Barcelona started 2012 as they ended 2011; with a thumping victory in the Copa del Rey. Osasuna were no match for the Catalans as a brace from Cesc Fabregas was matched by a double for Lionel Messi, even if the Argentine didn't make the starting XI. In truth, it was an easy win for the Blaugrana and Pep Guardiola will be satisfied with the four goal advantage heading into next week’s return leg knowing that he can afford to rest a few key individuals.
Guardiola opted for the 3-4-3, but it was not without a few surprises. The back-line was relatively straight-forward as Javier Mascherano replaced Eric Abidal compared to the "strongest" defense, while Dani Alves took up position on the right-wing. This meant that both Isaac Cuenca and Pedro assumed a slot on the left-hand side, thus allowing Cesc Fabregas space to attack through the middle. Xavi, Thiago and Sergio Busquets completed the midfield, although no-one got off to a great start.
Perhaps they were suffering from the "Christmas Hangover" that afflicted Real Madrid, but Barcelona were a little sluggish in the first 5-10 minutes, giving possession away cheaply when faced with a high line of Osasuna pressure. An early free-kick could have caused more problems for Pinto than it eventually did, but equally Osasuna didn’t look quite prepared for this match. The signs were there, even as Barcelona tried to find their feet, with Dani Alves allowed to cut inside and take a shot on goal.
There was no challenge, little pressure; Osasuna were fortunate that Alves dragged the shot wide. Minutes later, Alves could do the same, cutting inside from the right he played the ball to Xavi. The legendary midfielder took his time to assess the situation, drawing Osasuna defenders in as though he had them under some sort of hypnosis before seeking out the free man which happened to be Cesc Fabregas. Receiving the ball on the left-hand side of the penalty area he had all the time (and space) in the world to slide the ball past Asier Riesgo for the opening goal.
Barcelona were finding their groove, slotting into top gear while Osasuna looked a little shaken by the events unfolding before their eyes. Xavi again was the catalyst, looking in one direction, passing in the other, again to Cesc Fabregas. Then we get to the finish. Fabregas was free on the edge of the area, but time was of the essence. If he took too long to get the ball from out of his feet, he would have been dispossessed, so naturally, he pulled off the spectacular. With the swing of his right boot he lifted the ball over Riesgo and into the top left corner of the net. It was his 13th of the season; both the goal tally and the finish hint that there is plenty more to come.
Osasuna were completely bemused by this point, and understandably so. They came to the Camp Nou hoping to participate in a game of football, not some one-sided exhibition by the Catalans. Barcelona began to create chances at will, Carles Puyol even had an effort saved; they were that dominant. Full credit to Asier Riesgo for keeping the score down at this point, as another goal could have opened the floodgates.
The pick of the bunch was Alves’ cheeky attempt at another lob, although Riesgo was equal to that, and many other shots on goal. Xavi ended the half with a dangerous free-kick that only just crept over the bar, Barcelona were back, and then some.
The second half started without any changes both in terms of substitutions or the flow of the game. Mere minutes after the restart Cesc found himself sending a low cross along the six-yard box when he could have tried for his hat-trick, but it was the selfless approach that impressed. Isaac Cuenca was very unlucky not to win a penalty after a clumsy tackle from Damia which may or may not have been outside the box, but the referee was unconvinced and signalled for a goal kick.
At 2-0, things appeared comfortable, but then we saw the introduction of Lionel Messi. Replacing Pedro just before the hour mark, it was a wonder he got on the pitch at all given his reported bout of the flu, but I couldn’t see anything wrong with the little genius. His dribbling was flawless, work-rate phenomenal and his link-up play was staggering. Combining for a one-two with Alves after escaping from a seemingly impossible situation, Messi dinked the ball over Riesgo, it deserved to fall into the corner, but spun wide.
But he couldn’t be stopped for long. Taking a free-kick from 20 yards out, his effort was blocked and Carles Puyol forced a fine reaction save for the corner kick. The corner looked to have been cleared, but Barcelona kept possession on the side of the area, and eventually the ball found its way to Fabregas. Cesc weighted a delightful ball up at the backpost, and despite his dwarfish stature it was Lionel Messi who climbed highest to power home a header. Barcelona were 3-0 up and coasting.
Alexis Sanchez was brought on in place of Cuenca on the restart of play, and he too had a positive impact on proceedings. The Blaugrana worked the ball across the box to the Chilean via some magnificent build-up play, and Sanchez rather unselfishly sent it back across the goal towards the run of Messi. Riesgo reacted superbly to deny the Argentine, but from a Barca standpoint, the cross was sublime by Alexis.
It looked as though Barcelona were going to see out the remaining time with the three goal lead, but Xavi played the ball to Messi on the edge of the box, and when Osasuna failed to close him down, therefore enabling Leo to work it onto his favoured left foot there was only one outcome. Messi duly curled it into the far corner for his 31st (!) of the season, Barcelona’s 99th of the campaign.
The Blaugrana are back, and as good as ever.
Man of the match goes to Xavi for his hat-trick of assists, although credit to Cesc for his brace and single assist, and obviously Messi for just being Messi. Next up is a potential banana skin trip to Espanyol for the Derbi! Visca el Barca!