Saturday, 29 January 2011

Match Report: Hércules 0 Barcelona 3

FT: Hércules 0 - Barcelona 3 (Pedro 43, Messi 87 & 89)

So, there was to be no repeat. No second hit, no second bolt of lightning, no fuck me did that just happen?

Instead it was the regular Saturday night out for Barcelona. Another three points, another three goals, another clean sheet and another quality performance, without ever stretching beyond third gear.

Hércules started brightly, attempting to replicate the game plan that had brought them victory at the Nou Camp in September. Nelson Valdez and Kiko, playing either side of David Trezeguet, pushed high up the field to pressure Barcelona's back four when in possession. This initially allowed the hosts to prevent Victor Valdes distributing the ball from the back in the manner he is accustomed to. However, as Hércules tired in the second-half the downside of this tactic was cruelly exposed - Valdes able to deliver the ball beyond these three front players to Sergio Busquets, Maxwell or Dani Alves - leaving Hércules with three fewer players behind the ball.

Yet, whilst the Alicantans energy levels were still brimming in the first-half, their aggressive pressing style did have a modicum of success. Despite early warning shots from Leo Messi and Pedro the home defence was relatively untroubled. And the hosts could have been ahead on 21 minutes. An accurate diagonal ball found Valdez in the area and his clever back-header left Trezeguet with the goal at his mercy. However, with the ball bouncing awkwardly, the former French international was unable to wrap his foot around it and only succeeded in proding wide.

Having been let of the hook Barcelona then started to dominate. Pedro was denied by Peña before Alves and David Villa failed to find the target. It wasn't long, though, before the visitors were in front. Xavi, almost inevitably, the creator with a wonderful first time pass through for Pedro to fire home.

The goal was the Canarian's 19th of the season, the sixth league game in a row in which he has hit the back of the net. I seem to repeat this every week but Pedro has become an integral member of the Barca starting XI and any talk of Fernando Torres heading to Catalonia fails to acknowledge just how good he has been for the past 18 months.

The second-half was much more comfortable for the champions as Hércules' intensity dropped. The visitors enjoyed upwards of 70% of the possession and could and should have killed the game off long before they did.

Xavi fired just wide after he and Messi had worked space on the edge of the area five minutes after the break before Valdez had Hércules' only effort of the second period. However, his tame volley bobbled into the hands of his namesake in the Barcelona goal.

Messi then went agonisingly close on two occasions, shooting wide of both Catalayud's posts, before the Hércules keeper produced a fine save from the Argentine.

Despite the dominance of his side Pep Guardiola couldn't relax until the final five minutes when a hat-trick of nails were hammered into the Hércules coffin. Firstly, substitute Francisco Farinos was sent-off for two yellow cards following an ill-advised lunge on Busquets. Messi then eventually did get his goal with a trademark shimmy and finish on his left foot. And within two minutes he had a second, the rampaging Alves with a terrific run and cross allowing the Argentine the simplest of finishes.

It was a 15th consecutive league victory for Pep's boys who, let's face it, look like they could easily win another 15 on the trot. The gap over Real Madrid has again been extended to seven points and with a tricky trip to Pamplona in store for Mourinho's men tomorrow night the pressure has been pushed up a notch.

As for Hércules, well Trezeguet said it better than I could:

"We play in a different league from Barcelona. We can just continue to prepare for Valencia next week."

Match Preview: Hércules v Barcelona

Unsurprisingly the build up to Barca’s trip to Alicante has been dominated by talk of the last time these teams met. It was the shock, if not the result and performance, of the season. The newly promoted, unheralded Hércules taking the Nou Camp by storm and winning 2-0.

The most surprising element of the game being that it could have been more. This was no means the smash and grab method of getting a result against the champions – the manner in which those few teams who have taken points of Pep Guardiola’s men in recent seasons have found most fruitful. But for Victor Valdes and occasionally erratic finishing the score would have been even more jaw-dropping. So, if Hercules displayed the perfect game plan in combating Barcelona’s tiqui-taca style, can lightning really strike twice?

The smart money wouldn’t be on a repeat. Arguably the performance of the Catalans that day gave more of an insight into how brilliant they have been the rest of the season. It is not always as easy as they make it look and when they are not firing on all cylinders it is possible for mere mortals, or even mythical figures, to overpower them. It would also be fair to mention that over half of the Barca team that day had just arrived back from a 13,000 mile round-trip to Buenos Aires for Argentina’s 4-1 friendly victory over Spain.

Since that fabled day in early September the leaders have not been defeated in the league and are looking for a league record 15th consecutive victory this evening. Dani Alves is likely to return at right-back with Eric Abidal deputising again for injured captain, Carlos Puyol, at cente-back. Sergio Busquets, who signed a new five-year deal in midweek, should also return in place of Javier Mascherano in the holding role. The regular front five of Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro, Villa and Messi all expected to start again after coming through Wednesday’s 5-0 win in the Copa Del Rey semi-final over Almeria unscathed.

The task for Esteban Vigo is much more complicated. Not only does he have to drill his team to deal with that front five that he has been in such sensational form over recent weeks but he must do so without his two first choice central defenders. Mohamed Sarr and Sergio Rodriguez expected to fill in for the injured Abraham Paz and Noe Paramot.

Roston Drenthe is again left out of the squad as the fall-out from his dispute with the club continues but the potent duo of Nelson Valdez and David Trezeguet will start in attack.

Probable Line-Ups:

Hercules (4-2-3-1): Calatayud; Cortes, Sarr, Rodriguez, Pena; Fritzler, Aguilar; Tote, Gomes, Valdez; Trezeguet

Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Maxwell, Abidal, Pique, Alves; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Villa, Messi, Pedro

Monday, 24 January 2011

Match Report: Villarreal 2 Real Sociedad 1

FT: Villarreal 2 (Rossi 40, 47) - Real Sociedad 1 (Aranburu 30)

Villareal kept up their excellent home record this season with a 2-1 win over fellow entertainers Real Sociedad.

Giuseppe Rossi was the key man with a goal either side of half-time but the yellow submarines comeback owed a lot to the returning Santi Cazorla.

The visitors had started brightly with Joseba Llorente looking particularly dangerous against his former club. At the other end Cazorla was the main creator and he nearly broke the deadlock on 12 minutes with a trademark sweet strike that just missed the target. The Spanish international's influence even more important given that Cani was slightly below par, adopting a shoot on sight policy a little too often after his stunning strike from the halfway line last weekend.

Further forward Rossi was his usual busy self dropping deep and wide to provide an option. However, his manager, Juan Carlos Garrido, will be hoping for quick return to action for Nilmar as the pair's combination play has not been replicated in recent weeks with Marco Ruben in the side. The Argentine hasn't done badly, indeed he has scored in four consecutive appearances before Wednesday's 3-0 defeat to Sevilla in the Copa Del Rey, but he also appears to be tiring after his first extended run in the side.

