Thursday, 28 April 2011

Villas Boas leading Porto back to the big time

Eight years on from success in Seville, Porto are on the brink of a return to the Europa League final guided by a new rising star on the touchline

It is hardly surprising that a certain Portuguese coach should head the list of many of Europe’s top clubs looking for a new manager this summer.

Success has followed this man wherever he has gone, from his days as a very young man when Bobby Robson took him under his wing to the role he played in guiding Porto, Chelsea and Inter to league titles.

Young, energetic and fiercely committed to the finest of details, he is the epitome of the young European coach. Except, he probably isn’t who you are thinking of.

André Villas Boas has had to live in Jose Mourinho’s shadow for most of his career, but now his ability as a stand-alone coach are beginning to get the attention and praise they deserve.

Villas Boas was Mourinho’s assistant for seven years, through spells at Porto, Chelsea and Inter, until last season the opportunity to return to his homeland as his own man was too good to refuse.

In seven months he managed to guide struggling Académica de Coimbra from relegation certainties to mid-table respectability. A feat so impressive that in the summer Porto came calling with the offer to return to the Estádio do Dragão.

A further nine months down the line and the 2004 European champions have been transformed from a club in crisis back to the dominant force in Portuguese football.

A league record that reads – P 27 W 25 L 0 F 64 A 13 – saw the championship wrapped up with five games to spare after victory at arch-rivals Benfica last month. A defeat so painful for the Lisbon club that the sprinklers were turned on and floodlights turned off as the Porto players celebrated.

On the continent they have been equally spectacular. The 10-3 demolition of Spartak Moscow in the quarter-finals the most striking example yet of the extraordinary goal-scoring potential that the squad contains.

Indeed that attacking intent allied to Villas Boas’ preference for a 4-3-3 system and an intense pressing game has led to comparisons with Mourinho’s adversary, Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola. Comparisons that may be fairer to a man who has always tried to maintain his tactical independence from the Real Madrid boss.

Like Guardiola, Villas Boas has indicated that his time in football management will not be for the long haul. In a week in which the stress placed upon football managers has been brought back into focus after Gerard Houllier’s health troubles, it is interesting that two young men with such a high profile are so acutely aware that such attention to detail in the short term can have drastic consequences down the line.

For the meantime, though, Villas Boas’ short-term goal is defined by glory on the European stage. After such an exemplary season another European final – the club’s third in eight seasons – is seen as a must, particularly given that another Portuguese side lie in wait – Benfica and Braga will contest the other semi-final.

However, Porto face their stiffest test this season if they are to make Dublin in the merry month of May with another Iberian coaching protégé occupying the opposition dugout this evening.

The Villarreal model of continuity had been held in high regard for many years in Spain. It had been how this tiny village of 50,000 people, albeit bankrolled by a tiling tycoon, had become one of Spain’s most successful clubs over the past decade. A decade previous to which they had never even played in La Liga.

At the head of this progressive project was Manuel Pellegrini. When the Chilean coach was headhunted to take over the antithesis of such stability under Florentino Perez’s Galacticos II project at Real Madrid, the Villarreal train was derailed.

Ernesto Valverde could only muster seven wins in 20 games before he was dismissed after only six months in the job. In came a little known, reserve team coach by the name of Juan Carlos Garrido and the yellow submarines improvement was so marked in the second half of the season that European football was back on the agenda at the Madrigal.

An experience that, unlike some who deride the Europa League, they have made the most of. As for all that Villarreal’s rise to prominence has been spectacular they have still yet to win a major trophy. Indeed it has been in Europe that they have come closest to breaking that duck with semi-final appearances in the 2005-06 Champions League and 2003-04 Uefa Cup.

For the first half of this season Villarreal were a joy to watch. Their brand of attractive, attacking football brought to life by players of the quality of Santi Cazorla, Borja Valero, Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi. The two best games of the Spanish season so far have arguably been when they have travelled to the Nou Camp and the Bernabéu.

Dani Alves paid Garrido’s men the highest of compliments after two goals by Lionel Messi consigned them to a 3-1 defeat to Barcelona in November by saying:

“They’re the only team I have seen come and play just like us.

“But we’ve got Messi.”

The same could be said of Real Madrid and Ronaldo when a dazzling Villarreal first-half display was undone by the Portuguese’s hat-trick in a 4-2 defeat.

They were even winning the league for much of the season. Their league that is, the one they and the other 17 teams behind Barca and Real play in.

