Match Review: FC Barcelona vs. Athletic Club or:
How I learned to stop worrying and love the club. Things seemed dire before the match, third place in La Liga, one foot out of the Copa del Rey, but let’s conveniently forget to talk about Champions League play and the Lionel Messi free kick in San Mamés. It took three perfect works of art to change everything back to normal for the club. A three to one victory in Camp Nou not only sees FC Barcelona progress to the next round and silence numerous doubters, but also remind the world of the three exquisite match winning forwards the club possesses.
This match started out much differently than the one a week ago. Barcelona was a step faster, their first touch more controlled, and obviously their finishing much more deadly. The only changes made to the squad that started the first leg were Jasper Cillessen in net and Rafinha replaced Ivan Rakitić on the right side of the midfield. Athletic Club’s press wasn’t as strong as the first match as Jasper and the entire backline found it much easier to find the midfield. In the third and sixth minutes Luis Suaréz was wrongly called offside while putting chances on goal. Next in the 26th minute Andrés Iniesta slid a brilliant ball to Neymar who drove into the box. A simple pass to Luis was followed by a simple finish. Neymar was wrongly called offside. Fans are beginning to wonder if the refereeing curse is real.
In the 36th minute doubts began to drift away. Neymar found Messi who was able to wrestle past three defenders. He returned the ball to Neymar on the left channel as he dribbled into the box. His lovely lofted cross found Suaréz on the right side of the box, and he proceeded to scissor kick the ball brilliantly into the corner of the net.
The play was a microcosm of everything good about Barcelona and especially the Uruguayan. Messi’s vision found Neymar, Neymar’s technique found Suaréz, and Suaréz’s body control found the back of the net, his 100th for the club. When things aren’t going well for him, he and his first touch look like if an amateur Quantum Leaped into his body. When things are going right his hold up play is first class, his passes always find their mark no mater how audacious, his feints and dummies always come off, and most importantly every shot goes in.
In the first attack of the second half, Samuel Umtiti sent a nice ball to Neymar on the left wing. He dribbled with a beautiful drag to his left and found himself being fouled right inside the box. He stepped up to the spot to attempt the penalty kick. Before the match Neymar hadn’t scored for the club since October. Neymar took a slow run up to the spot and began a stutter step two meters away. He waited longer than anyone could stomach but buried the ball into the left side of the net.
The beautiful part of the goal wasn’t the penalty itself but the dribble that led to it. Neymar controlled the long ball easily and in a flash was driving the baseline towards goal. HIs first touch brought him into the box and his second brought him the penalty. When he is in form the only way to stop his dribble is to bring him down.
In the 51st minute the club suffered their only dark spot of the night. Gorka Elustondo picked up the ball and brushed past Jordi Alba after he blocked an attempted pass from Inaki Williams. Elustondo sent a lovely cross into the back post that Enric Saborit headed in for a goal. Sergi Roberto did not mark him allowing for a free header. Both full backs were at fault but both had decent games otherwise. Alba in particular was very dangerous on the overlap.
In the 77th minute Luis earned a foul just outside the box. The entire world knew who was about to take the free kick. in the match he had missed his previous two direct kick attempts on goal, but in his previous two matches he sent two balls into the back of the net from similar positions with classic strikes. Messi fooled everyone, but most importantly Gorka Iraizoz as he went to the keeper’s strong side. He sent a diamond of a shot just above a ducking Gerard Piqué that hit the bottom of the right post before going in. This made it three games and three goals from free kicks for the Argentine maestro.
The match finished three to one although could have been more as Neymar made a vicious drive in on the goal and hit the post, Suaréz missed a chance on an open net from an acute angle, and Denis Suaréz missed a sitter. Umtiti stood out not only when dominating aerial duels but more importantly while finding Iniesta again and again. Andrés drifted through the match creating space and chance after chance. Rafinha was very mobile in his midfield role and brought a different energy to the side. Sergio Busquets played his pivot role well. The club needs to move forward by getting the ball to the forwards. They showed they are a dominate force in the world of football.