Barcelona moved to within one point of league leaders Real Madrid with a comprehensive 4-0 thrashing of Getafe at the Camp Nou on Tuesday night.
A brace from Alexis Sanchez, a header from Pedro and another moment of sheer brilliance from Messi rounded out the scoring, as Barcelona capitalized on Madrid’s latest stumble to situate themselves within striking distance of first place in the Primera Division standings.
A month ago, sitting 10 points adrift, few thought it was possible. I for one handed in my La Liga concession speech, struggling to envision a manner in which the deficit could realistically be overturned. But Madrid’s noticeable drop in form, combined with ten consecutive league victories for the blaugrana have resurrected the believer in me.
Ever since Guardiola issued his famous statement: “This league can not be won, for no team has ever come back from a deficit this large,” Barcelona have been playing with house money. Ironically enough, the lack of pressure to succeed has been a key to their success. Free of expectations, Messi and company have eliminated the mental mistakes that so dearly cost them earlier in the season and played with reinvigorated exuberance. More importantly, they have clawed their way back into the title race while simultaneously resting crucial players. Cesc Fabregas, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pique and Alexis have all been given matches off to preserve fitness, allowing Guardiola’s men to approach the home stretch of the season in top form and with fresh legs.
Pep Guardiola, being the mad genius that he is, employed an unprecedented 3-3-1-3 formation to start the match. A defensive back line of Puyol, Mascherano and Adriano held up the rear, while Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta returned to the starting line-up after missing last Saturday’s 4-1 win at Real Zaragoza. Messi dropped deep to initiate the attack, while a vanguard of Alexis Sanchez, Pedro and Isaac Cuenca roamed up top.
After defeating Barcelona in a narrow 1-0 match in Madrid earlier this season, Getafe had earned Guardiola’s full attention. His deployment of four strikers with just one pure defender at the back illustrated both a strong desire to offensively overwhelm the visitors, along with a complete lack of respect for Getafe’s counter attacking potential. As usual, he was right on both counts.
The visitors were on the back foot from the opening minute, as Barcelona pushed up field and called goalkeeper Miguel Moya into action early and often.
Barca’s first-minute free kick came within inches of reaching an unmarked Sergio Busquets in the area, but Moya’s good positioning allowed him to collect the loose ball without problems. The shot-stopped would have to be alert when, in the third minute, Carles Puyol’s glancing header was inadvertently steered towards goal by Miku, forcing a double save from the keeper to preserve the deadlock.
Moya would dive low to parry away a long-range strike from Iniesta before Barca’s patience was rewarded, as Alexis Sanchez gave the hosts the lead in stylish fashion on 13 minutes. Iniesta lifted a pass to Messi, who chested the ball perfectly to the feet of Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean cut right and advanced to the edge of the area before unleashing a sumptuous curler past Moya and into the back of the net.
“El Niño Maravilla” could have doubled the lead just three minutes later, as Pedro stole the ball deep in Getafe’s half and Alexis burst into the area. The Chilean had an open shot, but unselfishly laid off a pass to Pedro, who saw his low strike kept out by a diving, fingertip save from Moya.
Xavi would highlight a controversial officiating decision moments later, as the Spain international collected Messi’s inch-perfect pass through four defenders and dinked a clever lob over the advancing Moya. He turned to celebrate, only for match official Jose Luis Gonzalez to adjudge the ball not to have crossed the line before being cleared by Cata Diaz. Despite vehement protests from the player and replays showing the ball to have indeed passed the line, the official remained firm in his decision and Getafe were let off the hook.
The Camp Nou paid homage in the 22nd minute to Barca’s own number 22, Eric Abidal, echoing his name through the stadium to roaring applause, as the defender lay unconscious in an operating room not far away, receiving a hepatic liver transplant that will hopefully save his life.
The unconditional support offered to the Frenchman in recent weeks by the football community worldwide has been touching. To see all the rivalries and bickering stop, albeit for a few moments, and recognize that football comes second to a human life is reassuring. It makes one forget about all the corruption and see the true beauty of the game. When the anesthesia wears off, I’m sure Eric will appreciate it.