Since the turn of the year domestic results have slipped as the focus has turned to Europe. Still the Champions League should be blessed by their presence next season as they sit comfortably in fourth place with only five games remaining.

Right now though for two of Europe’s most entertaining sides it is Dublin that is on the mind.

Villas Boas is determined to lose the tag of ‘the next Mourinho’. Villarreal hope he is not so special.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Mourinho has won his battle but the war still remains to be won

As Iker Casillas leaned over to kiss the Cibeles statue at 4.30am last Thursday morning, the collective joy of the thousands who lined the streets of Madrid was palpable.

Hours before the Spanish captain had climbed upon the city’s most recognisable monument, Real Madrid had won the Spanish cup final by beating Barcelona 1-0 after extra-time.

It had been 18 years since Real had won the Copa Del Rey. More importantly, it had been two weeks shy of three years since they had even beaten Barcelona, the same week in which they won their last trophy.

In that same barren period their coach, Jose Mourinho, had won five.

On Wednesday, European club football’s most decorated club’s title drought successfully over, Mourinho knowingly agreed he was a ‘title-winning coach’.

The remark may seem unremarkable for a man who is no stranger to controversy and has now won domestic honours in four different countries. But this was no humble acceptance of success, rather, it was a dig at the ideological icon of the club he had just defeated.

Johan Cruyff is a man revered like no other in Catalonia. His is the vision that created the style of football that has made Barcelona the football world’s darling. Last week, in a typically outspoken manner, the Dutchman dismissed Mourinho as a manager who only worked for titles and was not a “football coach”.

“Winning titles is always good. I like being a coach who wins titles,” responded Mourinho.

As inevitable as the Portuguese’s reply was, it is a window into the ideological differences that currently separate these two behemoths of world football.

During the 1-1 draw at the Santiago Bernabéu ten days ago, Barcelona completed 740 passes to Real’s 179. Never before had Real been so dominated in terms of ball retention in their own backyard.

The raw statistics on last Wednesday were not much different. Yet, once again Mourinho’s use of an aggressive, athletic midfield three of Pepe, Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira to match up against the World Cup winning triumvirate of Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets worked a treat.

It is not a style that usually curries favour in Madrid. Indeed after the recent league game the legendary Real Madrid player, and now honorary president, Alfredo Di Stéfano was seething about Mourinho’s tactics:

“Barcelona’s football was simply brilliant,” said the man who scored a hat-trick when Real defeated Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the European Cup final of 1960 at Hampden.

Real he said by contrast, “are a side with no personality. They just run back and forth constantly, tiring themselves out.

Barcelona were a lion, Madrid a mouse.”

As Fabio Capello knows to his cost, even winning the league at Real Madrid means little without style. Last weekend’s draw all but confirmed that the league title will be heading back to Catalonia for the third successive season. Barcelona lie eight points clear with only five games remaining. Indeed, even if Real were to win all their remaining games they cannot equal the 96 points they amassed last season under Manuel Pellegrini – the Chilean was promptly despatched thereafter.

So why has Mourinho won so many plaudits for winning a trophy that until recently no one at the club particularly cared about?

The difference is that the two matches gone were merely preliminaries, supporting bands to the headline act. For what defines these clubs more than anything is Europe’s biggest prize.

Cruyff is so lauded because it was his “Dream Team” of 1992 that won Barca their first European crown. Whilst in Madrid they have spent almost a decade waiting for “la decima” – their tenth European Cup.

Mourinho was brought to the Bernabéu not to beat Barcelona on the domestic front – that would have been a tidy bonus – but to take Real Madrid back to the big time in Europe.

When Zinedine Zidane’s beautiful dipping volley won the Champions League on their return to Hampden in 2002, the first era of the galácticos under president Florentino Perez was in full flow. Real had won the Champions League twice in three years – the good times were never going to end.

And yet they did. Drastically so. For six successive seasons between 2005-2010 Real failed to make it beyond the Champions League last-16. In that time Barcelona won the competition twice.

For Madridistas the need to break the Barca dominance comes at any cost. The second galácticos project under Perez is well under way, the president has already splashed over €400m on players in the past two seasons. But the desperation to beat Barcelona has also brought a new sensation – the need to win no matter how ugly.

And so the Copa Del Rey win was greeted with euphoria by all those with a Real Madrid affiliation.

“Mourinho puts an end to the Barca hegemony”, screamed the Madrid-based sports daily Marca on Thursday morning.

However, his job is not complete. it is the Champions League ties will define his future in the Spanish capital.

