FC Barcelona reclaimed top spot with a routine 3-0 victory over Racing Santander at the Camp Nou on Saturday night. Despite losing Gerard Pique through injury in the early stages, Barcelona rebounded to take the lead through Lionel Messi, with Xavi scoring a header before half-time, and Messi made it three around the hour-mark. It was sensational to watch, but FC Barcelona still have room for improvement.
After Real Madrid’s victory against Real Betis just minutes prior to kick-off, FC Barcelona needed a win to reclaim top spot from their eternal rivals. Given the supposed effect of the FIFA virus, maybe tonight would be a turning point in the season?
Pep Guardiola opted for a flat back-four containing Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol, but it seemed as if Barcelona were struggling to get out of the blocks, with passes being misplaced and excessive touches being taken. The problems seemed to stack up on eight minutes as Gerard Pique was forced off with injury to be replaced by Eric Abidal, who has injury problems of his own. Racing were enjoying more of the ball than normal, and threatened with a couple of crosses, but Dani Alves was on hand to defend both.
I thought FC Barcelona needed to wake up, and boy did they respond. Lionel Messi stood on the edge of the area with nigh on every Racing defender in front of him. Then, Andres Iniesta ghosted behind the blockade of white shirts; Messi fed him the ball, and searched for the return, which Iniesta duly delivered. Then, Messi darted in between two Santander players leaving the goalkeeper in his way, and well, a quick swivel of the hips sorted that out allowing La Pulga to finish from a tight angle.
A mere minute had passed and Messi nearly had his second, but his shot was blocked after a cut-back from David Villa. Pape Diop was booked for an ill-timed challenge on Andres Iniesta shortly after, but Barcelona continued to search for the second.
Pedro received the ball on the left flank and tried a stepover, taking the ball away from the Racing defense if only for a fraction of a second. That short time was sufficient for Pedro to hang a cross into the box, and of all people Xavi was there to meet it, rising superbly to bury the header past Tono. It was a second for Barcelona, who were displaying a clinical side to their game.
David Villa found Pedro on a break-away after the half-hour mark, and the winger cut inside from the left, but his shot was deflected wide, with Messi agonizingly close to sliding the ball into the empty net. The Blaugrana were rampant, with Xavi playing a fine pass behind the Racing back-line to Pedro, and his cross was fizzed into the area but was just behind Carles Puyol, and the captain could not capitalise on the rare chance that fell his way.
Then, Lionel Messi reminded us all of his world-class vision playing a simply sublime slide-rule pass behind Racing to David Villa, and while El Guaje rounded the goalkeeper; he could not finish from a tight angle.
Barca would have to settle for a two-goal lead at the break, but they appeared to be under no threat, and it was simply a question of how many the Catalans wanted to score. Considering the 18 goals they put past the three previous Camp Nou opponents, the scoring was not over.
On the restart Racing Santander threatened through Kone, who executed a fine turn and shot, and Valdes did spill, but no-one would capitalise, and this would be the only chance Racing could muster.
Xavi had a shot deflected for a corner kick on the 52 minute mark, and usually this would go unnoticed. Turns out, the corner was a little bit special. Xavi fizzed a pass direct to Dani Alves who was standing on the right wing. Alves sent it right back to the left-hand side and to Lionel Messi who played a wall pass with Pedro. The Spaniard chipped the ball over the Racing defense and Messi hit it on the half-volley, aiming for the near post, but Tono saved his effort. It was a corner kick: FC Barcelona style.
The build-up play was mesmeric; while Lionel Messi displayed numerous counts of control direct from another dimension. Carles Puyol was chasing every ball down as if his life depended on it, it was a team effort that formed a work of art. Best part? This isn’t even the peak.
Messi was denied countless penalty appeals, no matter how blatant the foul committed, but it would be La Pulga who would have the last laugh.
Roughly 30 yards from goal, Messi blasted a through ball, directing it towards Andres Iniesta. Fresh from injury, one would expect Iniesta to be a little "off". Not a chance; Andres controlled the pass with his first touch, and despite being sandwiched between two Racing defenders he juggled (yes, juggled) the ball through the challenges and let fly with a left-footed volley which rebounded off the post straight to Messi, and the end result was a third Barcelona goal.
It was Lionel Messi’s SIXTEENTH goal of the season and when you factor in his nine assists, the guy has contributed 25 goals in 12 games. Words escape me when faced with a stat like this.
It was a shame he could not finish with a hat-trick, which would have been his third in succession at the Camp Nou in La Liga. The record books are being rewritten, and it’s all gone a bit Messi.
Eric Abidal nearly made it four in the last five minutes with an audacious bicycle kick, but Barcelona could "only" muster three, taking their total to 21 goals in 4 Camp Nou matches. It was not the best Blaugrana performance, but it was far too much for Racing Santander.
Man of the match must be Lionel Messi, but a whole heap of credit must go to Maxwell who was faultless in the left-back role, Andres Iniesta too must get credit for playing so well on return from injury, and finally Carles Puyol is most certainly back to top form. It is a fine time to be a culé.
Viktoria Plzen are the next "victims" on Wednesday night, and Sevilla too must visit the Camp Nou next Saturday. Visca el Barca!