Barcelona vs. Malaga: 6 Points to Analyze
In the most-awaited tie of the weekend, Barcelona comfortably beat a Malaga team that started the matchday in fourth position in La Liga.
With goals by Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara, Barcelona finished the first round of fixtures in the league a whooping 18 points ahead of archrivals Real Madrid. Malaga’s Diego Buonanotte scored a consolation goal in the final minutes to make it 3-1.
The two teams will face each other in the King’s Cup in just three days time, in the meantime, here are six points we can take from the game at La Rosaleda.
Tito Vilanova’s Barca Is Just as Good as Pep’s
When Pep Guardiola announced that he would not be coaching Barcelona during the 2012-13 season, many believed it was the end of an era. Despite general approval of the replacement by the club, announced at the very same press conference, few would have bet on Tito Vilanova taking Barca to these heights.
Winning the game against Malaga meant that Barcelona have now completed the entire first round of fixtures unbeaten. The only time they dropped points was a draw against Real Madrid at the Camp Nou.
This means that Tito Vilanova has overseen the best start a team has ever made in the Spanish league, with an incredible tally of 55 out of 57 possible points.
When Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona set that record just two years ago, he must have thought no other team could come anywhere near it for years to come.
In a week where mentor and disciple were spotted together in New York City, Guardiola will have been proud that his friend has proved him wrong.
Malaga Deserve Their Spot in the League and UCL
Despite losing the match, Malaga proved they have what it takes to compete at the highest level, in case their performance in the UCL this season had left any doubts.
During the first half-hour of the game, they showed they were not afraid of playing Barcelona at their own game. Pressing high up the pitch and leaving no time for the Blaugrana to build their attacks, they were equal, if not slightly better, than the Catalan giants.
A shocking mistake by Ignacio Camacho, who effectively assisted Messi with his back pass, was the only thing that made Malaga crumble. It was particularly cruel for Willy Caballero, who had shown why he is top of the goalkeeper rankings with some excellent saves and decision making.
After the goal, Malaga’s spirits were understandably down, and Barcleona were able to put their mark on the game, as they have done against top teams across the continent. If their defeat of Madrid hadn’t been enough, Malaga have proved to future opponents that travelling to La Rosaleda is no easy task.
Barcelona Are Reaching Their Peak at the Right Moment
Barcelona’s display Sunday was something more than just a routine victory, as we have become accustomed to see week in, week out.
The incredible run of results this season from Vilanova’s team had not always been matched by the performances that are now expected of this set of players. Barcelona were winning games, but in many cases they lacked the fluidity and suffocating dominance that was their trademark for the last four years.
However, in recent weeks it would seem they were edging closer to this ideal, and Sunday, against a top team, they proved they are at their best again.
A few passages of play demonstrated that, with Malaga chasing shadows for several minutes without getting even a whisk of a touch on the ball. In the second half, a dozen passes in as many seconds, played between Messi, Xavi and Sergio Busquets in the middle of the field, were indicative of their dominance and fluidity.
This collective masterclass raised the confidence of individual players who left us with some technical beauties. From Andres Iniesta and Busquet’s roulettes, to Fabregas’ Romario-esque finish with the outside of his boot, a few passages of play will be worth repeating ad aeternam.
Most importantly, Barcelona are reaching this peak at just the right moment with a decisive run of fixtures in both cup and Europe just around the corner.
Messi Will Be Messi
It’s hard to say this is something we learned with this particular match, but once again, without being at his best level, Messi proved decisive in Barcelona’s victory.
Ignacio Camacho’s gift in the 27th minute couldn’t have fallen to a worse player from Malaga’s point of view. If a failed back pass is always most likely to result in a goal against your team, when it’s Messi we are talking about, it is an absolute certainty.
At this point, Messi had had little to no impact in the game, having even been uncharacteristically caught in possession on few occasions and failing to capitalize on a one-on-one with Caballero.
However, he would go on to play a crucial part in Barcelona’s two other goals.
For Barcelona’s second, just five minutes into the second half, Messi delivered an exquisite long ball into Fabregas’ path. His La Masia companion made no mistake and smashed the ball against Caballero’s post and in.
Finally, he would play a quick one-two on the edge of the Malaga box to assist Thiago and help Barcelona close the game.
Barcelona Are Still Struggling to Keep Clean Sheets
Despite their incredible run in the league this season, there are still aspects that Barcelona have to improve. Without doubt, the most important of these is to keep more clean sheets.
If Valdes wants to add to his record five Zamora trophies at the end of the season, Vilanova will have to improve his team in this area.
The Catalans have kept just five clean sheets in the league this season, despite winning 18 matches and drawing just one. In total, they have conceded 20 goals, on average more than one per game, in the first round. That is four more than Malaga, two more than Atletico and as many as Real Madrid and bottom-place Osasuna.
That is just not good enough for a team like Barcelona, and could prove costly both in Europe and the King’s Cup.
Buonanotte Should Start for Malaga
I admit there may be a bit of a River Plate bias here, as Diego Buonanotte has always been a player I have admired and supported. However, his performance Sunday should convince anyone he deserves a spot in the Malaga starting XI.
Replacing Eliseu in the 62nd minute, he proved to be a handful for Barcelona’s defenders; his fellow Argentine Javier Mascherano, in particular, suffered from “the dwarf’s” dribbling and mobility.
The only way the Catalans found to stop Buonanotte was by fouling him, which they did on repeated occasions in the 30 minutes he played.
In the 88th minute of the game, his labor paid its fruits as he was brought down on the edge of the box by Mascherano. He took the resulting free kick himself and buried it past Valdes, ensuring his team did not finish the game completely empty-handed.
Manuel Pellegrini will have to think of alternatives before facing Barcelona again in midweek, and Buonanotte may have done enough for his coach to start him at the Camp Nou.