Last Wednesday, Mourinho won the battle against his former employers. Win the war and he’ll be headed to Wembley. Lose it and a return to England of a different sort may be in order.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Five things we learned from El Clásico

The next two weeks will be fun
Tonight’s game was merely a precursor to events to come in the next fortnight. This result merely confirms that Barca will make it a hat-trick of titles but Real showed enough – particularly with 10 men – that they can push the Champions all the way in the next three games. The use of a much deeper defensive line allied to more solid 4-3-3 to match up with Barca meant this was a much closer fought game than the 5-0 rout in December.

Barcelona missed Mascherano

As unlikely as it may have seemed only a few months ago the Argentine has become a key player. Once Carles Puyol was replaced by Seydou Keita and Sergio Busquets was moved back into central defence, the energy and tenacity of Pepe and Sammi Khedira caused Barcelona problems. The interesting point on Mascherano’s return on Wednesday will be as to where he plays. In the likely event that Puyol is judged not fit enough for two games in four days after a four-month lay-off, Mascherano will probably deputise at centre-back like he did in Donetsk last week.

Ozil must play
As expected Mourinho went for a solid 4-3-3 to combat Barcelona’s passing in midfield. However, the introduction of Ozil was instrumental in getting Real back into the game. The trick now is how to incorporate the German into a 4-3-3 system instead of the 4-2-3-1 he has thrived in for both club and country in the past year. The most obvious solution would be to drop Benzema and play Ronaldo down the middle with Di Maria and Ozil supporting from the wide areas. This would also allow the Portuguese to test the lack of pace in Barcelona’s central defence.

Guardiola still owns Mourinho
After the Champions League semi-final between Barca and Inter last season much was written about the genius of Mourinho. The truth is Mourinho and Guardiola have now gone head-to-head on six occasions with the Portuguese coach winning only one. Mourinho always has a plan and whether he will be able to execute those successfully in the next couple of weeks remains to be seen, but for now he hasn’t quite worked out the method to beat Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Barcelona get complacent in big games

In a trend I have noticed for the past few seasons, Guardiola’s men do have a habit of taking the foot of the pedal at inopportune times. For example:

1.Emirates 2010 (Arsenal 2 Barcelona 2): After a truly amazing start to the match that reaped no reward Barcelona take control with two goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Yet, with the tie all but decided they concede two late goals to allow the Gunners back into it. At one point in the second-leg Arsenal even led the tie having been dominated throughout.
2.San Siro 2010 (Inter Milan 3 Barcelona 1 ): Again Barcelona control the opening half an hour and lead through a Pedro goal. However, in the final 15 minutes of the half and the first quarter of an hour after the break Inter take control scoring three times. Barca then respond to dominate the last thirty minutes but to no avail and Inter hang on to protect their lead in the second-leg.
3.Emirates 2011 (Arsenal 2 Barcelona 1): Again Arsenal score two late goals having been thoroughly outplayed at home. A similar pattern emerges whereby once Barcelona go in front they fail to push on and kill the tie and once the opponent has equalised they are opened up on the counter-attack.
4.Bernabeu 2011 (Real Madrid 1 – Barcelona 1): Tonight’s game followed exactly the same pattern to the previous three. Barca didn’t pass up as many chances as those other games but with a goal and a man advantage they failed to retain the ball and open Madrid up like they can do, and Villa was particularly wasteful when those few chances did arrive. Madrid’s equaliser was very fortunate but it was coming as the visitors failed to put the game away.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Match Report: Real Madrid 1 Barcelona 1

It is a rare case when these two giants of the world game meet that everyone can go home happy but this was one such evening.

The usual mixture of tension, excitement and exorbitant levels of hyperbole in the newspaper pages, front and back, in the lead up to any Classico have been exaggerated by the impending catalogue of these fixtures to come in the next two and a half weeks. A cocktail of anticipation that had led to this particular match being slightly overlooked – everyone knows La Liga is once again Catalonia bound, the realoffering will come in Europe’s biggest prize.

In that context a scintillating draw whereby Barcelona all but rubber stamped the championship and Real showed they can more than compete with their bitterest rivals – something that was in doubt after the 5-0 destruction in the Camp Nou four months ago – left all parties contented after the appetizer before these ties become really decisive.

The suspicion that both managers may have been tempted to go with slightly weakened sides proved unfounded.

Jose Mourinho went for the 4-3-3 formation that many had suspected but with an intriguing collection of personnel. Pepe was selected as the deep-lying midfield player with Raul Albiol partnering Ricardo Carvalho in defence. Angel Di Maria and Karim Benzema were given the nod alongside Cristiano Ronaldo up front.

