Xavi Hernandez picked out David Villa in the penalty box and the Spain international made no mistake, curling a beautiful effort into the top left of the goal with his left foot. Barcelona 3-0 Milan – the Catalans were ahead in the tie for the first time and on their way to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. There would be one more goal from Blaugrana just to make sure of it.
The following day, Marca ran the headline, ‘Barcelona return’. Javier Mascherano echoed the same sentiments two days later: “We are back to our best.” And, just to be certain of it, the players put on another commanding display on Sunday night against a hapless Rayo Vallecano.
Again, it was David Villa who put them into the lead. Lionel Messi dribbled his way around a group of defenders before spotting out the former Valencia striker who, like he did against Milan, sent in another of his trademark curling efforts but this time with his right foot into the top right hand corner. Barcelona are back and so is David Villa.
A quarter of an hour later, Villa turned provider, laying the ball off to an on-rushing Messi who from within the 18-yard box simply does not miss. But, one goal never suffices for Messi – he always prefers two and Sunday was no different.
Again, Villa played a key role, jostling with Rayo’s Adrian and using all his strength to latch on to Andres Iniesta’s clearance from the corner and sneak a through-ball to Messi, who turned Anaitz Arbilla inside out before calmly chipping over Ruben Martinez to net his brace and put his side three goals to the good.
To reinforce his defensive partner’s words from few days ago, Gerard Pique said post-match that Barcelona are indeed back to their best having recovered from the dip in form of the last two weeks or so. And, perhaps there is something in that it has coincided with Villa being given more time on the field rather than the bench.
On a quick note, Messi’s double brought his season tally to 42 goals. With 10 games remaining you just would not bet against him bettering his own record-breaking total of 50 goals in the Primera Division last season.
Barcelona may have been at their mesmerising best on the weekend, but, Real Sociedad were nothing short of it at home to Real Valladolid. In fact, the Basque outfit were perhaps even better than the Catalans.
In a frantic 15-minute period, Philippe Montanier’s men were absolutely rampant as they scored four goals to effectively kill off the game with still almost 45 minutes to be played. It was not just the quantity of goals either – two of them were absolute gems.
Antoine Griezmann displayed superb technique as he controlled Mikel Gonzalez’s long ball to volley home his second and Real’s third just before the break. Real Sociedad’s fourth goal had something Barca-esque about it – Griezmann and Xabi Prieto played some pretty little neat passes between them outside the area before the playing it out wide to Carlos Vela who expertly picked out Prieto who made it 4-0.
The win saw Montanier’s side creep up to fourth place. And, creep is the right word. Real Sociedad’s slow climb up the Division has almost gone unnoticed. All the talk has been of Rayo Vallecano and Real Betis and their push for European football. But, as it stands, Montanier’s men have a real chance of landing the final Champions League spot and should they continue their fine run of 10 games undefeated – their longest undefeated streak recorded this season – they will whole-heartedly deserve it.
But, Real face competition for a Champions League birth from a resurgent Valencia. When Mauricio Pellegrino was fired on December 5 last year, Los Che were floundering in 12th place in the Primera Division. But, after recording a convincing 3-0 win over Real Betis on Saturday they moved up to fifth place. Valencia and Real Sociedad are due to meet late on in April and from this vantage point, it will be a crucial game in deciding who will be Spain’s fourth representative in the Champions League season to come.