In a rather dull game, FC Barcelona defeated RCD Espanyol 1-0 in the Derbi Català at the Camp Nou on Friday night.
Victor Valdes made a big save in the 36th minute when he made the stop on Victor Sanchez's shot from close range. Close to halftime, Andres Iniesta took a long-range shot, but Kiko Casilla was there for the save. Soon after, Dani Alves took a good shot toward goal, but the ball hit the post, saving Espanyol.
Alexis Sanchez got the lone goal in the 68th minute as a beautiful pass from Neymar-the pass nut-megging two Espanyol players along the way-found Sanchez and the Chilean put in his seventh goal of the La Liga season. Late in the game, Pedro had a good shot at goal in the 89th minute, but again, Casilla came up with a good save. Espanyol tried to make a late run, but Barcelona was able to hang on for the 1-0 win.
Let's take a look at the Best, Worst, and What We Learned from this game.
The Best: Alexis and Neymar
For years now, we Culés have been complaining that we need to see the wingers step up and help Leo Messi in goal-scoring. Alexis, Pedro, Cristian Tello, and, back then, David Villa, have been criticized for not scoring enough goals for El Blaugrana.
But with the addition of Neymar, and the rise of Alexis Sanchez, we are finally seeing the day that the wingers are creating plays, setting up and scoring goals more often. Neymar has been the signing of the season in La Liga, and the offense has slowly but surely begun to go through him. It's not that Messi has lost a step; it's that Neymar at the wing has been leading to more one-on-one chances with defenders rather than Messi being surrounded by two CBs and one midfielder. Neymar now leads La Liga in assists with seven. Neymar is the player from Europe's top-5 leagues with most assists (26) for club and country in 2013 (via @BarcaStat). Grande Neymar!
Alexis' confidence is at an all-time high. The Chilean simply cannot be stopped. Alexis now has seven league goals this season. Did you know (via ESPN): Alexis has now scored 7 goals in 12 Liga rounds this season. Last season, he scored his first Liga goal in the 23rd Liga round. He's seemingly at the right place at the right time on the pitch, something we didn't see very much of in his first two seasons at Barcelona. Give Tata Martino credit for working with Sanchez, and helping him reach this great form he's in.
With Messi not scoring goals recently, it's been great to know that this team finally has the wingers that can consistently create plays, have confidence, and can score goals. I'm not trying to disrespect Pedro or Cristian Tello with my previous statement. It's just that Neymar and Alexis have carried this team for a few games now, and it seems the on-the-pitch chemistry between Alexis and Neymar keeps getting stronger. If this was one or two seasons ago, Barcelona would probably be in third place in the Liga table by now because of "Messidependencia" when it comes to goal-scoring. This FC Barcelona team still revolves around Messi's actions, and that's not going to change for a while. Until Messi hangs up his boots, there will always be some sort of Messidependencia. But this season is showing us that Neymar and Alexis are moving this team a bit closer to ending Messidependencia as far as goal-scoring goes. Messi still dictates what happens on the pitch, but Leo doesn't need to carry the burden of scoring all the goals for Barcelona by himself. The team now has the best young footballer in the world in Neymar, and a rejuvenated Alexis Sanchez to help.
The Worst: Trying to figure out if Barça was tired or just plain bad
This game was slow and rather dull to say the least. I'm not sure if Barcelona was just poor overall, or if they were just tired from playing three games in one week. The team was unable to finish the execution when it came to goal-scoring (minus Neymar's play to Alexis) against Espanyol. Barcelona can get away with this with most of the Liga teams, but good luck trying to pull this off in the Champions League. While I do think this team is running on tired legs, this majority of these players have seen a week like this before. This team didn't even leave Spain, so unlike other long weeks where they have had to travel out to other countries in Champions League play, the flight to Vigo and back was the only trip they made-not very far. Then again, it's easy for me to say all of this, right? Easier said than done.
And yes, I know Lionel Messi hasn't scored in a while. It's not like he's not trying to score goals. Relax, folks. He'll be fine.
Overall, I think it was a combination of tiredness and bad play, plus a dash of solid Espanyol defending that lead to Barcelona's performance on Friday. After the game, Tata Martino talked about the team's recent schedule. "We're playing that often, that this team is solving a 'crisis' every 3-4 days. We have 9 points in 6 days, winning two classics."
I guess I shouldn't complain too much, right?
By the way: Dani Alves had a terrible game. Almost all of his crosses where a disaster. Let's hope it was just a one-game thing.
What We Learned: This was a long, yet good week to test Barcelona for future long, tough weeks ahead.
I can't help but feel that this past week is a good test run for Barcelona for future long, tough weeks ahead. The Copa del Rey is coming up, and Tata will have to step up the rotation. Martin Montoya, Sergi Roberto, and Marc Bartra will all need to be given more playing time. Jordi Alba is expected to be back by the end of the month as well. Messi will need to be rested a bit more as well. As much as I love seeing Leo out on the pitch, Messi needs his rest. Leo can play all 90 minutes in two or three straight games in November, but he really shouldn't be doing the same in March and April. Same rule goes for Andres Iniesta and a few others. They need rest-even if it's just 20 minutes of substitution rest. In this case, less is more to ration energy and strength.
Remember, Barcelona will have tough weeks ahead when Liga games, Copa games, and Champions League games will be just a few days apart from each other on the schedule. The Copa del Rey tournament runs through February, with the final held in May. So, from late November through February, Barcelona will have weeks like this past week where two, maybe three games, will be played in a span of seven days. By April, the players' legs will have experienced wear and tear from the many games played during the previous months. I can't help but think of the past two seasons in late March and April when Barcelona has struggled toward the end of their Champions League run. I'm not worried about La Liga, but if this team wants to make a deep run in the Champions League, rotation, endurance, continued training, will, and unselfishness will matter.
What's Next?: Wednesday vs. Milan
With a Friday game past them, Barcelona will get a bit more rest until their next game as AC Milan will come to the Camp Nou in Champions League groups stage play on Wednesday. This could be the game Carles Puyol makes his first home start in Champions League action since returning to full health. Pedro may start at RW to mix things up, but still, it's tough to keep a hot Alexis Sanchez on the bench. Cesc Fàbregas is expected to start since he rested for most of the Espanyol game.
Xoel's Final Word
In a rather slow game, FC Barcelona were able to get all three points and defeat RCD Espanyol with a 1-0 score line thanks to a bit of Neymar & Alexis magic. El Blaugrana get to rest and get ready for AC Milan at the Camp Nou this Wednesday.
All in one week.
FC Barcelona shuts up Real Madrid, cruised past Celta de Vigo, and reminds Espanyol there is only one football king of Catalunya.
Not bad, boys. Not bad at all.
Xoel, The Voice of FC Barcelona