Pep Guardiola recalled Carles Puyol to the starting line-up after four months out – a sure sign of the Catalan coach’s worry of the lack of pace at the centre of his backline. Puyol’s inclusion allowed Sergio Busquets to move forward into his natural position alongside Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, whilst Pedro Rodriguez was restored to the frontline alongside Leo Messi and David Villa. Adriano was also preferred to Maxwell at left-back.

The home side’s intent was clear from the start. In contrast to the season’s earlier meeting between these two Real sat very deep, allowing little space in behind. This had the dual effect of allowing the midfield to press Xavi and Iniesta vigorously whenever they held possession inside the Madrid half and creating space for the pacy front three to drive into when Real won the ball back.

However, it was mainly from set-pieces that the home side threatened in the first-half. Ronaldo was first to go close, firstly firing a free-kick into the hands of Valdes and then heading over from a Xabi Alonso corner.

Barcelona then created their best chance of the half on one of the few occasions they got in behind the Real backline. A wonderful ball from Iniesta found Messi through on Iker Casillas but his lofted finish didn’t have the elevation nor the power to beat the Spanish captain.

On a night when the scoreline was dictated by penalties Barcelona had a big claim turned down on the half hour. Villa nicking the ball away from Casillas before tumbling over. Replays showing that there was definite contact and no touch on the ball from the goalkeeper.

Having escaped that claim the hosts then ended the first period on the front foot. Di Maria fired over after he had turned Puyol in the area before a rare miscontrol by Ronaldo allowed Adriano to step in and clear when the Portuguese appeared to have the goal at his mercy. However, the Brazilian’s next clearance was even more spectacular. Barcelona again failed to deal with an Alonso corner and Ronaldo’s header back across goal seemed destined for the net but for a smart reaction from the full-back on the line.

Ronaldo had another close effort at the start of the second period – his free-kick this time clipping the outside of the post. Yet, within a minute the game swung massively in Barcelona’s favour. Villa this time clearly hauled down by Albiol inside the area. Referee Muñíz Fernández left with no option but to point to the spot and give the Spanish defender his marching orders. Messi converted the penalty for his 49th goal of a truly remarkable season.

Surprisingly, though, the visitors failed to build on this advantage. Their natural passing game which should have suited this situation perfectly deserted them, Alves and Iniesta particularly culpable.

Real in contrast typified Mourinho’s style: aggressive; energetic; hungry. They harassed Barca in possession with Pepe and Sammi Khedira very impressive in the midfield. However, the real standout for the home side in the second-half was Mesut Ozil. The German replaced the ineffective Benzema with 10 minutes of the second-half gone and brought a calm, poise and creative spark in the final third that Real had lacked till that point. An interesting conundrum that now faces Mourinho is how to incorporate Ozil into a 4-3-3 in the upcoming games against the Champions.
That being said Xavi came within inches of finishing the game when his controlled effort clipped the top of the bar.

Set-pieces continued to cause Barcelona problems and Pepe missed a glorious chance to equalise on 65 minutes when he scuffed wide from five yards. Another substitute Emmanuel Adebayor then missed a decent chance, failing to control Ronaldo’s clipped cross.

Real’s tenacity was eventually rewarded with an equaliser but it’s source was more than dubious. Alves’ challenge on Marcelo deemed to be a penalty despite the Barcelona player appearing to have played the ball. Ronaldo stepped up and fired home his first ever goal against Barcelona with ease.

That goal cued 10 minutes of classic end-to-end football as both sides sought a winner. Casillas rushed from his line to deny Villa before Khedira’s fierce shot was well handled by Valdes.

Villa then had one last opportunity to win the game but after a wonderful ball from Xavi had found him in the clear, the Asturian failed to control and the chance was gone. The frantic conclusion summed up as Casillas charged nearly 40 yards from his goal in a valiant attempt to set another attack on its way.

Mourinho will no doubt claim this as a psychological victory - his side showed immense spirit to battle back from a goal down. Guardiola will no doubt claim the title race is not over. But deep down both know that in Barca’s quest to repeat their treble of 2009 one trophy is already firmly back in the cabinet. Another will be dished out on Wednesday. Tonight was merely the Tapas. At the Mestalla the real feast will begin.

