Sunday, 20 March 2011

Match Report: Barcelona 2 Getafe 1

Barcelona recovered from a difficult week off the pitch to record a victory on it but they were made to sweat in the final seconds by a battling Getafe side.

Dani Alves and Bojan Krkic got the goals for the hosts who should have been out of sight by the time Manu pulled one back for Getafe with three minutes remaining. But in an amazing finale the visitors could have equalised with virtually the last kick of the game; Juan Albin’s miscontrol with only Victor Valdes to beat allowing Adriano to sweep the ball to safety.

Barcelona started at a typically frantic pace, Getafe the latest example of a side unable to escape their own half at the Camp Nou not through an attempt to park the bus, but through the champions’ intense pressing game.

Leo Messi was the first to threaten with a smart overhead kick that was blocked by Jordi Codina.

However, it didn’t take long for Barca to make the breakthrough and when they did it was a special goal. A loose ball fell on the edge of the Getafe area for Alves, arriving at speed, to bullet a half-volley with the outside of his right foot into the top corner.

The Barcelona fans then had their chance to show their respect to Eric Abidal, a minute of applause greeting the 22nd minute (the Frenchman’s squad number).

Barcelona then were somehow denied a second goal on the half hour. David Villa appeared to have been tripped by Cata Diaz and, even after the referee had waved away the appeals, Andres Iniesta played in Messi who rounded the goalkeeper and saw his shot cleared off the line.

Villa’s mood wasn’t helped when minutes later he was booked for diving in an incident involving the same two players. This time the former Valencia man did make more of the challenge but there did still appear to have been contact between the two.

Getafe were then nearly level when following good work from Manu on the left, Valdes denied Casquero with a sharp save. However, the midfielder will have been disappointed with his tame effort from close range.

Villa then passed up an opportunity to double the lead in what was to be a frustrating night for the Asturian, on this occasion skewing wide after he had turned the defence inside the area.

Four minutes into the second-half though, Barcelona were two ahead. Messi teeing up Bojan for a left foot strike that deflected past Codina.

The hosts then took a real stranglehold of the game. The major change from the first-half being not their dominance of possession but how high up the field they won it back, often no more than 20 yards from the visitors’ goal.

Villa passed up another two opportunities. Firstly, attempting to square for Messi instead of going for goal himself before a cute Iniesta pass saw the Spanish international in the clear but he shot straight at Codina.

In the final quarter Getafe had more of the game and could have been back in it with 20 minutes to go. Manu heading wide when unmarked at the back post from a corner.

Manu made amends with three minutes remaining, volleying home wonderfully from Victor Sanchez’s fine cross.

And with Barca hearts in mouths a long ball into the Barca box found Albin all alone but as he attempted to compose himself, Adriano nipped in to save his side from losing two precious points in the title race.

FT:Barcelona 2 (Alves 16, Bojan 49) – Getafe 1 (Manu 87)

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Match Report: Real Zaragoza 4 Valencia 0

Valencia’s week went from bad to worse with a crushing 4-0 defeat at La Romareda. Goals from Jiri Jarosik, Ander Herrera and two Gabi penalties taking the home side out of the relegation zone.

Unai Emery didn’t surprise with his team selection, making five changes from the side that had lost to Schalke in midweek. Marius Stankevicius, Jordi Alba, Tino Costa, Roberto Soldado and Jonas coming into the side. Ikechukwu Uche started up front for the hosts in the absence of Florent Sinima Pongolle.

Valencia lacked their usual organisation all night and were behind from a set-piece within five minutes. Javier Paredes’ deep cross headed in by Jiri Jarosik.

Uche and Nicolas Bertolo had chances to double the lead in the first quarter whilst the visitors rarely threatened. Los Che’s best opportunity coming from a fine cross by Alba that Jarosik did well to intercept ahead of Soldado.

Uche just failed to connect with a Bertolo cross six minutes before the break but within a minute the hosts had deservedly doubled their lead and what a goal it was. A swift counter attack found Uche on the right and his beautifully flighted through ball put Ander through on goal, with time to steady himself the man who will be joining rivals Athletic Bilbao next season cheekily finishing through Vicente Guaita’s legs.

Valencia never recovered despite the introduction of Juan Mata giving them slightly more cutting edge for a brief period in the second half.

The game was finished as a contest on 63 minutes when Stankevicius held back Bertolo in the area. The Argentine’s fall was melodramatic in the extreme but there was just enough contact to justify the penalty award, however, the dismissal of the Lithuanian for a second yellow card was harsh. Gabi comfortably dispatching the spot-kick by sending Guaita the wrong way.