The influence of Cazorla, Borja Valero (who put in another solid display) and Bruno also helped to minimise the threat of La Real's two outstanding performers this season, Xabi Prieto and Antoine Griezmann. However, the visitors did take the lead, slightly against the run of play, on the half hour. Daniel Estrada's deep cross from the right was headed back across goal by Llorente and Mikel Aranburu guided a wonderful header, high past the right hand of Diego Lopez.

The lead only lasted 10 minutes thanks to wonderful play from Cazorla. The Asturian robbing the ball from Markel Bergara before driving forward and playing a wonderfully weighted pass through the heart of the defence for Rossi to smash home.

The two were at it again two minutes after the break to give the hosts the lead. Cazorla again showing his aggressive side to win the ball 40 yards from goal, the ball through again spectacular to allow the Italian striker to get the vital touch over the on-rushing Claudio Bravo.

However, to eulogise Cazorla's passing in the build up is in no way meant to denigrate Rossi's finishing ,on both occasions, was exceptional. His two goals taking his tally for the season to 19. The American born Italian has been one of the players of the season so far and would almost certainly be the first name on the teamsheet of a non Barcelona or Real-Madrid XI of the season so far...oh wait, bugger, our bad.

Rossi's second was to be the end of the scoring but it was by no means the end of the action. Cazorla rattled the woodwork before Jeffrey Sarpong was booked for diving - replays showing that the Dutchman had a good case for a penalty and was extremely unlucky to see a yellow card.

The Basque side threw everyone forward in an attempt to salvage a point but in truth they only succeeded in opening up spaces for Villarreal on the counter-attack who could have added to their slender advantage.

There was even more good news for the yellow submarine with the return of World Cup winner Carlos Marchena for the final quarter.

Victory for Garrido's men sees them move back above Valencia into third place in the table. It may even allow the coach to justify his somewhat bizarre selection for the return leg of the Copa Del Rey quarter-final against Sevilla. With financial pressures to take account of it is of far more importance for the yellow submarine to guarantee Champions League qualification for next season. However, I will not be the sole onlooker who feels slightly robbed at not seeing another two games between Real Madrid and Villarreal in the semi-finals.

Defeat for La Real sees them slip back into the pack in mid-table, still five points adrift of a Europa League qualification spot.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Match Report: Barcelona 3 Racing Santander 0

FT: Barcelona 3 (Pedro 2, Messi (pen) 32, Iniesta 56) Racing Santander 0

Another Saturday night at the Nou Camp, another comfortable win for Barcelona, this time 3-0 over a spirited but limited Racing side.

In the build up to the match the talk had, for once, surrounded the visitors with Indian businessman Ahsan Ali Syed expected to complete his takeover of the Cantabrians within the next week. Mr. Syed may have seen that Racing could do with a few additions to the squad before the end of the January transfer window, but Racing did show a lot of fight - if not a lot of football.

After a first defeat in 28 matches to Real Beits in midweek, Pep Guardiola was able to welcome back most of his star names to the starting XI. Dani Alves was ruled out with a hamstring injury and Gerard Pique was given a rest but otherwise Barca were at full strength.

And it wasn’t long before they were in full flow, the opening goal arriving after only 90 seconds. After more spectacular interplay between Leo Messi and David Villa, the Argentine squared for Pedro to nod into the empty net. In such esteemed company the Canarian doesn’t always get the credit he deserves but the goal was his 16th already this season and he has grown into the perfect foil for Messi and Villa.

With the pattern of the game set it was only thanks to Toño in the Racing goal that Barca weren’t approaching a ‘manita’ by half-time. Villa was wasteful after being played through by Messi before the Racing goalkeeper did exceptionally well to deny Messi, Carlos Puyol and Adriano in quick succession.

The scond goal did arrive just after the half hour mark. Henrique with a clumsy challenge on Villa and Messi stroked home the resulting penalty. The Barca No.10 also showing that all the fame and plaudits haven’t allowed him to forget his roots as he lifted his shirt to reveal a ‘happy birthday mum’ message.

Toño was then on hand to deny Messi again and Villa fired over before Racing were nearly handed a lifeline just before half-time. Adrian’s powerful header turned away by Victor Valdes.

In the second-half Miguel Angel Portugal’s men showed a great deal of desire and hard-work to keep at Barca and try to repel the waves upon waves of attack but in truth they lacked any real threat.

Andres Iniesta made it 3-0 on 56 minutes following another wonderful team move. Villa and Messi again combining before El Guaje’s cross was beautifully back-heeled by Pedro for Iniesta to fire home. It was the World Cup winner’s seventh league goal of the season, one more than he has ever previously managed in one term.

With the game comfortably won Guardiola was able to give a rest to some of his stars. Xavi and Pedro were replaced by Seydou Keita and Bojan whilst Pique had been introduced at half-time to give captain Puyol a rest.

It remains to be seen whether last Wednesday’s defeat in Seville is the worst thing that could have happened for Barcelona’s upcoming opponents. Any chance of complacency slipping in having been wiped away by the Segunda league leaders who showed that when the Champions aren’t 100% focused they are certainly not invincable.

However, in this form they are very close to it. Racing battled bravely but never threatened to cause an upset. Portugal, and hopefully his new boss, will realise that the Nou Camp is not where Racing’s season will be defined. They remain four points above the relegation zone.

Barcelona extend their lead over Real Madrid at the top to seven points ahead of Mallorca’s visit to the Bernabeu tommorrow.

Match Report: Sevilla 4 Levante 1

FT: Sevilla 4 (Luis Fabiano 27, 42 (pen), 67, Escude 37) - Levante (Xisco 57)

A Luis Fabiano hat-trick helped Sevilla seep aside a poor Levante side and move back into the race for Europa League qualification.

In a repeat of the scoreline between these two sides on the opening day of the season, the home side dominated from start to finish and in the returning Jesus Navas and with Fabiano re-discovering his best from Los Rojiblancos had the cutting edge in the final third that they have often lacked this season.

In contrast Levante seemed like a side lacking in confidence, unsurprising given that they have now lost their last five games, and often left record-signing Felipe Caicedo isolated up front.

After a successful outing in the Copa Del Rey midweek, Gregorio Manzano was able to recall captain Andres Palop, Diego Perotti, Navas and Fabiano to the starting XI. Sergio Sanchez also retained his place in defence to make his first league start in 18 months following his recovery from heart problems.