FT: Real Madrid 1 (Ronaldo 82) – Barcelona 1 (Messi 53)

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Match Report: Tottenham Hotspur 0 Real Madrid 1

There was a time in the not so distant past when Marca ordained Cristiano Ronaldo as God Almighty. That proclamation will inevitably return at some point in the future but in his latest act at the centre of Real Madrid’s cosmos the Portuguese confirmed that in eighteen days in April there will be four classicos.

His solitary goal here was nothing miraculous – his strike from distance, like his goal in the first-leg of this tie, owing more to an errror from Tottenham goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes than genius on his part. Yet, coming a day after Leo Messi had broken the record for the number of goals scored for a Spanish club in a season with his 48th strike of the campaign, Ronaldo’s 41st goal of the season was a timely reminder that he too is on course the break his club’s record.

Spurs gave a good account of themselves and showed tremendous spirit as willed on by a vociferous and loyal support they tried to salvage some moment of note from this tie but their efforts were to no avail.

The home side started brightly, Gareth Bale a constant torment for Sergio Ramos down the Spurs left and it was he who had the first in a series of Tottenham penalty claims. However the Welshman’s appeal was rightfully waved away as he went to ground far too easily under Xabi Alonso’s challenge. The former Liverpool midfielder was more fortunate minutes later though when another penalty shout was turned down, this time Alonso appearing to catch Luka Modric as he sped into the Real box.

Spurs were generally in the ascendancy without over troubling the Real defence. The returning Aaron Lennon laid the ball intelligently back to the edge of the area for Roman Pavluchenko who fired over before the Russian had his own penalty claim turned down. Again replays showed that any award would have been harsh.

The home side did have the ball in the net eight minutes before half-time. Bale the converter but Modric had rightfully been ruled offside in the build-up.

The only negative point of a comfortable evening for Jose Mourinho’s men came minutes before the break when Ricardo Carvalho was shown a yellow card for a foul on Tom Huddlestone meaning he will miss the first-leg of the semi-final against Barcelona.

If the tie wasn’t over after a goalless 45 minutes it certainly was four minutes into the second period as Ronaldo’s speculative effort from 30 yards slipped through Gomes’ hands and despite a despairing dive from the Brazilian the ball trickled over the line.

Thereafter the inevitability of the outcome saw any sense of urgency drain away from the action. Ronaldo and Ramos were withdrawn to ensure they did not incur suspensions whilst Tottenham continued to probe without any fortune.

Substitute Jermain Defoe forced Iker Casillas into a fine one-handed save and Pavluchenko and Rafael Van der Vaart both saw efforts drift just over the bar as Spurs eventful debut in football’s premier club competition drew to a close.

Their efforts must now be concentrated in trying to ensure a return to this stage next season. For their illustrious conquerors a battle of the conquistadors will decide which Spanish representative will make a return to London at the end of May.

FT: Tottenham Hotspur 0 – Real Madrid 1 (Ronaldo 50)

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Match Preview: Tottenham Hotspur vs Real Madrid

Impossible is nothing. So Leo Messi, David Villa and Kaka’s pay masters and indeed Real Madrid’s shirt manufacturer keep telling us.

But if anything can be sure in life, surely a 4-0 lead for a Jose Mourinho side must be set in stone.

Real’s destruction of spurs eight days ago showed a marked but understandable difference between the two sides. Quite apart from the difference of quality on offer, the Spanish side’s greater experience of the big occasion - despite not reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the past six years – shone through.

A fast start, an early goal and then English self-destruction in the form of two Peter Crouch lunges saw the tie almost over within the first 15 minutes. By full-time it was, a further three goals leaving even Rafael Van der Vaart in no doubt as to who was going through.

So what can we look forward to this evening? Well, Mourinho appears to taking no chances with his starting line-up. Like Pep Guardiola (who fielded a full strength side away to Shakhtar Donetsk last night) Mourinho seems to be prioritising the Champions League over Saturday’s Classico even with a four-goal lead as all his big guns are expected to start.

More surprisingly given the upcoming clash with Barcelona in Europe’s premier competition, assuming Real don’t capitulate at White Hart Lane, is that Mourinho appears happy to run the risk of some major players being suspended for the first leg of that tie at the Bernabeu. Sergio Ramos, Ricardo Carvalho, Raul Albiol, Angel Di María and Cristiano Ronaldo are all just one yellow card away from a suspension.

For Spurs this should be a good opportunity to regain some pride on the big stage and at home they are more than capable of scoring multiple goals, they scored 10 in their three home games in the group stage and with the return of Aaron Lennon have the pace on both wings to expose one of Real’s weaknesses this season – the space in behind the full-backs. However, spurs’ need to attack and care free spirit should play into the visitors’ hands. Real have been at their best this season when counter-attacking and as spurs swarm forward there should be ample opportunity for Ronaldo, Ozil and Adebayor to expose the space in behind.