Busquets would set up Messi in the 25th minute with a sublime lofted pass over the defense, which the Argentine did well to take off his thigh before dragging a left-footed shot wide of the near-post when he looked sure to score.
Getafe found strength as the half wore on and managed to win a series of corners to keep things interesting, but this match only ever had one way of ending. Alexis inexplicably fluffed a chance to double the lead on 32 minutes, as Isaac Cuenca’s low cross was met by the Chilean at the far-post, only for the striker to prod his effort wide in front of an open goal. Sanchez remained on the ground for several seconds, cussing at himself and looking for someone to explain how he could have missed such a sitter before finally getting up and trudging on.
Mascherano and Puyol continued to cut down Getafe’s outlet passes, as Barcelona teetered on 80% possession in the first half. One minute before half-time, the hosts would deservedly make it 2-0 thanks to a cracking strike from Leo Messi. The Argentine slipped a pass through two defenders to Andres Iniesta, who played a quick back-heel on the edge of the area for Messi, who caught it in stride and rifled past Moya with a clinical left-footed strike into the upper left corner.
With the finish, Messi raised his total to 61 goals this season and set a La Liga record for most home goals in a single season (28). His 39 goals in league play see him consolidate first place in the pichichi and European boot race, while placing him just one goal shy of tying Ronaldo’s La Liga record for most goals ever in a single season (40).
Barca would take their foot off the gas after the interval, content to control the match at a slower pace with the result all but assured. Getafe nearly pulled one back ten minutes in through a dangerous header sent skimming off Valdes’ crossbar by Cata Diaz, but offered little else going forward.
Anxious for a third goal, Guardiola instructed his players to push higher up the pitch and got his reward in the 73rd minute to put the game out of reach. Cuenca made use of the space allowed to him on the right by Tsepo Masilela and fired in a cross to Alexis Sanchez, who elevated over Miguel Torres to send a powerful downward header past Moya and into the back of the net. In securing a brace, Alexis set a new personal record for goals in a single season with 13, surpassing last year’s mark of 12 goals with Udinese.
Pedro would make it 4-0 just two minutes later, latching onto Messi’s cross and flicking a superb backwards header past Moya into the Getafe net for his third goal of the season and second in as many games.
Cuenca volleyed a cross from Puyol over the bar, as Barcelona searched for a last-minute goal to round out the manita, but it would not come. Cristian Tello and Martin Montoya would make their way onto the pitch for the final quarter-hour, as Barca finished the match with ten youth academy La Masia players and Alexis Sanchez on the pitch.
Messi would highlight the final two chances of the night, first latching onto Xavi’s lofted pass and racing to the touch line, only to have the ball poked away at the last second by Daniel Diaz before putting on an absolute clinic, weaving effortlessly between two defenders, toying with another, ghosting past a fourth and chipping a pass off the crossbar from an impossible angle, only to see it cleared by the scrambling Getafe defense before Alexis could bury the rebound.
It was perhaps the team’s best performance of 2012, as the blaugrana held 77% possession and out-shot Getafe 9 shots on target to zero. The Catalans have now outscored opponents 64-8 at the Camp Nou in La Liga this season, posting a 14 win-1 draw-0 loss record.
With the one goal and two-assist performance, Messi has become the La Liga player with the most goals and most assists ever recorded in a single season. Meanwhile, Iniesta improved his own record, having now played in 54 consecutive league matches without seeing defeat. The win sees Guardiola tie Frank Rijkaard for second place in club history as a Barca manager with 112 victories, trailing only Johan Cruyff (183).
The title race is heating up and with the gap now narrowed to a single point, Barcelona appear confident in their chances of claiming the La Liga crown. After dropping points to Malaga, Villarreal and Valencia in recent weeks, Madrid are clearly a wounded side. There’s blood in the water, and like any predator, the Catalans will continue to stalk the league leaders, waiting for them to slip up under the pressure.
“These players know what’s at stake,” said Pep Guardiola after the match. “The end is near.”
Article written by Barcaloco contributor Anson Woodring. Follow Anson on Twitter at @ansonwoodring.