It was a moment which summed up the night, hell, the season. Xavi Hernandez, surely the best midfield player on the planet at this moment in time, drifting effortlessly into space just outside the centre circle, and picking out the dynamic run in behind the demoralised Deportivo defence with the most measured of passes to put his team-mate clean through. Poetry in motion.
That would be wonderful if that team mate was Thierry Henry or Leo Messi racing clear of the defence, but in this case it was neither. It wasn’t even Samuel Eto’o or Bojan Krkic. It was the club captain. Carles Puyol. The most centre halfish of centre halves. And here he was cutting through the seventh best side in La Liga’s defence like the proverbial knife through Anchor. Frightening.
Puyol’s first touch took him slightly too close to keeper Daniel Aranzubia, but a deft touch took him beyond, until Aranzubia- out of frustration and desperation no doubt- stuck out a trailing leg to bring him down for a penalty, converted by Samuel Eto’o past stand-in keeper Juan Rodriguez to round off a 5-0 win that, if anything, flattered the visiting side immensely. The only shame from a neutral’s perspective was that the wild-haired skipper was not allowed the chance to get the goal his performance, well, his run anyway, merited. But goalscorers are goalscorers I guess, and Eto’o was never going to pass up the chance to net his 18th goal of a prolific, return-to-form, season.
Deportivo, as I mentioned, are by no means a bad side. They may not have the quality of their side of the late nineties/early noughties, with the likes of Diego Tristan, Djalminha, Fran or the phenomenal Juan Carlos Valeron, but their side is solid, well organised and in the likes of Rodolfo Bodipo & Andres Guardado, they have attacking players capable of springing a surprise. Just ask Real Madrid, who haven’t won at the Riazor in their last sixteen attempts.
All the more incredible then, was the manner in which Pep Guardiola’s side simply steamrollered their way through a side that, but for their head-to-head record with Villarreal & Atletico Madrid, would be occupying a UEFA Cup spot at the halfway stage of the season. Barça, put simply, were magnificent. On this kind of showing, there isn’t a side on earth that could live with them. Their team-wide mentality of passing, movement, effortless first touch, refusal to waste possession, and killer instinct in the penalty area is becoming almost ridiculous.
Barça have set new record number of points for the first half of a Liga season (50 from a possible 57), and are scoring at a rate of more than 3 goals per game. Since losing to Numancia in the opening league game of the season, Guardiola’s side have pretty much demolished anything unfortunate enough to get in their way, and in a style rarely seen in the modern game. Premier League observers often swoon at the thought of Arsene Wenger’s pass-and-move Arsenal side, but this side takes it to a new level.
They had opened up Depor within thirty seconds last night. Dani Alves, a right back who could lay claim to being one of the most devastatingly effective attacking players in the world right now, freeing Messi down the right, and the little magician’s cross allowed Henry to draw a smart block from Aranzubia with an instinctive first time strike from the penalty spot. Deportivo didn’t heed the warning, Eto’o jinking past four defenders cutting in from the left, before seeing his goalbound shot take a nick off a defender and slide wide of the far post. It was a matter of time before Barça opened the floodgates, and inevitably it was Messi who held the key.
For people who don’t watch La Liga, or Barcelona, it may appear that this Messi character is on the receiving end of rather too much hyperbole at the moment. After all, he is just a footballer at the end of the day. Only he isn’t, he is a genius. No player in the modern era- Cristiano Ronaldo aside- can dribble as effortlessly, at incredible pace, with the ball glued to their feet, yet still provide as consistent a final pass or shot, even in the tightest of spaces, and when usually being man marked by a hatchet-man defender as well.
His opener last night would have been stunning by anyone’s standards, by Messi’s this season it was almost expected from the moment he collected Xavi’s pass on the right touchline. Cutting inside the hapless Filipe with ease, he simply ran straight across the Depor defence on the diagonal before placing a beautifully steered left foot shot back across Aranzubia and in off the far post from the edge of the box. Andy Gray would have been applauding, Jonathan Pearce would have been exploding, Kevin Keatings on SKY simply announced “the little magician has done it again”. It said it all.
There were two further goals in the first half, Henry planting a rare headed goal past Aranzubia from a wonderfully flighted Alves cross, before Eto’o reacted first to bury a loose ball after the unfortunate keeper had kept out Seydou Keita’s flying header superbly. In between, Messi had at least shown us signs of being human by sending a free header woefully wide from eight yards, after that man Alves had again picked out a dream cross to top off a stunning run.
The second half didn’t need to be anything special; Deportivo’s players wore the look of a team that had been told at half time that they would be walking back to La Coruña in their kit, whilst Barca’s were content to stroke the ball around like a footballing Harlem Globetrotters.
Watching Xavi Hernandez in the form he is in at the moment is like watching a coaching masterclass, pass, move, receive, pass. Never wastes it, never lets the ball get away from him, never over-hits the killer ball, never telegraphs his pass. He is a joy to behold.
With Messi ahead of him looking like producing a wonder-goal every time he gets possession, Alves behind him effectively doing the job of two players, and Henry & Eto’o laying to rest the ridiculous claims that they couldn’t play together, Barca are simply unstoppable.
They picked up another couple of goals before the end of course, a slick team move eight minutes from time ending with Henry steering Xavi’s cut-back into an empty net from close range for his second of the evening, and his eleventh of the season. Then came Xavi & Puyol’s piece de résistance in the dying seconds, and Miguel Angel Lotina’s side were almost happy to get out of the Camp Nou and begin their walk home.
It is Numancia- the only side to beat them this season- next in the league for Guardiola’s men, as they look to begin the second half of the season the way they finished the first. And on this showing, you would be a fool to bet against Pep’s boys.