Unsurprisingly Navas was involved as Sevilla made the breakthrough on 27 minutes. The winger clipped the ball over from the right side but Fabiano still had an awful lot to do, bulleting a looping header over Manolo Reina into the net. The hosts then made the game safe with a two goal burst just before half-time. Koffi Romaric’s corners have proved a rich source of goals for Sevilla in recent weeks and they were so again as Julien Escude stooped to head home at the near post. Fernando Navarro was then ‘felled’ by the slightest of contact from Javi Venta inside the area - Fabiano slotting home the spot-kick.

There was some consolation for Levante when Xisco fired into the roof of the net after a neat through ball from Caicedo 12 minutes after the break. However, they didn’t threaten to build on that lifeline and with every passing defeat look destined for a return to the Segunda after one season back in the big league.

Fabiano sealed the three points and his hat-trick with another wonderful finish from 20 yards. After a disappointing first half of the season, O Fabuloso living up to his billing as La Liga turns the corner. Los sevillistas will be hoping the Brazilian international is now over his post World Cup funk with Mourinho’s men heading to the Sanchez Pizjuan on Wednesday.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Murray aiming to go one step better as second week approaches

2011 has already been a successful year for English (and some would say South African) sportsmen in Australia. So can Scotland’s premier sportsman deliver some Scottish success in Melbourne?

Andy Murray headed to Australia a fortnight ago in confident mood – he always does. Murray has made a habit of starting the tennis season with a bang in recent years. Encouraged by gruelling winter training sessions in Miami, he won the season opening tournament in Doha in 2008 and 2009.

However, disappointing defeats in Melbourne, to eventual finalist Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in the first round in ’08, and to Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in at the last-16 stage in ’09, forced a re-think in Murray’s preparation for the year’s opening grand slam tournament. He abandoned his title defence in Doha last year, instead choosing to play in the exhibition Hopman Cup tournament alongside fellow Brit Laura Robson.

A relaxation in the amount of tennis the Scot played in the lead up to Melbourne appeared to work. The man from Dunblane cruised through to his second grand slam final, defeating (albeit an ailing) Rafa Nadal in straight sets in the quarter-finals.

However, Murray appeared to hit a wall in the final against Roger Federer. In an eerily similar performance to that of Murray’s maiden grand slam final, at the US Open in 2008, he was swept aside by his Swiss opponent in straight sets. Whether the result was caused by Murray feeling the pressure or simply the outstanding play of his opponent is hard to judge. What is for certain though is that the defeat hit Murray hard – harder than any in his career to date. Yet, that hurt did reveal one positive - how far Murray had developed.

When he faced Federer in that final at Flushing Meadows two years ago it was written off as a great chance for Murray to gain the experience of playing in a slam final. Almost no one expected him to win – at some stages in the match you felt neither did he. Last January’s clash was quite different. Many pundits believed in Murray, the player himself seemed to have even more than belief – a feeling that his destiny as a grand slam champion was about to be fulfilled. When that didn’t happen, the pain was there to see. The only consolation? The man holding the trophy had been there, done that, got the hankie.

Nevertheless, Murray’s form slumped dramatically throughout the first half of the 2010 season. Only once he got onto the green grass of home at Wimbledon did his game really recover, making his first semi-final appearance since the Australian Open defeat.

Yet, even at the All England Club, in losing again in three sets, this time to Nadal, questions were raised about Murray’s big game belief and temperament.

Questions that are a tad unfair. There is no doubt about how good Murray is. He is almost certainly the best Scottish sportsman of his generation (only Chris Hoy comes close). However, he will only be recognised as such if he wins titles – the big ones.

Whilst it is hard to dismiss his six Masters Series titles (a selection of tournaments ranked just below the four grand slams), they do not penetrate the public interest or, for that matter, the players’ ambitions in the way the slams do.

The problem for Murray is that if he was born at the right time to be recognised as the best Scot of his era then he was certainly not born in the generation most favourable to winning tennis grand slams. He will go down as having competed against the two greatest players ever to have lifted a racket to this point in history.

If 2009 was the year of Federer’s redemption then in 2010 Rafa undoubtedly regained the title belt at the top of men’s tennis. Should Nadal succeed in claiming a second Australian Open title he would become only the second man, after Rod Laver in 1969, to hold all four major titles at the same time.

The worrying fact for Murray and his new buddy, World No. 3 Novak Djokovic, is that Nadal is still only 24. With his knee troubles seemingly resolved and nine grand slams already on the mantelpiece, the Spaniard seems set to bypass Federer’s record of 16 slams in the coming years. As for the Swiss, well his coach, Paul Annacone, warned the competition last week that Federer still has the hunger to win 20 slams before he retires.

This time last year I thought the time was right for Andy to become the Wizard of Aus. A year on and I, and many other commentators, are less convinced. However, it is not only on the court but in the mind that Murray must now follow Federer and Nadal’s example.

Melbourne has been the graveyard of knee-jerk reactions in recent years. Many wrote off Federer when Nadal appeared to have his number in 2009. The same was said of Nadal last January when his knees, not for the first time, caused him to concede his title prematurely. Post Melbourne, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, in 2010 the same voices have questioned Murray’s mental fortitude. There is only one way to banish them and the ‘Scottish glorious failure’ tag, once and for all.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Match Report: Sevilla 3 Villarreal 0

FT: Sevilla 3 (Renato 7, Kanoute 47, Alexis 50) - Villarreal 0

Sevilla secured their passage into the Copa Del Rey semi-finals with a comfortable 6-3 aggregate win over Villarreal.

Both managers surprised many onlookers with their line-ups, Gregorio Manzano and Juan Carlos Garrido taking the opportunity to rest some of their star names. Sevilla made four changes to the side that lost 2-1 to Espanyol at the weekend. The most striking omission being that of Jesús Navas, while Sergio Sánchez made his long-awaited return after 13 months out with heart problems. Garrido handed a first start to Cicinho at right-back and surprisingly left Marco Rubén and Bruno on the bench, Jefferson Montero starting on the right side of midfield with Mateo Musacchio in the centre and Jozy Altidore up front alongside Giuseppe Rossi.

That two sides in the top half of La Liga that should be looking for cup success should choose to field weakened teams is a sad reflection, not just on the Copa Del Rey, but on the whole atmosphere surrounding Spanish football. It is more likely that instead of simply prioritising upcoming league and Europa League fixtures both managers saw the likelihood of facing Real Madrid over two-legs in the semi-finals and a potential final against Barcelona as such a daunting task that qualification to the last four does not possess the excitement that it should do.

However, Manzano’s changes ultimately proved inspired. With Sánchez offered the extra protection of Alexis and Fernando Navarro either side of him in a back three, Sevilla switched to a 3-5-2. It was a system that certainly suited Martin Cáceres who was extremely dangerous moving forward from right wing-back.