With 15 minutes to go the wonderfully named Gonzalez Gonzalez then awarded a more contentious penalty to the hosts. David Albelda punished despite appearing to make no contact with Braulio. Gabi successfully repeating his earlier penalty to Guaita’s right.

The final period of the match was very stale with Valencia restricted to keeping the score down and Zaragoza more than happy with their evening’s work.

A huge victory for Javier Aguirre’s men sees them leap up to 15th in the table, four points clear of the relegation zone. Valencia, meanwhile, remain only four points ahead of Villarreal in third.

FT: Real Zaragoza 4 (Jarosik 5, Ander 41, Gabi (pen 63 & 75) – Valencia 0

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Match Report: Barcelona 3 Arsenal 1

Barcelona produced another mesmerising display to see off the challenge of Arsenal and progress to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

Leo Messi scored twice and Xavi Hernandez scored the other as the La Liga champions overcame Sergio Busquets’ own goal to win the tie 4-3.

Arsenal had their own piece of misfortune when referee Massimo Busacca inexplicably sent off Robin Van Persie for a second yellow card moments after Busquets’ miscued header had levelled the score on the night. But in truth anything more than a narrow defeat would have flattered a gunners side that didn’t manage a single attempt on goal all evening.

Van Perise had indeed been a surprise selection by Arsene Wenger, the striker was originally expected to be out of action for a month after injuring a knee 10 days ago. However, the Dutchman was chosen to play the role of desperate lone striker starved of any possession or involvement in the game that most visitors now employ on trips to the Catalan capital. Van Persie’s inclusion wasn’t the only surprise in the Arsenal starting eleven, Thomas Rosicky also given the role on the right side of a 4-2-3-1 ahead of the match winner in the first leg, Andrei Arshavin.

Pep Guardiola went, as expected, with Busquets alongside Eric Abidal in defence with Adriano chosen ahead of Maxwell at left-back. Yet, in the first half Busquets might as well have been playing in his usual midfield anchor role as the home side had no need for two centre-backs so dominant were they in possession and territory.

However, despite utter domination from the hosts, Arsenal’s deep defensive line and five across midfield made it difficult for Barca to create many clear-cut openings. Barcelona’s first efforts on target coming just after the half hour, Adriano firing a shot off the outside of the post and David Villa shooting tamely into the hands of Manuel Almunia - who had replaced the injured Wojciech Szczesny on 20 minutes. Messi should also have had a penalty for a blatant foul by Diaby but somehow the referee standing merely yards away waved play on.

The game then suddenly opened up in what proved to be a crucial five minutes of stoppage time allowed for Szczesny’s injury. Firstly, Van Persie stupidly got a yellow card for slapping Dani Alves in the face. Indeed, the only explanation for his subsequent dismissal can be that the referee felt he had let the Dutch striker off lightly by showing only a yellow card on this occasion.

Messi then fired wastefully into Almunia’s arms with his first opportunity of the match. Two minutes later, however, he made no such mistake with a truly outstanding goal. Cesc Fabregas gave the ball away cheaply on the edge of his own area and after Andres Iniesta demonstrated wonderfully quick feet to dance away from desperate Arsenal challenges and slip the ball through to the Argentine, he took three touches with his majestic left foot to control, flick the ball up over Almunia and then fire into the empty net.

With Barcelona now ahead on away goals they appeared to have all the momentum but within seven minutes of the second-half the tie had been turned on its head again. Sami Nasri did extremely well to win a corner down the left and when his delivery curled into the Barcelona box, Busquets could only divert his header on the stretch into his own net.

Within two minutes the dynamic of the tie changed again when Van Persie, unaware he had been flagged offside, was shown a second yellow card for kicking the ball away. The former Feyenoord man more than justified in furiously remonstrating with the referee that in a crowd of 95,000 people it is rather hard to hear one man’s whistle.

With the shock of the equaliser now worn off, Barca returned to the domination they had enjoyed in the first period.

Villa should have restored the lead twice but on both occasions was denied by the feet of Almunia before more sublime play from Iniesta did create Barcelona’s second. The World Cup winner accelerating past the challenges of Rosicky and Johann Djourou before sliding the ball through for Villa, who with one touch played in Xavi to fire past Almunia.

Barcelona were now rampant and had a third goal within two minutes. Again Xavi was involved as his pass to Pedro saw the Canarian chopped down by Laurent Koscielny. This time Busacca not letting the gunners off the hook as the pointed to the spot. Indeed had Van Persie not already seen red it is almost certain Koscielny would have seen a second yellow for the foul. Messi inevitably converting the spot-kick.

