Malaga vs. Barcelona: 5 Things We Learned
Another week, another win. Barcelona's inexorable march to the title continued in Malaga's La Rosaleda stadium as Tito Vilanova's side cruised to a 3-1 win over its host.
It seems there is little that will stop Leo Messi and Co. lifting the Liga title in May. Malaga is no pushover, as Real Madrid discovered just a few weeks ago. As well as a solid league record, Manuel Pellegrini's side was the only Spanish competitor to reach the Champions League knockout stages unbeaten, qualifying from a group containing big-spending Zenit and AC Milan.
But Barcelona barely got out of first gear to record another victory, taking its foot off the pedal entirely in the second half after Cesc Fabregas made the points all but secure.
A treble is still in the cards for Vilanova in his first season as a first-team coach, just as his mentor Pep Guardiola achieved in 2008-09.
Malaga will be far from happy about the prospect of another two games over the next week or so against the league leader.
Golden Boy vs. Golden Balls
A Spanish television channel ran a recurring story during Sunday comparing Isco, winner of Europe's Golden Boy award in 2012, to Messi, who scooped up an unprecedented fourth consecutive Ballon d'Or.
On the pitch, there was only going to be one winner, as Malaga's hottest property went head to head with Argentina's prodigy. Only Cristiano Ronaldo, in La Liga at least, is able to operate on level terms with the genius of Rosario.
Despite being largely well contained by Malaga's defense, Messi still popped up with the opening goal and assisted on numbers two and three.
Real Madrid discovered in Pamplona that missing your match-winner can be costly. Messi's brilliance is only matched by his resilience, which has seen him miss just a handful of games in the past few seasons through injury.
A not-that-interested observer during Barcelona's cup stroll against Cordoba last week, he'll be back, Terminator-style, to haunt Malaga on Wednesday.
They Think It's All Over...It Is Now
This weekend's action in La Liga really was the final death knell for the title race.
Real slipped to a goalless tie at Osasuna and really needed Malaga to pull a result out of the hat to provide even the thinnest shaft of light at the end of what is now an extremely long-looking 18-game tunnel.
It's been in the cards for weeks, but Barcelona's latest stroll, against one of La Liga's more dangerous sides, has sealed the deal.
A record 55 points at the halfway stage. More than three goals scored in 20 of 31 matches in all competitions this season. The sense that Vilanova's side can smash every benchmark going is only reinforced by the strength available to Barcelona in its dugout.
I wondered a couple of articles ago whether Vilanova would oversee an unbeaten season. A comment made me think perhaps not, purely because the title could be wrapped up by March and the kids given a trot out.
What Could Malaga Achieve with a New Striker?
Malaga's financial problems are well documented. The south coast club faces a ban from European competition if it doesn't stump up money owed by March 31, and Manuel Pellegrini has spent as much time chasing his players' wages off the field as he has chasing them around the training pitch since his arrival.
Still, a team with the playmaking wiles of Isco and Joaquin would profit from a real fox in the box. I suspect Francis Jeffers would be available, but in the meantime, Javier "The Rabbit" Saviola is Malaga's main striker.
Presumably rested ahead of the cup clash midweek, his replacement, "impact sub" Roque Santa Cruz, had, well, none. Both strikers have managed five league goals this season, and Eliseu is the club's top scorer in Europe.
A Champions League team challenging at the top of La Liga as well could surely lure a decent, non cup-tied forward to La Rosaleda in January.
To Keep or Not to Keep?
Victor Valdes is said to be stalling over a new agreement at Camp Nou, and AS.com merrily suggests a few replacements for the brooding stopper.
It's a Liga curiosity that Valdes has five Zamora trophies to his name while Spain captain Iker Casillas, who holds the record for national team appearances in any position, has just the one.
Frankly, with Barcelona's possession-based play, Valdes has earned most of those while drumming his fingers on his posts, or performing his strange rituals during matches.
It's no coincidence that four of his personal gongs have come in the past four seasons.
But if Barça is looking for a new keeper, Willy Caballero has the chance to put himself in the shop window during this current run of matches against Barcelona.
The Malaga keeper is the front-runner for this season's award at the halfway point and has made his name over the past two seasons after several years in the wilderness at Elche.
Nine clean sheets in Primera and three in Europe this season isn't a bad application for the job.
What's Barcelona's Best Form of Defense?
It's pretty difficult to pick holes in this Barcelona team, but plenty of Liga attacks have been doing just that this season.
Diego Buonanotte's sumptuous strike robbed Barcelona of a small record that Vilanova would have liked to play out in La Rosaleda; his side hasn't kept two consecutive clean sheets in the league this season.
When you're sticking in the number at the other end that Barcelona does, it hardly matters, but it is a source of mild turbulence in an ocean of otherwise domestic calm.
Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique would appear to be Vilanova's first-choice pairing, but Javier Mascherano is not making selection easy for his coach. A beautifully timed tackle on Buonanotte was a case in point—Pique's clumsy challenge a few minutes later on another poser for the Barcelona boss.
It's a nice selection problem to have, but with Sergio Busquetsk being a red card waiting to happen—as much for cynical challenges like that on Buonanotte as for his constant, theatrical idiocy—suspensions are never more than a face-grab away.
Barcelona has few problems to address, but its leaking of goals this season is one Vilanova will need to mull as the festive season gives way to the business end of matters.