FC Barcelona cruised to a 2-0 win over Racing Santander at El Sardinero with Lionel Messi grabbing both goals. In truth, Pep Guardiola may be disappointed that his side did not manage to convert more of their chances, but the important thing is that the gap to Real Madrid remains at 10 points, while Leo Messi kept the gap to two goals in the race for the Pichichi. In fact, with his brace here tonight, Messi has moved onto 50 goals for the season, and has become the first man to ever score 30+ goals in three consecutive seasons in La Liga. Truly astounding.
Guardiola surprised a few with his team selection, in particular how the team reverted back to the 3-4-3 for possibly the first time this year. Dani Alves, Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano were the three men at the back thanks to Gerard Pique’s suspension, although Sergio Busquets provided plenty of cover when he could. There was also a start on the right-wing for Isaac Cuenca, meaning that Cristian Tello had to settle for a place on the bench after his brace on Wednesday night.
Barcelona started well, and Pedro was looking bright cutting inside from the left-wing, nearly finding the far corner on five minutes with a curling effort. However, he couldn’t quite direct his effort on target, with the shot sailing wide at the far post. The first shot on target unsurprisingly came from the left boot of one Lionel Messi, as the Argentine forced a fine diving save from his well-taken free-kick.
The Blaugrana were combining well in the final third, but their decision-making was perhaps a little off on occasions as Cuenca and Pedro were guilty of over-elaborating when they had decent opportunities to get a shot on goal. However, they were finding joy on that left-wing, this time it was Andres Iniesta who cut inside and somewhat nonchalantly attempted to find the far top corner of Mario’s goal. The keeper could only stand and watch in disbelief as the ball clipped the bar, prompting a sigh of relief from the crowd.
Barcelona were cranking up the pressure with Cesc Fabregas also forcing Mario into action after a through ball from Lionel Messi, before the latter found the breakthrough after great work by the former. Xavi also played his part, flicking the ball over the defense to find Cesc’s run and the summer signing did well to pick out Messi with a low cross that La Pulga converted on the slide. That was Cesc’s 20th assist of the season, and I would bet my life savings that the majority of those have been to Lionel Messi.
With half an hour gone, Barca were in control as they looked to double their advantage before half-time. Andres Iniesta was playing well, and the front-line was constantly finding space, so when Iniesta worked the ball to the extra man – which happened to be Pedro this time round – Barcelona had a great chance to get their second. Unfortunately, Pedro hesitated to take the shot and by the time he did, he could only hit the side netting. Then Pedro nearly forced an own goal at the end of a very productive first half for the struggling winger as his low cross was cleared mere inches wide of the goal by Alvaro. The Blaugrana were in the lead, and looked completely in control. How many would they get in the second half?
The second half followed a pattern very similar to the first, with Barcelona dominating possession and carving out chances at will, but failing to convert many of them thanks to superb work from Racing keeper Mario. Cesc Fabregas was the first to test the Spaniard’s reactions after the interval getting off a shot on the turn, but ultimately it was never going to trouble Mario.
Barcelona did double their advantage just before the hour mark, with Lionel Messi converting a penalty after Cesc Fabregas was brought down in the area. The decision was a little harsh, but karma after some of the obvious claims that have been turned away in recent weeks. With Barcelona 2-0 up, one might have expected Racing to fall off the rails entirely, but credit to them, they stuck in there. Or should I say, they got stuck in there. Foul after foul after foul after foul. Some teams capitulate when Barca go 2-0 up, it turns out Racing just get angry.
That being said, you need to have a better plan than that to stop the Blaugrana. Despite the constant fouling, Barcelona continued to create chances, but just couldn’t find their clinical best. Isaac Cuenca was released through the middle thanks to a glorious through ball, but he was guilty of over-elaborating once again by attempting to dribble past the goal-keeper in part. Really Cuenca only succeeded in narrowing his own angle so it was no surprise when his shot rebounded off the post.
Messi was looking for his hat-trick which would have been his third consecutive triple in all competitions, but Mario was in no mood to be beaten again. Iniesta brought the ball forward on the right-hand side and squared it towards Xavi, who dummied it so Messi could drive the ball goalwards. Leo’s shot was certainly powerful, but lacked in any finesse and Mario didn’t have to move very far t block his attempt.
Cristian Tello was introduced into the fray, replacing Isaac Cuenca and he almost replicated his midweek showing, although this time his first touch ended up in the side-netting rather than the back of the net. What a disappointment! The game began to die down, but there was still time for Mario to make two further saves to deny Messi and Pedro. All in all, it was a comfortable win with a clean sheet. What more can you ask for?