The 2009 Champions League winners then passed up a host of glorious chances to seal the tie. Ibrahim Affelay - who had replaced Villa – firing wide with his first involvement and Alves, who time and again got beyond the Arsenal backline, trying to play in Messi with the goal at his mercy the worst offenders.

And they nearly paid for their profligacy as with two minutes remaining Arsenal passed up a glorious opportunity to win the tie. The visitors best performer Jack Wilshere robbing Adriano and squaring for substitute Nicklas Bendtner, but with only Victor Valdes to beat a combination of a heavy first touch and an excellent saving tackle from Javier Mascherano denied the Dane.

Barcelona played keep ball for the remainder of stoppage time and more than deserve their place in the next round. Once again a combination of just being a little too ‘Barcelona lite’ and not taking their chances came back to haunt Arsenal in what was, as always, a thrilling encounter between Europe’s best two passing sides.

FT: Barcelona 3 (Messi 45 + 3 & 71, Xavi 69) – Arsenal 1 (Busquets (OG) 52)

Match Preview: Barcelona vs Arsenal

As the din around the Emirates cooled 20 nights ago, in the tunnel one man wasn’t getting carried away. Despite having just beaten his boyhood heroes and teammates for the first time in three attempts, Cesc Fabregas dispelled the euphoria by refusing to even describe the 2-1 victory as a ‘favourable result’.

He could be forgiven for not being overjoyed, because for all the tension and drama of Arsenal’s two late goals that night, the game had followed a remarkably similar pattern to the meeting between the two sides at the Emirates last season. Barcelona dominating possession and the flow of the game for an hour before a stirring two-goal comeback from the hosts in the final 30 minutes.

Echoes of that quarter-final from a year ago are also present now as the sides prepare for the decisive encounter at the Camp Nou. From the team that had started in the 2-2 draw in the first-leg last season Arsenal had lost William Gallas, Alex Song, Andrei Arshavin and Fabregas himself through injury by the time they lined up in the Catalan capital two weeks later.

In the intervening three weeks this time round the Gunners have lost Theo Walcott and Song while Fabregas, Robin Van Persie and Jack Wilshere face last-minute races to be fit.

This Arsenal side has also lost some of its mojo from that from that famous evening three weeks ago. The confident, vibrant young side that overcame the La Liga Champions has had its swagger dented by a humiliating last-minute defeat to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final and draws away to Leyton Orient and at home to Sunderland.

Yet all is not lost for Arsene Wenger’s men as they head back to the Nou Camp this evening. Not only are Fabregas and Van Persie expected to make an appearance when reports earlier in the week suggested they wouldn’t, but the Barcelona juggernaut of the past three seasons has slowed ever so slightly in recent weeks.

Defeat in London had followed a 1-1 draw in Gijon (the first time Barcelona had dropped any points away from home all season) and preceded an extremely nervy 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou. And even though they have now regained their seven point advantage at the top of La Liga - thanks to Real Madrid’s slip up at Deportivo La Coruna last weekend - Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Real Zaragoza means that the Champions League favourites have now only scored once in four of their last five matches.

Pep Guardiola also faces selection problems similar to those encountered in this tie last year with both first choice centre-backs, Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol, unavailable. Eric Abidal, who has filled in impressively at centre-back for much of the season, is expected to be partnered by Sergio Busquets in their place.

Ex-Liverpol man Javier Mascherano is also expected to start, stepping into Busquets’ usual role in front of the back four. However, it is what lies ahead of Mascherano that will most worry Wenger. In particular, another Argentine who took the tie away from Arsenal last season.

Lionel Messi’s four goals and all round performance in his side’s 4-1 victory in the second-leg last season was described by many as one of the best individual performances European football has ever seen. Implausibly the 5ft 7in genius has been just as good this season with already 40 goals in all competitions.

And it is not just Messi’s goalscoring threat that the Arsenal rearguard will have to be wary of. As was demonstrated in the opening goal at the Emirates, David Villa has brought even more firepower to an already hardly shot shy squad with a large percentage of the Asturian’s 21 goals this term coming from Messi assists.

The most pressing issue for Wenger is how, in the absence of Song, to combat Messi’s movement – the Argentine will continually drop deep between the Arsenal defence and midfield to look for the ball and create space for Villa cutting in from the left and the often overlooked Pedro (who himself has 20 goals this season) from the right.

The key for Arsenal in attack will be how well they keep possession when they win it back and to exploit the space in behind Barca’s rampaging full backs – as they did to good effect in the first 20 minutes of last year’s tie at the Nou Camp.

On the bright side for Wenger if Fabregas and Wilshere make it this will provide a much more technically gifted base for the visitors to build from. In recent games the young English midfielder has missed the influence of his captain alongside him to always provide an easy pass and keep the ball moving. And as he showed in the first leg the 19-year-old will not be phased by playing in close quarters to such esteemed opposition.