In contrast Villarreal never really got to grips with the game and looked understandably disjointed. Cani and Borja Valero were unable to exert the influence in midfield that they had in recent weeks and Montero and Altidore did little to boost their chances of further first team action.

The pattern of play was set by an early goal for the hosts. Mouhamadou Dabo played the ball across from the left and Renato was on hand to make sure Álvaro Negredo’s flick over Diego López crossed the line.

Negredo could have added a second five minutes later but headed wide from Cáceres’ excellent cross. Both goalkeepers then ensured the scoreline remained 1-0 at half-time. Firstly, Sevilla’s Javi Varas, deputising for injured captain Andrés Palop, tipped Gonzalo’s header onto the bar before denying Rossi with a wonderful save after Altidore’s only major contribution to the game had sent the Italian through. At the other end, López parried Koffi Romaric’s fierce drive before snatching the loose ball at Negredo’s feet.

However, the Galician’s efforts were to no avail as Sevilla put the tie to bed with two goals within five minutes of the second-half. Villarreal’s propensity to give up goals at set-pieces has been cruelly exposed in recent weeks and it was their Achilles heel here as well. First, Freddie Kanouté thundered home his 13th goal of the season from Romaric’s corner. And three minutes later the Ivorian’s delivery found Alexis, who was credited with the goal despite the fact that Villarreal defender Jose Mauel Catalá appeared to get the final touch.

From then on the tie was over but Garrido’s strange decision making continued as he introduced Marco Rubén and Bruno with little under half an hour remaining.

Negredo should have capped a fine performance with a goal but blazed over having been played in by Kanouté.

Overall, it was another satisfactory night in the cup for the holders - a win that should also ease the pressure of Manzano. A sixth Copa Del Rey success should be a formality. After all, it’s only Real and Barca that stand in the way.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Match Preview: Sevilla v Villarreal

Villarreal head to the Sánchez Pizjuán this evening knowing that, realistically, anything less than a victory will see their bid for a first Copa Del Rey crown slip away.

Sevilla’s recovery from a 3-1 deficit last week to grab a 3-3 draw has given the holders the upper hand but the result is far from a foregone conclusion.

Sevilla have struggled mightily on home soil this season – Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Espanyol their fourth at home this term. Moreover, even without the injured Nilmar, Villarreal have been in fine scoring form in recent weeks, averaging three goals a game in their last five outings. The visitors’ also have a great record in second-legs having drawn the first-leg at home, winning the tie 43% of the time – including in the only previous meeting of these two sides in the 1998-99 season.

However, there is some cause for optimism amongst Los Rojiblancos in Villarreal’s mounting injury problems. Long term absentees Carlos Marchena, Marcos Senna and Ángel López along with Nilmar are joined by Santi Cazorla for the second straight game. With Bruno also a doubt there will be a great responsibility on the in-form Cani to supply Marco Rubén and Giuseppe Rossi up front. Juan Carlos Garrido is also likely to give youth its chance with Javier Matilla set to deputise for Cazorla and Mario to retain his place ahead of new signing Cicinho at right-back.

The finely balanced nature of the tie also presents Sevilla managers, Gregorio Manzano, with a dilemma. Often when sides only require a draw at home in the second-leg of a two-legged tie there is the temptation to play slightly negatively.

Given Villarreal’s threat on the counter-attack Manzano may be tempted to play a patient, waiting game hoping for the opportunity to spring Jesús Navas and Diego Perotti on the break. Yet, given his leaky defence and the form of Freddie Kanouté and Álvaro Negredo since the return of Navas after the winter break, it is a tactic I would avoid.

For all of Villarreal’s good play in recent weeks their propensity to concede goals has been exposed – they have conceded 11 goals across the same five game period.

Sevilla would be well advised to put their best foot forward to expose the visitors’ weaknesses and return to the Copa Del Rey semi-finals for the fourth time in five years.

Probable Line-ups

Sevilla: Varas, Navarro, Escudé, Alexis, Dabo, Perotti, Romaric, Zokora, Navas, Kanouté, Negredo

Villarreal: Juan Carlos, Oriol, Catalá, Gonzalo, Mario, Cani, Bruno, Borja, Matilla, Marco Rubén, Rossi

Monday, 17 January 2011

Match Report: Barcelona 4 Malaga 1

FT: Barcelona 4 (Iniesta 7, Villa 17 & 73 Pedro 35) – Malaga 1 (Duda 67)

On a night that could prove vital in the final destination of the title, Barcelona kept their side of the bargain with another convincing victory.

Following Real Madrid’s draw at Almeria Pep Guardiola’s men knew that a 13th straight league victory would take them four points clear at the top. Guardiola signalled his intent by starting with his strongest starting eleven, the returning Victor Valdes and Eric Abidal the only changes to the side that had destroyed Real Betis 5-0 on Wednesday. Former Real boss Manuel Pellegrini handed a debut to Julio Baptista as the lone front man with Duda and Quincy Owusu-Abeyie in support.

And it wasn’t long before Malaga were facing down the barrel after an explosive start from the hosts. Andres Iniesta opened the scoring on seven minutes with a tremendous half volley from the edge of the area after an intelligent pull-back from Dani Alves.

Duda nearly equalised immediately in a brief moment of restbite for the Malaga defence. With the marking non-existent in the Barca back line the Portuguese winger flashed a spectulative volley across Victor Valdes and just beyond the far post.

Barcelona were soon back in control and Sergio Asenjo had to be alert to deny Pedro before Xavi rattled the Atlético de Madrid loanee’s crossbar. However, it was only a matter of time until the second goal arrived and it did so on 17 minutes. Sergio Busquets won the ball well on the edge of the Malaga area and after a brief interchange between Xavi and Lionel Messi, the Argentine slipped the ball through for David Villa to side-foot in through Asenjo’s legs.

Martin Demichellis then missed the opportunity to score his second Malaga goal on only his second appearance when he headed over after more shoddy marking from the hosts at a corner before Messi weaved his magic once more to create the third goal. The newly crowned Balon d’Or winner splitting the Malaga defence with a wondeful through ball for Iniesta. Asenjo did well to deny Iniesta originally but Pedro was on hand to poke home the rebound. The Canarian scoring his ninth goal in the last eight league games.

Messi then spurned a fantastic opportuinity to add a fourth and gain some ground on Cristiano Ronaldo in the race for the Pichichi but he was again denied by the impressive Asenjo.

In a much slower paced second half Malaga regained a sense of respectability with Duda reducing the arrears with a wonderful left-footed freek-kick from 20 yards on 67 minutes. Barcelona responded by upping the pace slightly and Villa grabbed his second of the game, cooling rounding Asenjo before slotting home with 17 minutes remaining.

