FC Barcelona dispatched 10 man Valencia 2-0 on the night and 3-1 on aggregate to reach the Copa del Rey final for the second successive season and the third time in Pep Guardiola’s four year reign. Cesc Fabregas got the ball rolling with a cute chipped finish on 16 minutes before setting up Xavi for the second with 10 minutes remaining to set up a repeat of the 2009 final against Athletic Bilbao. It will be the 12th final of Guardiola’s managerial career, which works out at a staggering three per season. Bearing in mind his near perfect record in cup finals, Barcelona will be heavy favourites for the showdown in May.
Pep Guardiola surprised a few people with his team selection, with Carles Puyol favoured at right-back to Dani Alves and Isaac Cuenca starting in attack in place of Cristian Tello. However, given Valencia’s strength down the left it really was a no-brainer. Puyol would provide a stable defensive presence at right-back while accommodating Javier Mascherano in the middle. Despite a slow start, Pep did not change things around, and he was right to do so.
After Jeremy Mathieu’s through ball to Sofiane Feghouli and the Frnechman’s subsequent shot that hit the side netting the game swiftly turned in Barcelona’s favour, aided by an almost Real Madrid-esque high-line of asphyxiating pressure. That high-line of pressure was being demonstrated brilliantly by Alexis Sanchez, who chased every loose ball in the hope that Valencia would make a mistake.
The breakthrough was against the run of play, I will admit as much, but it was world class from the Blaugrana. All the way from Lionel Messi’s 40 yard diagonal lobbed through ball to Cesc Fabregas’ immaculate chip from the tightest of angles, it was pure artistry. Sure, Diego Alves was culpable for not coming out to claim the ball, and then dithering to get back in goal, but he was helpless to prevent the calm finish we have come to expect from Cesc.
From there on in, it was an uphill task for Unain Emery’s side. Barcelona slowly creeped further and further up field, and before Valencia knew it, they had no time to dwell on the ball in their own half. The defense were shaken by the goal and the pressure was really getting to them. Bostjan singled out Adil Rami for having a poor game, but in truth Victor Ruiz did not do much better.
Lionel Messi was playing well, but the criticisms (!) will remain with him, partly down to Diego Alves super-human efforts to deny La Pulga. His first real chance of the match was a powerful shot that Alves parried well, before Isaac Cuenca screwed the rebound wide. Minutes later he had another, set-up nicely by Xavi on a free-kick for a curling effort that Alves got down well to save.
Victor Ruiz then set up Cesc Fabregas with lax defensive play, but thankfully for him, Alves was equal to the shot. In essence, that summed up the first half, Valencia were lacking confidence after the early goal, but a combination of Diego Alves’ shot stopping skills and Barcelona’s profligate shooting ensured that the lead stayed at a single goal heading into the interval.
Much like the first half, Valencia started brightly in the second with Jordi Alba holding off and ultimately beating Carles Puyol for pace before Jose Pinto came to the rescue with a huge save. It has to go down as Valencia best chance of the second leg, and if Pinto had not saved the one-on-one, the outcome of the tie could have been very different.
But from that moment on, it was mostly one-way traffic again. Cuenca set up Lionel Messi with a superb reverse pass, but the Argentine just couldn’t catch a break. His shot was blocked, but spun high into the air before bouncing off the crossbar and out for a corner kick. The resulting corner was delivered towards Gerard Pique, but the elegant centre-back could only glance the ball wide.
Messi would continue in search of his goal, and after a trademark dribble where he left no less than four Valencia defenders in his trail he toe-poked a shot towards the corner, but again Diego Alves spoiled his fun by keeping it out. At this stage, Emery’s team only needed a single goal to force extra-time and possibly the lottery of a penalty shoot-out. Could they upset the odds? Lone striker Aduriz nearly equalised with a cheeky lob, but Javier Mascherano recovered to head the ball clear. It was clear that Unai Emery was missing Roberto Soldado in more ways than one, but that’s football.
Still Messi tried in vain to find a goal, and he come closest with a typical dink one-on-one with Diego Alves, but the Brazilian keeper somehow reacted quickly enough to palm it wide with his left-hand. It wasn’t Messi’s night in-front of goal, but he could do no wrong with his passing. Again he found a teammate down field, and this time it was Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean held the ball up superbly before picking out the run of Cesc Fabregas, who helped it on to Xavi. The midfield maestro was certainly looking better after his rest, and he took a touch to set up an emphatic finish into the top corner.
Just beforehand Sofiane Feghouli received a second yellow for a silly foul on Carles Puyol, and that turned out to be the game. There were late cameos from Cristian Tello and Andres Iniesta, who returned from injury, but nothing more of real note. Besides, Barcelona were in yet another final. If only they could play like this every game...
Next up is a Saturday evening trip to the Reyno de Navarra and Osasuna.
Man of the match goes to Diego Alves for his super-human/Javi Varas efforts in the Valencia goal, but a quick word on Thiago who performed excellently in defensive midfield. We know he possesses a bunch of skill, and oodles of potential, but this performance was disciplined and calculated. In fact, we didn't miss Sergio Busquets at all. That's saying a lot.