El Centrocampista

UN CRIT VALENT – Barcelona defeat Sporting against all odds

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AFP PHOTO/LLUIS GENE

Cries of “Guardiola, Guardiola” rang out from the Camp Nou, and that was before Andres Iniesta unlocked the Sporting defense for Xavi to dink home Barcelona’s third. Make no mistake about it, though the 3-1 final score in Barça’s favour might not suggest it, this was as hard fought a victory as the one wrestled from Atlético last week, if not more so.

Sporting Gijón turned up at the Camp Nou and parked what one Catalan commentator for RAC1 aptly called a “quadruple decker bus”. The Asturians started with five at the back in theory, but at one stage there were at least six in a line facing the Barcelona attack. Football optimists like to think such negativity is rarely rewarded, but it often is and very nearly was tonight.

Though Barcelona were a goal ahead courtesy of Andres Iniesta in the first half,  Gerard Pique was sent packing in the first of a series of questionable refereeing decisions that will dominate the headlines tomorrow. Soon after, Sporting equalised in a moment of madness, and things looked to be going horribly wrong for Barcelona and Guardiola.

Booking after booking was soon handed out to Barcelona players, with the rationale varying from questionable to ridiculous, whilst at the same time their opponents regularly escaped second yellow cards for less. Whilst the suggestion that referees favour any one team in the leage remains, at least to me, ridiculous, there was no doubt about it tonight: the referee had a howler.

That would have been the overarching theme of the day had it not been for one man: Andres Iniesta. The little genius looked intent on grabbing the game by the cullons in the second half, and by the end he had more than succeeded. Cesc Fabregas was chosen to play in the Messi ‘false nine’ role tonight, but Iniesta was unquestionably the closest thing to Messi and the star of the show. Indeed, Fabregas was withdrawn early in the second half and Barcelona looked better for it. It wasn’t Cesc’s night. In fact, it was probably his worst since returning to Catalunya.

As for Don Andres, the way in which the midfield genius reacted tonight should be of no surprise. He is, after all, a big game player. Just ask Chelsea. Or Holland. Iniesta frequently dribbled his way out of a seemingly impossible position such as when hugging the touchline and surrounded by three opponents, then somehow escaped into a yard of space to lay off a perfect pass.

With Barça a man down Iniesta was vital in both maintaining and making the best use of possession (not to mention scoring the opener), and should Barcelona by some miracle get anything out of this league now, they might as well deliver the trophy straight to his door.

On the subject of the league, a new theme is emerging: that of Barcelona clawing victory from the grasps of a draw (which after all, in this league, is a defeat). We saw it last week against Atlético, and we certainly saw it tonight at the Camp Nou.

With this in mind, do we really think that Pep Guardiola has told his own players what he told the press last week, that “the league is gone”?

For the answer, look back to 1992 where Johan Cruyff, with five games left in the season, told the press “we have already lost [the league]”. In the days that followed, Barcelona won their first European Cup  and soon after produced a brutal winning streak that coincided with a catastrophic Madrid slip-up, handing Barcelona their second consecutive league title.

In Guardiola’s case, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and the philosophy of Johan Cruyff reared its head yet again tonight. It will continue to do so until the bitter end. Without jumping the gun, it seems Pep’s motivational tactics are paying off. Barcelona have got their balls back.




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