If spurs can get an early goal we could be in for a game but otherwise this should be as routine as the second-leg of a Champions League quarter-final gets.

Probable Line-ups:

Tottenham (4-4-1-1): Gomes; Assou-Ekotto, Dawson, Gallas, Corluka; Bale, Huddlestone, Modric, Lennon; Van der Vaart; Defoe

Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Casillas, Marcelo, Carvalho, Albiol, Ramos; Alonso, Khedira; Ronaldo, Ozil, Di Maria; Adebayor

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Match Report: Barcelona 3 Almeria 1

The hacks of the Madrid press were denied their favourite “Hay Liga” headline as Barcelona came from behind against a spirited Almeria to remain eight points ahead of Real Madrid ahead of next weekend’s first installment in the catalogue of Classicos to come this month.

Pep Guardiola had warned of complacency ahead of the game and he often cut a frustrated figure as his side failed to make the game safe against the league’s bottom club until the final seconds.

Some of that frustration may have been Guardiola’s own doing as he made four changes from the side that defeated Shakhtar Donetsk 5-1 in midweek. Jose Pinto and Gabriel Milito replacing the suspended Victor Valdes and Sergio Busquets, whilst Thiago and Bojan Krkic were preferred to Seydou Keita and David Villa.

However, most of the credit must go to Almeria and their new coach Roberto Alabe for deploying a game plan that restricted Barca for large spells of the game and exposed the few weaknesses they have. Given the lack of pace at the heart of the Catalan defence in the continued absence of Eric Abidal and Carlos Puyol, the selection of Pablo Piatti as the lone front man worried the Barcelona backline all evening. The visitors were also able to expose Pinto’s distribution from the back by pushing high up the field to restrict Barcelona building from the back.

The first opening of the game came after 14 minutes. Bojan doing exceptionally well on the right hand side to beat Antonio Luna and his cut back was fired over from close range by Thiago.

Almeria responded well and a fine run by Albert Crusat was ended by a cynical challenge from Javier Mascherano. The Argentine was booked and will now miss the game in Madrid next weekend.

Andres Iniesta was next to threaten with a wonderful curling effort that drifted just wide of Diego Alves’ goal before Bojan had to be replaced by Villa, the early prognosis on his knee injury showing that the young Spaniard’s season could be over.

The introduction of Villa seemed to settle the home side, Messi in particular becoming a greater influence on the game. #nd the two combined as Villa struck the post on 48 minutes, however, within sixty seconds iit was Almeria who were in front.

The excellent Piatti exposing poor defending by Milito and showing great composure as he played the ball through for the unmarked Miguel Corona to slide the ball past Pinto.

Unfortunately for the visitors their lead was short-lived as only three minutes later Barcelona were level. Milito making amends with a fine cross-field pass that found Villa who was clipped by Alves as he tried to round the Brazilian. Replays showed the decision was slightly harsh on the keeper who had tried to pull out of the challenge but there was still the slightest of contact between the two.

Messi kept his cool to beat the penalty expert Alves and now the home side smelt blood. Guardiola sent on Pedro for Milito, allowing Mascherano to drop into defence and Iniesta back into the heart of the midfield, meanwhile, up front, the coach’s preferred front three were reunited for the first time in a number of weeks.

And it showed instantly as Villa spun brilliantly in the box and after his fine effort had been saved by Alves, Pedro somehow fired wide with the goal gaping. Messi then found Villa with a fine floated cross but the Asturian could only head weakly into the arms of the increasingly busy Alves.

When Barca did inevitably get their second goal though, it came from an unexpected source – or maybe not as this was the third time in a week Barca had scored from a corner – Messi’s delivery this time not finished by Pique (thankfully we were spared some Shakira inspired celebrations for at least one evening) but by a bullet header from Thiago.

Yet from this point Barcelona seemed to ease off, much to the discontent of their manager. Almeria on the other hand were very positive in their substitutions, Goitom and Uche sent on to support Piatti in attack. However, the visitors weren’t able to create another clear-cut opportunity in front of the Barcelona goal and were finally put to the sword in injury time. Messi taking advantage of Marcelo Silva’s error to run through on goal and cheekily flick the ball over Alves.

FT: Barcelona 3 (Messi 52 (pen), 90+1, Thiago 63) – Almeria (Corona 49)