On a night of unbridled joy at the Camp Nou there was just on esetback for the league leaders. Alves limping off injured with a hamstring injury on the half hour. But with the winter championship in the bag, a four point lead, a semmingly unassainable 5-0 lead in the quarter-finals of the cup and the Champions League last-16 to come next month, there is very little else to worry Pep Guardiola at the moment.

His opposite number Pellegrini will know that his side’s fate will not be decided in fixtures such as these. However, he will be encouraged wth the spirit showed by his side in the second half and with more big name arrivals set to join Baptista and Demichellis before the transfer window shuts in a fortnight the second half of the season promises much for Los Boquerones.

Match Report: Villarreal 4 Osasuna 2

FT: Villarreal 4 (Marco Ruben 21, Cani 50, Capdevila 65, Gonzalo 83) Osasuna 2 (Vadocz 47, Calleja 70)

Villarreal were involved in a fourth successive six goal thriller as they defeated permanently poor travellers Osasuna 4-2 at El Madrigal.

After a shaky start the hosts looked to be on course to comfortably register their ninth win from ten home league games this season when Marco Ruben, again deputising for the injured Nilmar, scored his fourth goal in four games on 21 minutes. Borja Valero the creator with a wonderful flighted cross from the left

Thereafter Villarreal largely controlled the first-half. Even without the influential Santi Cazorla their midfield again flowed and could have added more to the scoresheet with Cani being denied by Ricardo just on half-time.

However, the visitors who haven’t won away all season and won only six league games in two and a half years under coach Jose Antionio Camacho, started the second-half with a flourish and were level within two minutes. On a night when set-pieces proved crucial Javier Camuñas’ corner was nodded in at the near post by Krisztian Vadocz.

Then came the moment that this game will be remembered for. After the ball broke loose on the half-way line Cani - who had adopted a shot on sight policy all evening – used that tactic to stunning effect as he drilled the ball over Ricardo in the Osasuna goal from dead on halfway. Forget David Beckham or Xabi Alonso this was the purest strike of a ball that found the net from the halfway line I have ever seen.

Joan Capdevila added a third for the hosts from a Valero corner with 25 minutes remaining. Yet, again Osasuna punished a lack of concentration in the Villarreal defence to get back in the game five minutes later. Camuñas turning excellently, despite being surrounded by three yellow shirted defenders, before laying the ball across for Javier Calleja to volley home his first goal for the club.

Villarreal made the game safe seven minutes from time as Osasuna failed to learn their lesson from the Capedvila goal allowing Gonzalo a free header from another Valero corner. All the more frustrating for los rojillos fans will be that both goals could easily have been avoided by placing a defender on the back post.

Overall it was another successful evening for the hosts who stretched their lead over Valencia to five points. Moreover, for all the genius of Messi and Ronaldo, the yellow submarine they may already have sown up goal of the season after Cani’s majestic finish.

At the other end of the table another fruitless road trip allied to victories for Sporting and Zaragoza leave Osasuna only two points above the drop zone.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Real Madrid 4 Villarreal 2

FT: Real Madrid 4 (Ronaldo 8, 45 (+1) & 78, Kaka 80) – Villarreal 2 (Cani 6, Marco Ruben 17)

Real Madrid kept up the pressure on Barcelona at the top of La Liga with an enthralling 4-2 win over Villarreal.

Not for the first time this season Los Merengues had Cristiano Ronaldo to thank for the victory. The Portuguese bagging his fourth hat-trick at the Bernabéu this season, his second in consecutive home games, as Real twice came from behind to move 11 points clear of their opponents.

The game began at a blistering pace with three goals inside the first 20 minutes. Villarreal in particular had begun with real attacking intent and could have been ahead within the first minute. The outstanding Santi Cazorla making room for a shot that Sergio Ramos deflected away for a corner. However, the opening goal did arrive for the visitors only five minutes later. In a similar move to the one that cut the Valencia defence open for Villarreal’s third goal on Wednesday night, Cazorla played the ball inside to Giuseppe Rossi who spun before laying the ball into Cani. The Spaniard lifting the ball perfectly over Iker Casillas into the far corner.

The hosts responded immediately. Again good build-up play involving Karim Benzema and Mesut Özil found the German free on the right side of the penalty area before he squared for Ronaldo to fire into an empty net.

In a frantic end to end encounter Rossi had a good penalty appeal turned down after a clumsy challenge from Xabi Alonso on 15 minutes. Two minutes later the visitors were back in front. Cani this time playing provider as he cut open a static Real defence with a pass through the middle for Marco Ruben. The Argentine, only starting in the absence of Nilmar through injury, was calmness personified with a finish so delicate and precise it was as if he had used a sand-wedge to flight the ball over the on-rushing Casillas.

Cazorla then had a goal rightly ruled out for offside but Jose Mourinho’s men were in severe danger of losing what could have been a critical third goal. As he admitted afterwards 3-1 would have been a fairer reflection of the first-half showing from both sides.

The interesting tactical point of Villarreal’s approach was not even their boldness in ruthlessly attacking Real in a way no visiting team has at the Bernabéu so far this season. Rather it was the style with which they implemented this attacking intent. By using Cani and Cazorla in extremely narrow positions, they attempted to replicate Barcelona’s short passing style in midfield by using the four of Bruno, Borja Valero, Cani and Cazorla against the Real two of Lassana Diarra and Alonso. This put great responsibility of Joan Capdevilla and Angel Lopez to provide width from the full-back positions – a strain that eventually told in the second-half.

Crucially Real managed to go in level at half-time - again thanks to Ronaldo. This time stealing in ahead of Diego Lopez to nod in an Alonso free-kick thirty seconds before the break.

Eager to avoid a first home league defeat in nearly eight years, Mourinho made two significant changes at half-time. Firstly, he replaced Diarra with the more composed Sammi Khedira and also moved Raul Albiol, who had endured a torrid first-half, to right-back with Ramos moving into central defence.

The changes paid off as Real enjoyed much more control of the game in the second period. Villarreal by contrast appeared to wilt - partly due to the after effects of their stunning comeback against Valencia in midweek and also due to the sheer intensity they had played with in the first-half.

Lopez denied Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria and Benzema within a five minute period as Real searched for the vital third goal. However, when it did arrive there was a touch of fortune. Kaka, who had replaced Albiol with 20 minutes remaining, swung over a cross towards a seemingly offside Di Maria. Lopez parried both the Argentine’s header and Ronaldo’s rebound but when the ball fell back to the Portuguese striker he made no mistake to complete the perfect hat-trick of right-foot, header and left-foot.