However, the injury to Walcott could prove a vital blow to Arsenal’s chances. The winger with the speed of Usain Bolt often doesn’t have the footballing intelligence to make the most of his pace but he is the one man who genuinely worries Barcelona.

Without Walcott’s pace Wenger may be tempted to go with Marouane Chamakh in the lone striker role. The Moroccan’s goalscoring touch has deserted him in recent months but he is better suited than Nicklas Bendtner and Van Persie at holding the ball up and running in behind.

Whatever the outcome another footballing feast awaits. As Wenger has been quick to point out himself, Arsenal’s best form of defence will be attack. It seems highly unlikely that they will see the 90 minutes out without conceding. Even the lauded defensive performance of Inter Milan at the Nou Camp in last season’s semi-final saw them lose 1-0.

However, for all that it is taken for granted that Barca’s MVP partnership will strike at least once, they must be wary of Arsenal on the break. Unlike opponents in recent weeks, particularly against Real Zaragoza on Saturday, the visitors this evening will break in numbers and with purpose. If Arsenal will have to work to stop a repeat of Barcelona’s opener three weeks ago, Barcelona will have to be just as wary to prevent a copycat of the gunners winner.

Probable Line-ups

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

Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Clichy, Djourou, Koscielny, Sagna; Wilshere, Diaby; Arshavin, Fabregas, Nasri; Chamakh

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Match Report: Barcelona 1 Real Zaragoza 0

Barcelona maintained their 100% record at home in La Liga since October with a 1-0 win over an extremely cautious Real Zaragoza.

Seydou Keita got the solitary goal in what was – Pep Guardiola’s back pain apart – an extremely comfortable evening for the hosts.

Guardiola had decided to give some of his preferred starting eleven a rest with the Champions League return against Arsenal coming on Tuesday night. Sergio Busquets, Eric Abidal, Andres Iniesta and David Villa all left out from the start, although the latter three did make an appearance from the bench.

Javier Aguirre opted for a 5-4-1 that would have made Miguel Angel Lotina proud, however, at times the Zaragoza midfield was so deep it appeared more like a 9-1, Florent Sinima Pongolle so isolated up front he was left in a different postcode from his teammates.

Barcelona dominated possession throughout and but for Toni Doblas in the visitors’ goal they could have been out of sight by half-time. The former Betis man denying Pedro, Bojan and Leo Messi before Keita had a goal ruled out for offside, replays showing the decision was extremely tight.

The Malian midfielder did eventually put Barca ahead two minutes before half-time following fantastic play from Messi in the build up. Keita is often overlooked when questions are raised about the depth of Barcelona’s squad but despite more limited opportunities this term his drive and goal-scoring threat has again proved invaluable.

The second period followed much the same pattern, although Zaragoza offered slightly more on the counter-attack. Nicolas Bertolo signalling their more attacking intent with their first effort of the game on 51 minutes.

The hosts were soon back on the attack and Ander Herrera had to clear off the line from a Gerard Pique header.

Victor Valdes then had to look alive on his return to action to deny Pongolle, racing out to block the French striker’s effort after an excellent long ball from Ander had set him free behind the Barca defence.

Doblas was then on hand to deny Bojan again with a fine one-handed save. It was to prove the youngster’s final involvement as Guardiola introduced Villa in an attempt to secure the game.

Villa made an instant impact in behind the Zaragoza defence but for once his deadly finishing touch deserted him. Firstly, he shot straight at Doblas and then, after the goalkeeper had spilled a Maxwell effort, blazed wildly over.

However, it wasn’t to matter as Barca saw out the game with ease to move 10 points clear of Real Madrid who play Racing Santander tomorrow. Aguirre’s men remain just two points above the relegation zone.

FT: Barcelona 1 (Keita 43) – Real Zaragoza 0

Match Report: Atlético Madrid 3 Villarreal 1

Atleti moved up to sixth place in the table with an impressive 3-1 victory over Champions League chasing Villarreal at the Calderón.

The hosts famed front three of Jose Antonio Reyes, Kun Aguero and Diego Forlan got the goals for Quique Sanchez Flores’ side who have now gone four games without defeat.

Atleti started brightly and after Aguero had appealed in vain for a penalty, Reyes fired his side ahead with a wonderful curling left footed effort after five minutes.

The hosts were dominant in the first half hour and should have been further ahead before Villarreal provided a sting in the tail ten minutes before half-time. Giuseppe Rossi matching Reyes’ earlier effort with a fine left foot shot after Santi Cazorla had laid off a free-kick to the Italian striker.

