Barcelona forced a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final with Valencia at the Mestalla, although when they look back at the match, they might feel that they should have won. Jonas opened the scoring for the hosts, but Carles Puyol equalised with a trademark header before half-time, although Barcelona did miss a penalty through Lionel Messi in the second half. Heading into next week’s second leg, the tie is very much in the balance.
Pep Guardiola acknowledged before the game that Valencia were a difficult opponent, and his lineup reflected his respect as Carles Puyol played at right-back, with Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano preferred in the centre of defense. Clearly he was worried about the impact of Jordi Alba and Jeremy Mathieu down the left-hand side, although the side did appear to miss Dani Alves’ marauding runs from deep.
Barcelona started well, with Lionel Messi drawing a foul on the six minute mark after a typical run from deep. He took the resulting free-kick, but could not direct his effort on target, sending it just wide of the goal. Then he robbed Ever Banega of possession before skipping past the challenge of a further defender, but his shot was blocked well by Mathieu.
Then, with 18 minutes gone, Jose Pinto rushed from goal to deny Roberto Soldado. However, replays suggested that the volatile Spaniard actually stopped the ball with his hand, outside of the area. That would have meant a straight red card if the referee had seen it, but clearly he did not, and neither did his assistant. Lucky? Of course, but over the course of two legs, Valencia would probably stand a better chance against Pinto rather than Victor Valdes.
Valencia were starting to come into the game, and they had the best chance of the match so far, as Barcelona simply failed to defend a simple corner. Zonal marking has been effective, but if the opposition knows how to exploit it (Unai Emery most certainly does) it can be counter-productive. The ball was swung out to the edge of the area and Roberto Soldado met it on the volley, but he could not keep his well-struck effort down.
However, Barcelona would too create chances of their own. Lionel Messi was the architect yet again, slotting a fine pass through to Alexis Sanchez, but the Chilean opted for a toe-poke that went well wide of the goal. By his standards, it was a sitter and Messi’s pass deserved better. How different the game could have been if Alexis had scored that chance...
Just like in the previous match at the Mestalla, Valencia were having a lot of joy down the left-hand side with the cutbacks to on-rushing support play from midfield, and that is how they constructed their opener. Jeremy Mathieu proved to be the thorn in Barcelona’s side once more with a powerful cut-back that found the ruin of Jonas. The Brazilian has been in fine form in the Copa del Rey, and he made no mistake with the finish, finding the top right corner of the net. Barcelona were behind.
Unai Emery’s tactics were working well, but they were producing a lot of yellow cards, with Jonas and Banega finding themselves in the book within the first half of play. Barcelona were still creating chances though, and Isaac Cuenca was looking bright in his first match as an official first team player. Wearing the number 23, he went on an incisive run that Messi would have been proud of before setting up Sanchez, who was denied by Diego Alves. Crucially, the ball went out for a corner kick.
It was that corner kick that led to the equaliser, and unfortunately for Valencia, it was entirely preventable. The cross was delivered towards the back post, but no-one from Valencia thought to cover the positioning of Carles Puyol. Bad idea. The captain rose above the rest to head the ball into the turf where it bounced into the net, gifting Barcelona the equaliser. Pep Guardiola’s reaction was priceless, he knew how important that goal was, both in the match, the tie and the Blaugrana’s season. Who else would score such an important goal for the club but the captain? It’s getting to become a habit for Carles!
The half-time break did not bring any changes in personnel, but I can’t help but think the referee approached the second half with a more strict approach, booking David Albeda immediately after the restart for an inconsequential foul. In addition to the referee changing his attitude, it appeared as though Barcelona were thinking more positive.
It was Lionel Messi (who else?) with the penetration, and he selflessly handed the ball off to Alexis for the shot, and the Chilean did roll the ball into the bottom corner, but the linesman had his flag up for offside. It was the correct decision, but ultimately frustrating for both Sanchez and Messi. After all, Alexis has pace to burn, why did he go so early?
Messi was the next to register a shot after embarking on trademark jinking run, but he drilled the effort just over the bar, in a chance where you expect him to at least test the keeper. Barcelona were growing into the game, could they make their chances pay?
Well, they had the chance to minutes later; Isaac Cuenca with a looping pass to the far side of the area and Alexis Sanchez, who cut inside before being taken out by Miguel. It was a stonewall penalty, and Lionel Messi stepped up to try and outwit Diego Alves. Despite giving it his usual stutter step, and almost goading Alves to commit himself (which he actually did) Messi still sent the ball in Alves’ direction, and the Brazilian pulled off the diving save to his left. It just wasn’t Leo’s day.
Guardiola brought on Dani Alves for Alexis Sanchez as he looked to inject some fresh legs into the attack without sacrificing the defense, but surprisingly the next chance still fell to a defender, and Gerard Pique. It was Lionel Messi who headed the ball across the area, and Pique had a simple header from three, maybe four yards out, but he sent it over, and with it appeared to be hopes of a slender lead.
But the chance of the match came just after that, and it was the substitute Alves. Powering forward on the right wing he directed a pass in-field to Leo Messi, and it took phenomenal control from the Argentine to even send a pass back, let alone one of the calibre that he produced. Alves was now through on goal with Alves to beat, and he did just that firing a shot past his compatriot, but it didn’t find the corner, instead rebounding off the post. Barcelona simply couldn’t find a win for love nor money.
Late cameos from Jonathan dos Santos and Cristian Tello were just that: cameos, but Tello again displayed his other-worldly acceleration over 10 metres leaving Miguel for dead, even though the Portuguese full-back is no slouch himself. But with five minutes to make an impact, he could not get into the game.
On reflection, Barcelona could and perhaps should have won this game, but looking on the bright side, they do have that vital away goal ready for next week’s return leg. Now the team will play two consecutive matches at the Camp Nou, to Real Socidead in La Liga, and of course Valencia next Wednesday.
Man of the match goes to Carles Puyol, leading by example with a superb header, a few defensive interceptions but mainly for his double roulette that brought a smile to the face of every football fan. More of the same please Puyi!