The decision not to give offside was one too far for Villarreal manager, Juan Carlos Garrido, who was sent to the stands for his protestations. He later claimed that only in the second-half did he realise how hard it was to win at the Bernabeu as the referees are scared to give decisions against the home side and that there had been not just one but two offside decisions missed in the lead up to Real’s third goal.

Kaka finished the game as a contest with ten minutes remaining. Again Ronaldo was heavily involved as he laid the ball into the path of the Brazilian to slide past Lopez. It was a sweet moment for the world’s second most expensive player as it was only his second appearance following a six month lay-off through injury. However, it caused more consternation on the touchline as Mourinho celebrated exuberantly in front of the Villarreal bench. The visiting players were so up in arms that Cani even through a water bottle at the Portuguese coach who, in his own inimitable style, later claimed he was merely celebrating with his son who always sits behind the opposition dugout. Sound ridiculous? Well, not as ridiculous as the fact that Mourinho has now gone 145 home league games unbeaten. Think that is ridiculous? How about the fact that Ronaldo’s three goals took his tally to 23 in 18 league games this season, 31 in all competitions for club and country.

La Liga may suffer from a lack of competition but with every passing week the feeling that we are witnessing something truly historic gets more profound. In Messi and Ronaldo we are not just watching two players at the top of their game, we are not even just watching the two best players in the world, we are watching two of the best players ever going head-to-head every week in a manner that no league has ever witnessed.

The price to pay for watching such mastery is witnessing mere mortals being put to the slaughter on a weekly basis. Villarreal provide a rare glimpse of hope. My favourite game of this season was the yellow submarine’s trip to the Camp Nou – a match of unparalleled intensity and technical ability. Tonight’s offering was my second favourite. As Sid Lowe stated after Villarreal’s 3-1 defeat in the Camp Nou, there is no doubt that this is a two-horse race but the third horse is no donkey. Garrido’s men proved that again this evening. It would be no surprise if the best two games remaining this season come when the big two visit El Madrigal.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Match Report - Deportivo La Coruña 0 Barcelona 4

FT: Deportivo La Coruña 0 - Barcelona 4 (Villa 26, Messi 51, Iniesta 78, Pedro 80)

Barcelona produced another dominant display to beat Deportivo La Coruña 4-0 and move five points ahead of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.

After a tough trip to Bilbao in midweek, Pep Guardiola took the opportunity to rest Xavi, Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets. Adriano started at right-back with Seydou Keita and Javier Mascherano handed starts in midfield. However, the champions’ other two Balon d’Or candidates, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi, started – the Argentine again excelling as the central point of the front three.

Depor somewhat surprisingly switched from their normal five at the back for a defensive 4-2-3-1 system. Manager, Miguel Ángel Lotina, admitting he had hoped to stifle Barca’s midfield with an extra man in that area and, for the first twenty minutes, his plan worked well. With the hosts happy to concede possession until the final third Barcelona dominated possession but made little headway in breaking down Depor’s stubborn backline.

However, once the visitors broke the deadlock on 26 minutes there was no way back for Depor. In what is becoming a comically repetitive move, Messi drifted in from the right flank before playing a reverse ball for the on-rushing David Villa to break the offside-trap and slide the ball underneath Daniel Aranzubia.

Both sides then seemed content to play out the first-half. Barca more than happy to keep possession – without looking like adding to their lead – whilst Depor posed very little threat to the visitor’s goal.

Barcelona made the game safe early in the second-half with another wonderful goal from Messi. Not always renowned for his threat from set-pieces, he curled the ball beautifully over the wall and into Aranzubia’s top right-hand corner from 25 yards.

Thereafter, the game was even more comfortable for the league leaders and they added to their lead with twelve minutes remaining.

Not to be undone by his team-mate ahead of Monday’s presentation of world football’s most prestigious individual award, Iniesta scored his own golazo. This time cutting in from the right before firing into the bottom corner from the edge of the area.

And only two minutes later Pedro continued his excellent run of goal-scoring form after more exceptional play from Messi. The Argentine dancing past desperate Depor challenges before laying the ball through for the Canarian to lift over Aranzubia.

It was to be the last action for Pedro and Iniesta, who received another standing ovation as he left the field, Guardiola taking the opportunity to hand a debut to Ibrahim Afellay and another outing to Thiago Alcantara, who impressed after his introduction in last weekend’s 2-1 win over Levante.

Adrian then had a late opportunity for a consolation goal but was denied by an alert Victor Valdes.

Overall, it was another successful evening for the champions who have now won nine from nine away from home this season. As for the Galicians, in a game they were never expected to win it was a well-calculated risk to try something different tactically in an attempt to force Barca out of their rhythm. Unfortunately for Lotina’s men (like they were in this fixture last season) they were simply outdone by a few pieces of Messi magic.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Match Report Villarreal 4 Valencia 2

FT:Villarreal 4 (Cazorla 47, Rossi 50 & 90+3, Marco Ruben 63) – Valencia 2 (Banega 5, Soldado 23)

Villarreal produced a stunning second-half fightback to defeat local rivals Valencia 4-2 and qualify for the Copa Del Rey quarter-finals.

A brace from Italian international Guiseppe Rossi allied to goals from Marco Ruben and Santi Cazorla saw the hosts overcome a two goal half-time deficit.

Both managers signalled their intent from the start by fielding strong sides. Villarreal making only the one alteration from the 2-0 victory over Almeria on Monday. Valencia manager, Unai Emery, meanwhile persisted with his usual rotation policy, making four changes.

However, that one change to the Villarreal line-up, Juan Carlos starting in goal ahead of Diego Lopez, cost the hosts the opening goal on five minutes. Ever Banega, also restored to the Valencia starting eleven, struck the ball fiercely from 25 yards but the keeper will have been disappointed in only succeeding to palm the ball into the net.

The early goal was the best possible outcome for the neutral, forcing Villarreal onto the front foot, needing two goals following the 0-0 draw in the first leg, in what became an exciting end-to-end encounter.

Yet, in contrast to many of Villarreal’s home games this season their midfield four struggled to keep possession in the first-half, allowing Valencia to counter-attack with ease. Juan Mata and Jaoquin were looking particularly dangerous and both could have added to the visitors lead before the second goal did eventually arrive.

Roberto Soldado, who had also previously gone close two occasions, beautifully controlling Maduro’s cross-field pass before flicking the ball beyond Juan Carlos with the outside of his right foot.

However, a new Villarreal appeared after the break, determined to protect their unbeaten home record this season, and within five minutes they were back on level terms. Firstly, Rossi crossed from the left edge of the 18-yard box for the late-arriving Cazorla to tap home and then, after Stankevicius had felled Marco Ruben, the Italian coolly converted from the penalty spot.

