It was all going swimmingly for the Catalans. After 20 minutes of play and three sublime goals, they seemingly were cruising to a routine victory at Riazor on Saturday night. But, not for the first time this season, defensive mistakes cost La Blaugrana goals at the other end, forcing them to have to work and sweat for all three points.
“I have never seen our team play so well in the first 20 minutes,” said Tito Vilanova after the match. For those lucky enough to have watched the goal-fest at Deportivo, they could hardly disagree. Barcelona, even by their own lofty standards, were superb. Cesc Fabregas was enjoying one of his best performances since his 2011 summer switch from Arsenal while Lionel Messi continued to defy belief with his goal-scoring feats.
Yet, for all their attacking prowess, Barcelona’s defensive shambles almost cost them dearly. When Messi netted his first and Barca’s third of the night, it should have been game, set and match. Yet, an ill-timed sliding tackle from Javier Mascherano gave Deportivo a chance from the spot – which they duly took – before an absolute howler from Victor Valdes allowed the newly-promoted side right back into the game.
More mistakes followed in the second half. Sergio Busquets’ conceded a soft free-kick just outside the box that led to Depor’s third before Jordi Alba inexplicably lobbed his own goalkeeper. In the end, Barcelona needed all of their five goals to come away with the win.
Doubts have been raised regarding the Catalans’ defence this term. After shipping four goals for the first time since a 4-3 loss at Atletico Madrid in March 2009, more question marks will again be raised. Vilanova’s men have now conceded eight goals in their last three La Liga outings. They also have the seventh worst defensive record in the League while only five teams have let in more goals on their travels.
The defensive duo of Mascherano and Alex Song has failed to convince. The former, despite significant improvement in his development from being a defensive midfielder to a centre-half, can still be too rash in the tackle. As for the latter, he has a long way to go before he completes the same transformation.
Many will cite that the return of the injured pair of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique will solve Barca’s defensive questions. However, the truth of the matter is that both these players have struggled for game-time consistency over the last season or two. Puyol has made just 40 appearances over the last two seasons in La Liga while Pique – as a result of both injury and poor form – started just 17 League games last term.
In addition to their defensive personnel, Valdes’ position at the team’s No 1 goalkeeper perhaps needs reviewing. Vilanova may have shown his support for his embattled shot-stopper after the final whistle, saying: “Valdes has been giving us so much over so many years that we cannot doubt him at this point.”
However, it was Valdes’ bungling of Alex Bergantinos’ shot that brought the hosts to within one goal of their visitors while he perhaps could also have done better with Pizzi’s goal from a free-kick. As wonderful as it was hit, Valdes was beaten at the post nearest to him. It was not the first game this season where Valdes has cost his side a goal or two.
Fortunately for Barcelona, when a player by the name of Lionel Messi plays for you, it does not seem to matter if you are leaking goals left, right and centre. The Argentine continues to score goals for fun. His hat-trick against Depor saw his personal League tally rise to 11 for the season. He has now scored 71 goals in 2012, now just four shy of Pele’s record of 75.
Messi’s goals this term – and four assists – have helped Barca to continue their winning ways. Their win at Riazor was their seventh of the season and fourth on the road. Coupled with Atletico Madrid, they are still the only undefeated team in the Primera Division.
Nevertheless, as the season progresses, undoubtedly there will come a time when their defensive limitations will be tested. Unless Vilanova can make the necessary improvements at the back, it may cost them in their hunt for domestic and continental success.