In the middle of the Copa del Rey El Clasico series Barcelona had to face a Malaga team that has a lot to prove. Their high spending so far hasn't had the desired effect and they were looking to get a confidence boost by beating the, arguably, best team in the world. But Lionel Messi had a different plan as he led Barcelona to a comfortable victory scoring three magnificent goals. Alexis Sanchez added the fourth for the visitors while Salomon Rondon scored the consolidation tally for Malaga. With the win Barca reduced Real Madrid's lead to two points, but Los Blancos have played one game less, a game where they host the difficult and unpredictable Athletic Bilbao.
With the return leg of the Clasico in mind Pep Guardiola rested Xavi, Carles Puyol and Cesc Fabregas. All three will be much needed at the Camp Nou and Pep was comfortable Thiago will be able to organize Barca's ranks.
Contrary to what one would expect Malaga saw quite a bit of the ball early on, but they weren't able to create any chances, however, neither did Barcelona. Both defenses looked tight and organized, though the hosts' was the one that was tested more often. With so many men committed to attack Barcelona was left vulnerable to counter attacks and Malaga, Isco to be precise, almost shocked the Blaugrana. Isco fired a terrific shot from the edge of the box and Victor Valdes had to make a panther-like jump to tip the ball out for a corner kick. From the ensuing corner the ball again found Isco on the near post and only two great save by Valdes kept the game scoreless.
The breakdown in corner coverage did not deflate the team, unlike a certain team in white we all so enjoy beating, and Barcelona continued to push for the opening goal. Thiago, Eric Abidal and many others came close to drawing first blood, but Barcelona were left to wait.
In the 26th minute Barca almost capitalized on a terrible backpass from Jasus Gamez, but Wilfredo Baballero was alert and cleared the ball away. The danger wasn't averted, though, as Abidal appeared to steal the ball away from a Malaga defender, but the referee mercifully called a foul. A goal for Barcelona was clearly in the air and finally, at the 32 minute mark, the visitors were ahead. Adriano Correia bore down on the left wing and floated a cross to near the penalty spot where an unmarked Messi powered the header out of the reach of Willy and into the back of the net.
Just before the half ended Malaga had the opportunity to, against the run of play, tie the score. Ruud van Nistelrooy was played through with a perfect over the top pass and he looked certain to go one-on-one with Valdes, but it appears age has caught up with the Dutchman who was easily caught by Javier Mascherano who cleared the danger.
Alberto Undiano Mallenco whistled for halftime before Valdes could take the goal-kick and Barcelona, in big part thanks to their keeper, took a 1-0 lead to break.
Just two minute after the restart Barcelona were up by two. Thiago started the shooting parade with a well placed shot from the edge that Willy was only able to tip to Andres Iniesta who centered it back to Thiago, but his shot was again saved. They say "third time's the charm" and that was certainly the case here as the rebound fell to Alexis Sanchez who made no mistake from close range.
To not make the scenario against Real Betis a habit, Barcelona didn't allow Malaga to fight back and quickly added a third. It was a classic Messi goal as he slalomed through several defenders and calmly slotted the ball to the far corner.
If Malaga wanted to get anything out of this game Manuel Pellegrini had to make some changes so he brought in two speedy forwards for a slow striker and a defensive midfielder. This led to more pressure all across the pitch which clearly caused some early problems for Barca as they misplaced more short passes than they did up to this point of the match. The lack of aggression before was evident because neither team picked up a yellow card, but after the high pressur was implemented Camacho was quickly shown a tarjeta amarilla. Camacho's challenge resulted in Busquets needing new shorts. And no, it wasn't for what you're initial thought was (don't try to deny it now!).
Pep was doing some more El Clasico preparations in the second half as he gave some rest to Alexis and Iniesta, and gave Pedro 20 minutes of playing time after he just returned from injury. Adriano, however, had to be replaced by Jonathan dos Santos, due to an injury, but at first look it just appeared to be a severe cramp.
Barcelona didn't stop going forward with the three goal advantage and after a few missed chances, inducing a terrific Messi free kick that hit the bar, bounced off the line and out, it was four. What can I say say about Barcelona's fourth goal? It was just one of those runs by Messi you can't explain. He received the ball at midfield and despite pressure from several Malaga players he somehow made his way to Willy and again beat him to the far side. A truly magnificent way to complete the hat-trick.
At this point Barca could afford to get sloppy in defense and while I wasn't happy about it they sure did get sloppy. In the 85th minute Recio fired a fierce drive from distance that wasn't handled by Valdes; Samuel Rondon was the first to the rebound and the Venezuelan fired the ball perfectly on goal as it bounced in off the post to put the hosts on the board. Teams exchanged opportunities in the final minutes with Willy this time getting the best of Messi while Sebastian Fernandez fired just wide of the post.
All in all it was one of Barcelona's best performance away from home and that can only be a good sign. Resting some key players can also prove to be crucial with just three days until another El Clasico.
Looks like it's time to "welcome" Real Madrid in Catalonia again. Visca el Barca!