And the hosts were ahead in the game and the tie 15 minutes later with a move that epitomised the change in the pattern of play in the second period. Cani and Cazorla tearing the Valencia backline to shreds with a wonderful one-two before the former squared for Marco Ruben to fire into an empty goal.

By this point the visitors appeared shell-shocked - unable to recover the control they had enjoyed in the first period. In particular, once Valencia fell behind their dependence on the counter-attack was badly exposed with even Banega and Mata unable to break down the Villarreal defence.

Rossi put Los Che out of their misery in stoppage time with a fourth goal. Played through by Joan Oriol, Rossi rounded the keeper before steadying himself to slot home.

The yellow submarine now move on to Sunday’s clash between second and third at the Bernabeu with a massive spring in their step.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Celtic in need of continuity more than signings

I normally try to avoid using clichés. Football writing in particular can be dull and predictable enough without them. However, during the past fortnight I have been constantly reminded of just how long two weeks can be in football.

In that time I’ve seen Celtic play four times, taking 10 points in the process. Not a bad return from such a hectic period - especially when you consider that that three of those points were golden ones won at Ibrox.

Yet, it all started so differently. Two weeks ago tonight I braved the cold to see the hoops first Christmas offering against Kilmarnock. I wasn’t the only one to suffer the -10°C temperatures but the crowd was sparse, understandable following two consecutive home draws and the game being re-scheduled for only four days before Christmas. However, those that did go I found tetchy and quick to get on the backs of both the players and manager.

With the benefit of hindsight, following Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Rangers, it seems preposterous but many were even calling for Lennon’s head. Emotional and frustrated cries they undoubtedly were but they were also a further example of the quick-fix culture that has seeped back into the Celtic following over the past two seasons.

Indeed even on that freezing Tuesday night Celtic were excellent for the first 20 minutes. Yet, when the early goal didn’t arrive and the shining light of that opening burst – Gary Hooper – went off injured, the overall performance level dipped dramatically.

The problem the hosts faced that night, especially once Kilmarnock took the lead in the second-half, and for 90 plus minutes at home to St. Johnstone five days later was two-fold.

On the one hand the SPL leaders lacked a creative spark. It is in this area that Shaun Maloney’s absence has been felt. I have never been Maloney’s biggest fan but this season, his finishing apart, he has been exceptional, providing key pieces of ingenuity in games against Hearts, Motherwell, Kilmarnock and Hamilton. It is no coincidence that in the two home games where he has been forced off early due to injury (the 3-1 defeat to Rangers and 2-2 draw with Inverness Caley Thistle), the result has not been positive.

Another example of Maloney’s fine form this season was the opening 45 minutes of the home game against Dundee Utd. A point often missed in a game that ultimately got away from Celtic in the second-half, finishing 1-1, is how well the home side played in the first 45 minutes. Almost all the good things that Celtic did in that first period came from the combination play between Maloney and Emilio Izaguirre down the left-side.

Coming back to the lack of creativity against Kilmarnock and St. Johnstone, the problem was that Celtic’s two most creative players on those occasions – Ki-Sung-Yeung and Paddy McCourt – were both playing too deep.

Ki’s positioning is a persistent bugbear of mine. For those who have seen him play higher up the pitch on international duty and on occasions at Celtic Park it is obvious he has the ability to break teams down. However, by constantly demanding the ball from his centre-backs it means the Korean’s exceptional passing ability is often wasted as it is all in front of teams defending very deep.

As for McCourt, in those two games he was deployed on the left-side but often came deep to demand the ball from Izaguirre rather than using the left-back’s runs to create space for himself. McCourt will score more goals than Maloney, spectacular ones at that, but at times, despite possessing a good passing ability and vision, he looks to take players on when a quick pass would be more effective.

Yet, the Derry Pele is such an enigma that by using the exact same move that I had criticised him for trying consistently against St. Johnstone, he scored against Motherwell three days later.

The other recurring problem of those recent shaky performances at Celtic Park has been the finishing. Once Hooper was injured against Kilmarnock it was difficult to see who would grab the vital goals. Those vital goals came from unlikely sources to rescue a point against Killie and three against St. Johnstone. Some would argue the goals on Sunday came from an even more unlikely source.

The issue of whether Samaras’ two-goal salvo on Sunday is deserving of a new contract is premature. I would want to see more than 90 minutes of redemption, as good as they were, before dishing out new deals. However, the issue of Samaras’ future does lead me, albeit belatedly, to my main point – the need for continuity in this Celtic team.

If you discount Rogne’s 20 minute cameo last March, only Samaras and Mark Wilson of Celtic’s starting eleven on Sunday had started at Ibrox for Celtic before. I was reminded of the upheaval in personal that has swung through the revolving doors at Parkhead over the past twelve months over Christmas when I found a Christmas card from last year. The message inside wished me ‘a Merry Christmas from everyone at Celtic Park’, of the 20 names listed only four remained.

The fact of the matter is that Rangers have won the past two championships, and performed admirably in Europe this season, not because they are particularly good – we saw how bad they were on Sunday – but because they have been forced by financial pressures to have a continuity of selection that breeds consistent performances.

Fortunately for Celtic they don’t have those financial pressures but that doesn’t mean they should splurge this January like they did last.

Hopefully Sunday’s rousing performance will mean there will be no panic buying. If anything Sunday’s win showcased how good a squad Celtic currently have. Without top-scorer Hooper, arguably man-of-the-season so far, Ki, and captain (although I doubt this was much of a hindrance) Scott Brown, plus Maloney, Kapo, Murphy and Cha, they won comfortably.

As for Lennon, the whole rational of appointing a rookie manager is to allow him time to build a team and a footballing philosophy. For all that I disagree with some of his decisions, in particular the continued absence of Stokes and Juarez for personal differences rather than football reasons, the biggest problem for this Celtic side so far this season, and last, has been a mental fragility.

Truth be told I can’t think of a better man to solve that issue. Sunday was a massive step forward for this side but please, no matter how the league pans out in the coming months, give them time.

As many Celtic fans will have read on the bottom of their empty pint glasses on Sunday night – good things come to those who wait.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Match Report Villarreal 2 Almeria 0

Villarreal 2 (Catala 22, Valero 58) – Almeria 0

Villarreal continued their excellent home form with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Almeria.

The yellow submarine moved five points clear in third place thanks to a goal either side of the break from Jose Manuel Catala and Borja Valero.

The home side controlled the game throughout with the excellent quartet of Valero, Santi Cazorla, Cani and Bruno dominating the midfield. Up front, the absence of top scorer Nilmar was occasionally apparent as his replacement Marco Ruben failed to replicate the intricate link-up play that the Brazilian and his strike-partner Guiseppe Rossi have shown so far this season. However, the Argentine did show enough in patches to suggest that manager Juan Carlos Garrido shouldn’t feel the need to rush back Nilmar from his recovery after knee surgery earlier this week.

