more enterprising and dynamic performance from Barça. Iniesta came to the fore, stepping in from the right flank to add creativity to his side’s attacks. He and David Villa forced two fine saves by López, and in the face of mounting pressure the Villarreal ‘keeper won’t have been thrilled by the sight of Lionel Messi being prepared on the sidelines.

After his entry diminutive wizard instantly set about terrorising the opposition. Barça’s 67th minute goal arrived after a spell of dominance and was richly deserved, although Villarreal may have cause to feel a little aggrieved after replays suggested that Piqué might have controlled the ball with his arm.

At any rate, Cazorla’s late chance aside, Villarreal spent much of the second half struggling to get to grips with a resurgent Barça, who greeted the final whistle with passionate celebrations, conscious that a telling blow had been struck in the battle for the title.

0-1 Piqué (min 66)

Team P W D L F A Pts
1
Barcelona
30
26
3
1
82
15
81
2
Real Madrid
30
23
4
3
69
22
73
3
Valencia
30
17
6
7
46
35
57
4
Villarreal
30
16
6
8
48
31
54
5
Sevilla
30
13
6
11
46
44
45
6
Espanyol
30
14
1
15
38
43
43
7
Atlético Madrid
30
12
6
12
45
41
42
8
Athletic Bilbao
29
13
3
13
44
41
42
9
Levante
30
11
5
14
32
40
38
10
Mallorca
30
11
5
14
31
40
38
11
Racing Santander
30
9
9
12
30
44
36
12
Osasuna
30
9
8
13
36
36
35
13
Sporting Gijón
30
8
11
11
28
35
35
14
Real Sociedad
30
11
2
17
40
51
35
15
Getafe
30
9
7
14
41
49
34
16
Deportivo
30
8
10
11
25
40
34
17
Zaragoza
30
7
9
14
29
43
30
18
Hércules
30
8
5
17
28
48
29
19
Málaga
30
8
5
17
39
62
29
20
Almería
29
5
11
13
30
48
26

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