The second-half started in the same manner as the first, Forlan having an effort rightly ruled out for offside and Reyes was denied by Diego Lopez. Meanwhile at the other end Nilmar blasted off target.

Forlan was the next to be denied by Lopez. Firstly, parrying the Uruguayan’s left foot effort before tipping away a fierce volley from 20 yards.

However, Atleti then deservedly sealed the game with two goals in four minutes. Kun Aguero got the goal his all round performance more than deserved and again there was a touch of quality about it. The Argentine beating Mateo Musacchio to Filipe Luis’ delightful through ball before beautifully lifting his effort over Lopez.

Forlan got the third moments later with a cute finish after a neat one-two with Reyes.

Atleti should have made the result even more comprehensive in stoppage time, Juanfran scuffing wide with the goal at his mercy after more wonderful unselfish play from Forlan before the Uruguayan fired across Lopez and wide of the target in the final act of the game.

A deserved victory for a fluid and highly entertaining Atleti who are now very much back in the hunt for a European place. Another defeat for Villarreal means they have only won once in their last six league outings but remain 10 points clear in fourth place.

Atlético Madrid 3 (Reyes 5, Aguero 68, Forlan 72) – Villarreal 1 (Rossi 34)

Friday, 4 March 2011

Match Report: Real Madrid 7 Malaga 0

Real Madrid closed the gap on Barcelona at the top of La Liga to seven points with seven goals as they defeated Malaga 7-0.

The build up to the match had been dominated by Jose Mourinho’s condemnation of his predecessor Manuel Pellegrini by saying if he were to leave Madrid, as the Chilean did last summer, he wouldn’t be found in Malaga but at a big club in England or Italy. As it turned out Mourinho, for once, didn’t need mind games or wind up tactics as it was his players that put Pellegrini firmly in his place.

Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo fired warning shots within the first 10 minutes. However, it took 26 minutes for the home side to make the breakthrough, Karim Benzema flicking home Xabi Alonso’s free-kick. Real were now up and running and doubled their lead within 10 minutes, a catastrophic error from Manuel Gaspar – who suffered a torrid evening – allowing Di Maria to run through and slot past Wilfredo Caballero.

Marcelo added a third just before half-time thanks to a sumptuous chipped ball through from Di Maria and a thumping finish from the Brazilian full-back.

The second period offered the same as the first with Madrid’s power and pace too much for a weak and spiritless Malaga side. Ronaldo helped himself to a 26 minute hat trick, meanwhile Gaspar’s awful night was sealed with a red card on 67 minutes for a second bookable offence.

Benzema also got his second of the night with a header from Marcelo’s fine cross.

Overall Real did what they needed to do in destroying a poor Malaga side and closing the gap on Barca whilst Pellegrini’s Malaga look in severe trouble, still firmly rooted in the bottom three with 12 games remaining. Malaga may have a sheikh off the field but they desperately need a shake on it if they are to remain in the top flight.

Real Madrid 7 (Benzema 27 & 61, Marcelo 45, Di Maria 35, Ronaldo 50, 67 (pen) & 76) – Malaga 0

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Match Report: Espanyol 1 Mallorca 2

Espanyol’s hopes of European football next season took another blow as Mallorca came from behind to win 2-1 at El Prat.

Pierre Webo and Emilio Nsue got the goals for Michael Laudrup’s side - who also missed a penalty - move into the top half of the table only four points off a European slot.

The visitors started well against an Espanyol side who had regained some of their confidence with a comprehensive win over Real Sociedad last weekend. And they could have been ahead within the first 10 minutes, Jordi Amat fouling Webo inside the area but Carlos Kameni denied ‘Chori’ Castro from the penalty spot.

The hosts responded well and went ahead on 18 minutes. As so often this season José Maria Callejón was the creater sliping Álvaro Vázquez through to fire past Dudu Aouate.

Mallorca should have been on level terms before half-time but Nsue’s effort was wrongly ruled out for offside.

The visitors were much the stronger in the second period and were deservedly level on 62 minutes, the veteran Webo claiming the goal that his all round display deserved with a thundering header from Sergio Tejera’s free-kick.

With the game now stretched there were chances at both ends but it was Mallorca who struck the decisive blow with eight minutes remaining. Kameni parried Akihiro’s shot and Nsue was on hand to bury the rebound.

Espanyol remain seven points behind Villarreal and will slip down to sixth if Athletic Bilbao beat Real Zaragaoza in La Romareda tomorrow evening.

FT: Espanyol 1 (Álvaro Vázquez 18) – Mallorca 2 (Webo 62, Nsue 82)