Wednesday’s draw in La Mestalla against Valencia was one of the best soccer matches I’ve seen in a long time. Although Barcelona again had trouble finding the back of the net away from home, I was immensely proud of the Blaugrana and how hard they fought. Here are three things we learned about FC Barcelona as they head into a critical month of football.
1. Leo Messi Will Play if Living
Messi was far from sharp against Valencia, and at times was quite poor. He repeatedly lost possession on overly ambitious runs, missed the goal completely on most of his shots, botched a penalty kick, and looked downright exhausted in the second half.
Pep saw all this and left him on. Short of collapsing dead on the pitch, there is little Leo could do that would earn him a spot on the bench. Guardiola knows that even a tired Messi can still make an amazing play in the 93rd minute to seal victory. Indeed Messi’s return pass to Alves and cross-goal header to Pique could both have easily been converted. The little Argentine will be there in all of FC Barcelona’s remaining moments of import—the squad must do their best to utilize him no matter how tired he may be.
2. The Defense is in Top Form
Many culés—myself included—have clamored for some new signings to shore up an aging back line. Wednesday’s match showed that this may now be the strongest piece of FC Barcelona. Carles Puyol delivered a man-of-the-match performance on the right wing, soaring in for a majestic header goal and coming forward with a scintillating double-pirouette run in the second half.
Eric Abidal has been downright sensational over the past weeks, playing 90 hard minutes on the left flank and repeatedly beating younger attackers to the ball. His conditioning and selflessness are unmatched, and he snuffs out the most dangerous threats to Barcelona’s goal.
If anybody besides Puyol deserved a game ball from Wednesday’s match, it’s Javier Mascherano. Time after time, he came flying in from behind to break up attacks with all-out sliding tackles. He adds some serious teeth to the defense, and despite his size is quite imperious in the center. With Valencia pressing high, Mascherano also took some initiative and handily broke the pressure with direct runs up the pitch.
Finally, Piqué delivered another sturdy 90 in back, and seems to have finally put his early-season injury concerns to rest. All together Barcelona boasts a back line capable of keeping most opposing teams at bay. The question is: can the strikeforce do their job and score some goals?
3. Xavi or Iniesta Must Play
With Iniesta out with a hamstring injury and Xavi resting on the bench, Barcelona generated only a handful of legitimate scoring chances. And while strikers Alexis, Messi, and Alves were all guilty of blowing these opportunities, more chances were needed.
Cesc is a fantastic fit for Barcelona, and played one heck of a match. Thiago is a supremely gifted young player and seems destined for a glorious career in Barcelona’s midfield. But neither of these men can yet thread a through ball the way Xavi can. Neither can dribble calmly through three defenders into the box like Iniesta. Without the miniature midfield magicians, Messi is more inclined to go it alone, Busquets’ skillful turns are often for naught, and defenses are not consistently stretched or punctured.
For another couple of seasons at least, there will be no substitute for Xavi or Iniesta. For Barcelona to win big matches, one or both of these men must play, and play well.