FC Barcelona displayed great character to defeat Sporting Gijon 3-1 on Saturday night, this reducing the gap to league leaders Real Madrid to seven points. The Blaugrana were far from full-strength, with Lionel Messi the most notable absence, however, with players like Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta on the field, they were still expected to dispatch Javier Clemente’s side with relative ease. Barcelona never quite got out of third gear in the first half, with Iniesta opening the scoring on 41 minutes, before Gerard Pique’s dismissal after the interval threatened to change the course of the game. The red card was harsh, but the quick-fire goal from substitute David Barral was a real kick in the teeth. Pep Guardiola responded by making a couple of attacking changes, and those changes eventually paid off, as Seydou Keita restored Barca’s lead with a superb strike. Xavi’s late chip was the icing on the cake in a match that really tested Guardiola’s side to the limits.
The main talking point before the game was the absence of Lionel Messi, although that was only the half of it. Eric Abidal, Thiago Alcantara, David Villa, Ibrahim Afellay and Andreu Fontas were also on the sidelines, and all five of those absentees could have started if fit. On top of that, Alexis Sanchez had only just returned from the USA, so had to settle for a spot on the bench. By contrast, Gijon had no such concerns. While Clemente is right in a sense that managing a big club is "easy", it also has it’s downsides as well, and this match was a real banana skin tie for the hosts. Win as expected and little more would be said, but drop points and Pep would have faced a media grilling.
Barcelona started well enough, with Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta linking superbly in a sequence of one-twos that led to an Iniesta back-heel for the run of Pedro, but before the Spaniard could roll the ball into the back of the net, the linesman had raised his flag (correctly) for offside. One goal disallowed within 10 minutes, that early chance hinted at a Blaugrana master-class, but that never quite materialised.
In truth, it never looked likely at any stage, as chances were few and far between in the first half. Adriano went on a direct surging run toward goal, but dragged his left-footed shot wide of the far corner before Dani Alves had a penalty appeal turned down. Alves was getting forward well from his usual right-back position, and when he was pushed to the turf by Galvez, I fully expected the referee to point to the spot. The push was blatant, and by no means could it ever be construed as a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge. Instead, Galvez pushed into the side of Alves with his forearm, with no intention to play the ball whatsoever. However, I guess Alves needs to be wearing white before that sort of foul is called...
That was all within the first 15 minutes, as Barcelona settled into a worrying rhythm of non-threatening possession and lax concentration when attempting the final pass. However, that possession paid off in the end, and the final ball was most definitely evident in the match’s opening goal on 41 minutes. Seydou Keita was the instigator, threading through a nice pass to Adriano, and the Brazilian full-back cut the ball back for Andres Iniesta to tap into an empty net. The finish looked easy, but replays showed that Iniesta did extremely well to keep his balance as the pass was slightly behind his stride.
Cesc Fabregas threatened to double that lead minutes later, embarking on a cute run and forcing a decent stop out of Colinas in the Gijon goal. That was the first half done and dusted, and while it was far from vintage Barcelona, it was enough.
However, after mere minutes of the second half, I wished that the first had never ended. Firstly, the referee got involved as only the Spanish officials can. Gerard Pique did make a mistake, he did foul the Gijon attacker, but the red card he received for that challenge was extremely harsh. Yes, his challenge did disrupt a goal-scoring opportunity, but there was no malice, no intent from the elegant centre back. Surely, the whole "stopping a goal-scoring opportunity" rule depends on the intention of the defender, and after the disgusting elbow that Sergio Ramos got away with last week, it really boggles the mind. An elbow to the face with intent is not a free-kick, but an innocent tangle is a free-kick and a red card? Welcome to La Liga refereeing!
Javier Clemente sensed that his prey was wounded, making a double substitution that instantly paid dividends. David Barral took the free-kick, but could only hit the wall, but seconds later, he had the ball in the net anyway. A low cross from the right-wing was defended poorly, with Seydou Keita my personal scapegoat, and Barral nicked ahead of Victor Valdes to divert the ball into the net. There was no warning, no chance for Valdes if his teammates were not going to inform him of the threat, and it all looked depressingly familiar.
Domination of possession? Check. An unfavourable scoreline? Check.
Guardiola responded by introducing Cristian Tello and Alexis Sanchez into the fray for Pedro and Cesc, but in truth, neither substitute did an awful lot. Both were bright in spells, but Pep may be disappointed that the game was won by the players already on the field rather than his impact substitutions. Seydou Keita, who was having a mixed game in the middle of the park, popped up yet again, this time to curl home an unstoppable, jaw-dropping, que golazo strike from the best part of 25 yards. Who knew he had it in him? While he was hit and miss in the holding midfield role (again), you cannot argue with his goal and assist contribution to the win. Good to have you back Seydou, just stay further forward than the anchorman role!
At this point, Guardiola reverted back to a more conventional shape by replacing Isaac Cuenca with captain Carles Puyol. There was still time for Andres Iniesta to lift a delightful through ball into the pass of his teammate Xavi, and el maestro made no mistake with his lobbed finish. That takes his tally to 12 for the season, a personal record for a legendary figure. Not bad for someone increasingly hindered with an Achilles problem.
However, the game couldn’t end on a positive note though as Alexis Sanchez pulled up holding his groin, before hobbling down the tunnel with a couple of minutes left to play. Reports suggest that the Chilean will be sidelined for 10-15 days, which means it’s pretty lucky that the Champions League game on Wednesday is effectively pointless. Alexis has become an integral part of the team, and his absence will certainly be felt around the club.
Next up is the second leg against Bayer Leverkusen, before a trip to Santander to face relegation troubled Racing. Visca el Barca!