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)

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