Barcelona endured a frustrating return to action in La Liga as they were held at Camp Nou by Villareal yesterday evening. The hosts enjoyed a wonderful 2009, culminating in Leo Messi’s extra-time winner in Abu Dhabi which disposed of Estudiantes and secured the World Club Championship, but their first match of 2010 was muted by comparison.
The Argentinian was sorely missed, although Barca shot out of the blocks and notched the opener on 7 minutes. Dani Alves crossed for Thierry Henry, who swivelled and unleashed a thunderous volley from 12 yards which canonned off the crossbar. Pedro was able to control the ball and drill past Diego Lopez into the bottom corner for 1-0.
In Messi’s absence, there was more emphasis on the roles of Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic although the duo produced very different performances. The former looked especially menacing in the first period for the hosts and caused all sorts of problems for Javi Venta whenever they located him, particularly with piercing, cross-field passing leaving the pair one-on-one. The latter, by contrast, was somewhat anonymous.
Despite the early setback, in a story synonymous with their campaign so far, Villareal grew into the game.
Their bold 4-3-3 formation allowed Barcelona’s defensive triumvirate of custodian Victor Valdes, Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique very little freedom to do what they wanted with the ball without being closed down.
The Yellow Submarine had opted to leave Guiseppe Rossi on the bench – with that went their most prolific man and they might have regretted it as they fashioned the clearer opportunities of the match. The best of the first-half undoubtedly fell to David Fuster, who was found by a wonderfully flighted cross that he proceeded to head into the turf. Unfortunately for him, the trajectory of the header saw it bounce up and clear the crossbar with Valdes stranded.
The visitors also had a couple of notable penalty appeals – firstly Alves making contact with Marcano in the box although it appeared minimal. As a result, several of the home players were quick to voice their disdain to the referee, an unfortunate aspect of their game which culminated in Puyol being booked later in the half as the Catalan crowd grew slightly restless.
Just prior to the break came the second shout from Villareal and it was a lot stronger than the previous one.
Nilmar bore down on goal from an angle and, with Valdes slightly exposed, Puyol barged the Brazilian off the ball. The naked eye and replays suggested the defender took none of it and a lot of the striker but the referee saw it as a shoulder charge and dismissed the claims.
The reigning champions, while far from their best, were not without chances of their own. Henry was brought down by Venta and Ibrahimovic, the subject of speculation linking him with his old boss Roberto Mancini at Manchester City this week, could only blast the resulting free-kick wide from the angle of the 18-yard-box.
Henry was once again in benevolent mood, causing problems down the left and teeing up the Swede in the box but, as the former Inter man could only strike wide again, he must have been somewhat relieved to see the referee’s assistant’s flag raised.
Villareal’s coach, the former Barcelona man Ernesto Valverde, would have been relatively pleased with their showing, finishing aside, and must have drilled this into his troops at the interval.
Only 3 minutes into the second-half parity was restored – although it didn’t come before Fuster was again guilty of profligacy as he was played in before blasting over from a good position. This time, however, get the chance to make amends for the two glaring misses within a minute.
Nilmar went at the defence in the box but his shot was blocked, the ball falling to Cani who looped a cross into the box and there was Fuster at the back post to hammer a volley into the bottom corner for 1-1.
Although Barca sporadically threatened danger, the visitors were very good value for the scoreline and Pep Guardiola introduced the talismanic Andres Iniesta with just over half an hour left, replacing Jonathan.
The substitute breathed some life into Barca; some good work from Pedro on the flank provided him with the ball on the edge of the box but he could only miscontrol and then scuff his attempt, while soon after he brought a good save from Lopes courtesy of a curling effort from similar distance.
Within a minute, Villareal had countered and forced a corner which was symptomatic of both teams’ approach at this stage and the pace of the game made for fascinating viewing. It was wonderfully poised on the hour and there for the taking.
Valverde replaced Cazorla with Escudero and, in a telling statement of intent, brought Rossi into the fray with a quarter of an hour remaining.
The hosts were still pressing as they rallied in search of the winner. Xavi found Henry in space on the left but he could only force a corner with a deflected effort, while Pique saw his effort meet the same fate in a heavily congested penalty area. Of course, despite a frustrating night which ended with him being lucky to stay on the field, Ibrahimovic is always capable of a flash of inspiration and his best piece of play was working space well on the edge of the box but, much to his consternation, he could only fire his effort wide of the target.
A similar source of frustration for Guardiola was Marcano’s wonderful interception of Xavi’s through ball with 5 minutes left, for had it not been telegraphed then Henry would have been in a one-on-one with Lopez from a very promising, central position.
Yet for all of that pressing, it was the men from El Madrigal who almost provided the sting in the tail on 87 minutes as Senna released Rossi in the box with a perceptive, lofted pass. The Italian glanced the ball beyond Valdes but Puyol was on hand to clear with the ball heading for the net.
In truth, the visitors had the better of the opportunites all evening and, though they have not resumed with a win, for Barcelona it could have been worse as neither side could ultimately find the winner.