FC Barcelona cut the gap to league leading Real Madrid down to three points with a hard-fought 4-1 win over 10 man Real Zaragoza. With Pep Guardiola opting to rest the first choice midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta for the first time since the 3-2 loss in Pamplona to Osasuna, the pressure was on the Blaugrana to secure the three points. Zaragoza were guilty of missing a few gilt-edged chances early on, including a penalty which was saved by Victor Valdes, but the hosts did take the lead through Aranda’s superb reactionary header. Barcelona were far from their best, but were allowed back in the game after Roberto dropped the ball after a corner, with Carles Puyol on hand to score the tap in. Lionel Messi put the Catalans ahead minutes later with a ferocious effort that beat the keeper at his near post, before Zaragoza’s misery was compounded with Abraham receiving a second yellow card on the stroke of half-time. The hosts fought in vain to try and snatch a point, but tired as time wore on with Lionel Messi converting a penalty after Alexis Sanchez was tripped in the area. Pedro also got himself on the score-sheet in added on time with a tap-in after superb build-up play as the final score-sheet didn’t really reflect the close nature of the 90 minute match.
As mentioned, Pep Guardiola used his squad to full effect, rotating Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, with Thiago Alcantara, Cesc Fabregas and Seydou Keita preferred in the middle of the park. There was also a start for Adriano at left-back as Carles Puyol was pushed back into the centre of the defense to cover for Gerard Pique’s absence while Alexis Sanchez and Pedro were also restored to the starting line-up as Guardiola looked to stretch the narrow Zaragoza defense.
The host created the first chance of the match, as Ruben Micael threaded a low cross into the area and the path of Aranda, but the centre-forward completely list his bearings and the ball ended up rebounded away off his heels. Apparently he was ruled offside anyway, so the goal would not have stood, but an early warning sign for Barca nonetheless.
Zaragoza were certainly making life difficult for the reigning champions, pressing high up the field and winning possession on the 14th minute, only for Javier Mascherano to make a firm but fair challenge, giving away a corner kick in the process. Maybe the pitch was playing its part as well, but this was a woeful performance from Barcelona. Lionel Messi’s quickly taken free-kick could have caused Roberto some problems, but unsurprisingly was rushed and ultimately did not test Roberto at all.
Five minutes later, Zaragoza were threatening again, with Aranda the centre of attention once more, but he failed to make the most of the through ball played to his feet, hitting the post with his shot. Thankfully, Lafita was there to pounce on the rebound, and his touch took the ball away from an on-rushing Victor Valdes. The referee duly pointed to the spot and issued the Catalan custodian a yellow card for his troubles.
Up stepped Aranda, looking to make the breakthrough for his team, but his attempt was tame and Valdes dived to his left and saved it well. Barcelona were let off again, but Aranda atoned for his error minutes later. Once again, the strong centre-forward had found some space and surging through on goal he powered a shot straight at Valdes, who could only parry it straight back for Aranda to head at goal. Puyol tried to rush across and clear it off the line, but he was too late. Zaragoza were ahead.
The Blaugrana had been lacklustre up until that point, but thankfully that goal spurred them back into life as Alexis Sanchez shot straight at Roberto with Cesc Fabregas’ attempt at the rebound blocked away for a corner kick. Messi swung a ball towards the back-post, but Roberto rushed from his line to collect the cross. Then, only he knows what happened next. Inexplicably, Roberto dropped the ball, straight at the feet of Carles Puyol, who couldn’t miss, firing home his fourth goal of the season, breaking his personal record of three goals set back with the B team in the 1997/8 season, and curiously his second of the season against Zaragoza. It was undeserved, but Barcelona were level.
Then it got a whole lot worse for the hosts as Barcelona actually took the lead. It all started with Dani Alves blocking an effort on goal with his face, and from there, Barcelona executed a near flawless counter-attack. Alexis surged forward, and did brilliantly to pick out Lionel Messi, who proceeded to go past Da Silva and smash the ball past Roberto at his near post. 2-1, advantage Barcelona.
At this point you could understand that Zaragoza were a little frustrated and Abraham should have known better than to show his anger by pulling back Alexis Sanchez for the second time of the evening, especially after he was booked for the first offense. Cue a second yellow for the ex-Barca B left-back, and Zaragoza were effectively out of the game by half-time.
The second half wasn’t as eventful as the first with the main action coming through substitutions as Seydou Keita was replaced by Sergio Busquets and Martin Montoya replaced an injured Dani Alves. Tests will be carried out on the Brazilian, but one expects that he will not be out for too long, a week at the most with any luck.
As time wore on, Barcelona capitalised on Zaragoza’s fatigue with Lionel Messi twisting and turning past three defenders before playing a delightful through ball to Pedro who sent in a first-time cross that Cesc Fabregas couldn’t quite head into the net. Thiago was guilty of missing another good chance minutes later before Alexis was brought down in the area and Lionel Messi converted from the spot for his 60th goal of the season.
With minutes left to play, Cesc Fabregas was bizarrely taken off for Xavi, and Barcelona pushed for another goal. What a goal it was. Thiago lobbed the ball to Pedro, who displayed exquisite technique to touch the ball to Messi, who in turn dribbled into the area and set up the winger with a selfless pass. Pedro was on the score-sheet, Barcelona had won and the gap was down to three points. That’s pretty good going by my reckoning at least. Onto Getafe!