Following a disjointed opening Villareal took control. Cazorla tested Diego Alves, once again Almeria’s outstanding performer, with a fierce drive form the edge of the area before the opening goal arrived on 22 minutes.

Valero fired over a beautifully dipping free-kick from the left and, with three Villareal players waiting to apply the final touch, Catala headed in off the bar.

Rossi nearly doubled the lead but was denied by Alves five minutes before half-time, while at the other end Diego Lopez had to be alert to save from a Miguel Angel Corona free-kick.

In the second-half the hosts sat back a little more, allowing Almeria more possession but with only Kalu Uche leading the attack the visitors lacked any real cutting edge. Indeed despite having less of the ball it was no surprise when Villarreal doubled their lead. The goal again came from a Borja Valero free-kick, this time a direct shot, that floated over the wall and in off Alves’ right-hand post.

Alves again denied Cazorla and Rossi with excellent saves but to no avail as the hosts ran out comfortable winners.

Victory moved Villarreal back five points ahead of fourth-placed Valencia while Almeria remain marooned in the relegation zone.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Match Report Sevilla 1 Osasuna 0

Sevilla ended a five-match losing streak with a deserved 1-0 win over a depleted Osasuna.

Gregorio Manzano welcomed back Jesús Navas to the starting eleven and the winger proved the difference between the sides in what was generally a disappointing encounter.

Freddie Kanoute headed the only goal from a Navas free-kick ten minutes before the break and, thereafter, the home side were rarely threatened by an Osasuna side that has won only two points and scored four goals away from home all season.

Sevilla started brightly with Osasuna goalkeeper Ricardo denying Diego Capel within the first minute before Alvaro Negredo miscued with a header at the back post. Ricardo again foiled Capel, this time with a much clearer one-on-one opportunity, inside the first 10 minutes.

Such was home side’s dominance that goalkeeper Andres Palop played almost as an auxiliary sweeper in the first-half, often rushing from his goal to scupper any sign of an Osasuna counter-attack. However, the Sevilla captain was forced into a save from Juanfran just before the 20 minute mark.

Sevilla finally made the breakthrough on 35 minutes . Navas swung over a free-kick from the left for Kanoute to head home his sixth league goal of the season.

In a somewhat turgid second-half the hosts’ intensity dropped slightly as they seemed happy to happy to settle for the narrow margin of victory after an awful run of form. Osasuna obliged in providing very little threat going forward. Coach Jose Antonio Camacho was missing five first-team regulars, with Walter Pandiani, Nacho Monreal and Javier Camuñas all injured and Iranian internationals Javad Nekounam and Masoud away at the Asia cup, and it showed badly. Juanfran was the only visiting player that looked capable of creating a chance but he often lacked support in the final third.

Overall, a vital win for Manzano’s Sevilla which moves them up to ninth in the table, six points ahead of Osasuna in fifteenth.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Silva finding his feet at City

It is often hard to make conclusions from the festive football period in England. With players understandably physically and mentally tired from playing four games in 10 days results often come down to a survival of the fittest or, as results over the past week have shown, to those with the biggest squad.

However, Manchester City's three wins over the past six days have demonstrated the increasing influence of one La Liga old boy. After a disjointed beginning to his City career, David Silva is starting to show his full range of abilities.

For Saturday's 1-0 win over Blackpool, City manager Roberto Mancini started all three of Silva, Carlos Tevez and Adam Johnson, who scored the game’s solitary goal, for only the second time in the league this season. For onlookers who have waited for the Italian to give this, his most creative, triumvirate a start it made for an interesting spectacle.

Silva undoubtedly adds another dimension to City’s play. He is the sole player amongst a near billion pound squad with the ability to play as an old-fashioned number 10, behind the main striker. For the past three years I have maintained that his old teammate David Villa is the world’s best striker (assuming you don’t class Leo Messi as an out and out striker). However, Villa would not nearly have hit the same heights at Valencia without his namesake playing just behind him. Given more time to gel Tevez could similarly take advantage of this supply line, although there is the question of whether the Argentine and Silva are truly compatible given the former’s tendency to drop deep and into the same positions that the Spaniard likes to occupy.

Some critics have also argued that Silva is too lightweight to play this central position in the Premier League. Thankfully in recent weeks these fears have been dispelled, particularly after a stellar performance in the 4-0 win over Aston Villa. The man from the Canaries again demonstrated why even some in the English press have fallen in love with the Spanish tiki-taka style. BBC Radio 5live’s John Murray describing Silva’s performance as “the essence of the Spanish World Cup winning side”.

Indeed Silva arguably made the greatest sacrifice of his football career so far when signing for City. By concluding his transfer from Valencia during the World Cup, specifically against coach Vicente Del Bosque’s orders for no deals to be concluded during that period, Silva was dropped from the starting XI after the loss to Switzerland and only made a brief cameo during the semi-final against Germany in La Roja’s run to World Cup glory.

Ideally for those who want to see Silva thrive in the Premier League he will be permanently deployed in the central attacking-midfield role in a 4-2-3-1, with Johnson on one side and either James Milner or Mario Balotelli (after all he is the second best player in the world – at least in his own head) on the other.

However, Mancini has been reticent to deploy Silva and Johnson together for any length of time this season, indeed many see them as playing in the same ‘inverted winger’ on the right-side position. But that is to miss Silva’s greatest quality as a central player slightly off the main striker. Johnson is quite the opposite, a winger who likes to start wide, pull the full-back out and away from the centre-backs and then run in behind to expose that space. Silva is the most capable of finding these runs with defence splitting passes, as Jonhson’s goal against West Ham recently demonstrated (at 1.30)

Mancini has often been labeled as a negative coach. His decision to continue with Nigel De Jong, Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure behind Silva, Johnson and Tevez against Blackpool is testament to that accusation. Indeed playing these six together tends to unbalance the side with Silva nominally chosen as the wide-left player in a 4-3-3 but moving inside so regularly that Barry has to move from a central position to cover the left-side when City lose the ball. This inbalance can leave City vulnerable to attacks by opposition full-backs

In any case any chance of seeing Silva playing in his natural position more often may be scuppered completely with the imminent arrival of Edin Dzeko to Eastlands. Presumably Dzeko will play as the furthest forward in a front two with Tevez, the Argentine then dropping deeper to play in the role Silva has been playing. This would in all likelihood force Silva to play more from a wider position and further limit Johnson’s opportunities in the first-team.

Dzeko may provide a more physical presence, but his and Tevez’s opportunities will be curtailed if Silva and Jonson’s ammunition is ultimately sacrificed.