Assessing Barcelona's 3-1 Liga Performance over Zaragoza
Barcelona continued their impressive start to the La Liga season with but another routine victory at the Camp Nou over 11th-placed Zaragoza.
The victory takes Tito Vilanova's men to 34 points at the top of the table, reflective of an incredible record start of 11 victories and a draw from their opening 12 fixtures.
Lionel Messi continued his record-breaking scoring run delightfully by finishing off a move in the sixteenth minute to put Barca ahead early, but Zaragoza struck back quickly through Paco Montañes. Indeed, the Aragonese were to put up an excellent fight all night long, defending well and threatening in attack.
Messi, however, would weave more magic and set up Alex Song for his maiden goal in the blue and claret, before scoring himself with a long-range effort in the second half.
Importantly, Carles Puyol started his first game in more than a month, characteristically returning early from that horrific arm injury sustained against Benfica.
The likes of Song, Montoya and Bartra also played valuable minutes as they seek to further impress their new boss.
Jordi Alba (Rating: 8.5)
The Spanish international is in a rich vein of form, and few could argue that he is not the best attacking fullback in the world right now. He started brightly with his typical marauding runs down the left flank and continued to run all day.
Alba finished with an incredible 132 touches, the most of any player, displaying why he is such an effective outlet when his side is in possession. Indeed, most of Barca's play went down the left, testament to Alba's influence. He assisted Messi for the first goal, after creating perhaps an even better opportunity in the opening minutes.
Despite being arguably Barca's most threatening player, however, Alba did not shun his defensive duties and impressively finished with seven interceptions, also the most of any player.
Xavi (Rating: 8.5)
Clearly Xavi enjoyed his week off international duty. El Maestro played with a refreshing vigour and masterfully dominated play in midfield.
As usual, his passing was sharp, but his movements on the ball and dribbling to escape markers truly showcased his astounding ability. The Camp Nou roared time and time again as he twisted and turned in the middle of the park, leaving the likes of Apoño and Movilla in his wake.
His performance tonight brings him to an incredible 1,107 passes for the season.
Lionel Messi (Rating: 9)
The Argentine squandered an early opportunity, but with two goals and an assist to boot, there is little room for criticism here. Messi was not as consistently influential as he often is. The simple fact is that it only takes a few moments of brilliance to change a game, and he provided three.
His first touch before finishing the first goal, a move that he had started himself, was impeccable. His run, beating three defenders in the box, was inspiring, and his awareness to cut the ball back to Song showed class. Finally, when it looked like nothing was on, he fired a beautiful curling shot from outside the area into Roberto's net.
Messi now has 22 goals and eight assists in all games this season. Incredible numbers...
Player Watch: Puyol and Pique
Once arguably the best central defensive pairing in the world, the two World Cup winners have not played together consistently for a long time now. In fact, they have only played together three times in the league this season, with Barca winning all three matches.
Defensive Problems of Late
Undoubtedly, there is a correlation between Barca's inconsistent defensive personnel and their poor defensive performances. Incredibly, the Catalans have conceded the same number of goals in the league (15) as nineteenth-placed Osasuna, a team on just nine points.
While Mascherano has done a commendable job the past two seasons in the centre-back role, his form of late has been poor and riddled with errors. Thus, Pique and Puyol have returned at just the right time.
Puyol's presence was clear as he marshalled a defensive line that showed signs of good organisation for one of the first times this season.
Of course, the captain was a bit rusty in his first game back, occasionally making poor challenges. Indeed, he should also have cleared the ball at the near post in the play that led to the two corners and inevitably Zaragoza's only goal.
Encouragingly, however, El Capitán looked frustrated at being subbed, indicative of his current hunger for football.
Pique also showed his class, covering his senior partner carefully. The 25-year-old reads the game superbly and defended with typical composure. A beautifully timed tackle in a one-on-one situation late on perfectly displayed why Pique is regarded so highly when at his best.
Records in Sight
Messi Closing In on Muller
Lionel Messi's two goals last night take him to an astounding 78 goals in the calendar year, just seven shy of Gerd Muller's 85-goal benchmark for club and country back in 1972.
The Argentine could potentially play eight more games with Barcelona before the year ends. At this rate, Messi should be short odds to surpass Muller's record.
Best Start in La Liga of All Time?
With 11 wins and a draw, Barca are just one win away from equalling the record of the best La Liga start of all time. In 1991-92, Real Madrid took 12 wins and a draw from their first thirteen matches.
Interestingly, Barca went on to win the league that year despite Los Blancos' excellent early form. Perhaps that experience should serve as a healthy reminder that the league is yet to be won.
Barca Will Only Get Stronger
If there is one thing we can be certain of despite the record-breaking start of the Catalans, it is that there is plenty of room for improvement in Barca's game.
Defensively, Barca have been poor; anyone could point that out. A solid central pairing is a fundamental foundation stone for any good team, and in Pique and Puyol, Tito Vilanova has a tried and tested combination. Further, Alba looked a lot more comfortable defensively alongside the experienced Puyol, rather than the brash Mascherano.
The injury situation has been unfortunate for Barca, but for the first time in a long time, Barca fans could see their preferred first 11 getting consistent game time. Indeed, David Villa continues to find his feet.
The Iniesta Effect
Finally, while Andres Iniesta has not been in bad form, he has bizarrely only started in five La Liga matches. The MVP of Euro 2012 has clearly not yet settled into match rhythm this season.
While Cesc Fabregas has acquitted himself superbly in recent weeks, Iniesta's influence on Barca's game has been lacking. He adds a delightful fluidity to their football, drifting between the lines and connecting play, and his understanding with Messi is unparalleled.
Today he struggled to produce his very best, but we did get a taste of what we have been missing at times this season.
All stats courtesy of FCB.com and WhoScored.com.
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