Courtesy FC Barcelona
Barcelona remain at the (joint) top of the La Liga table after an emphatic 3-0 victory against Racing Santander to extend their unbeaten home league run to 22 games.
Camp Nou has certainly become one of Europe's biggest fortresses, with Barcelona having scored 18 goals and conceding none in their opening three matches of the 2011/12 campaign. Their opponents this weekend, Racing Santander, went into the game yet to pick up their first league win of the season. The odds were stacked heavily against Juan Carlos Mandia's side and their tactics became obvious from the first whistle; damage limitation. With Barça having put five goals past both Villarreal and Atletico Madrid and a further eight past Osasuna, Racing were hoping not to suffer a similar fate.
Pep Guardiola's side went into the game knowing that only three points would suffice, as Real Madrid had cruised to the top of the table, temporarily, with a convincing 4-1 win against newly promoted Real Betis. The Barcelona manager was able to recall Andrés Iniesta who had been missing with a hamstring tear, although summer signings Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez remained sidelined with similar hamstring problems.
After a two-week international break, Guardiola was hoping that his players would not suffer from any rustiness or fatigue but Barcelona struggled to gain momentum in the early stages as their passing lacked its usual cohesion. Racing, in fact, started the brighter but Daniel Alves was twice on hand to deny 'Los Racinguistas' from an early opener with two decisive headers. Pique was replaced by Abidal after only eight minutes through injury as Barcelona took time to find their feet.
However, Lionel Messi got Barcelona going in typical fashion on 10 minutes to score his ninth league goal of the season, after combining excellently with Iniesta.The 2010 Fifa Ballon D'Or winner collected the ball just inside the Racing half and approached the edge of the area with the opposing defenders standing off him before he slipped an inch-perfect pass into the path of Iniesta, who was allowed to turn and play an exquisite pass back into the feet of Messi inside the box. The end result was inevitable; the Argentine forward easily evaded one defender before rounding the goalkeeper and finishing coolly with his right foot from an acute angle. It was another moment of brilliance from Messi who continues to outdo himself with countless displays of football wizardry.
Messi almost doubled his side's lead from David Villa's cutback only 60 seconds later but was prevented by a resolute block from the Racing centre-half. Barcelona were slowly cranking up the gears and beginning to assert their dominance over the La Liga minnows.
And unsurprisingly Barcelona's second goal soon followed with Xavi striding forward to head home after a slick team move. Working the ball from back to front, Iniesta picked out Pedro on the left touchline who jinked past his man with a clever stepover before floating in a delicious cross for the unmarked Xavi to head into the bottom corner, giving goalkeeper Tono no chance.
Messi almost extended the lead further on 34 minutes when Pedro's deflected shot just evaded the outstretched leg of the Argentinian and Carles Puyol should have scored from the resulting corner but the Barcelona captain somehow got his feet tangled as he failed to convert Pedro's incisive infield pass. David Villa also had a chance to put Barcelona three nil ahead just before the break when he latched onto a sublime through ball from Messi, but he could only find the side netting after rounding Tono.
Barcelona had swept the early cobwebs aside and their performance was a joy to behold as they went into the break two goals ahead. Racing had posed little threat to Victor Valdés's goal and it seemed to be a question of how many goals the Catalan giants wanted to score, Barcelona's 76 percent possession highlighting how little of the ball their opponents had seen.
After the restart it was Racing who had the earliest chance: Ivorian striker Mamadou Koné warming Valdes's gloves with a well-executed turn and shot across goal but no teammate was on hand to tap in from Valdes's parry. Unfortunately for Racing, that was as good a chance as they would have all game against the reigning champions. Carles Puyol was proving a monumental obstacle in defence, chasing down every lost ball and winning header after header as Barcelona's rearguard proved difficult to break down.
Messi was running the show up front and had several penalty appeals turned down but it would not be long until he featured on the scoresheet for a second time. With 68 minutes on the clock, Messi received the ball outside the Racing area and fizzed a ball into the feet of Iniesta who found himself sandwiched between two defenders. Somehow the 27 year-old midfielder managed to flick the ball out of the defenders' reach onto his left foot before hitting a rasping half-volley against the post which rebounded straight to Messi who made no mistake with the finish. It was an outrageous piece of skill from the Spanish playmaker who deserved more fortune in front of goal.
However, the goal marked Messi's 196th goal for Barcelona in all competitions and he is now the club's second highest goalscorer, surpassing Hungarian striker Lázló Kubala. It also signalled his 16th goal of the season, his 10th in the league and it is only mid-October. Staggering statistics for a man who only turned 24 this summer. With so many promising years ahead it is no wonder that 'The Atomic Flea' is being acclaimed as the greatest football player of all time by critics and football insiders worldwide.
Messi was denied a hat-trick on 73 minutes when his sidefooted effort from Dani Alves's teasing low cross dragged wide of the left-hand post and Villa could not convert his 10th goal of the season, his shot going blazing over from Thiago Alcantara's slide pass. Abidal was prevented from scoring a rare goal in the closing stages when his overhead kick was well saved by Tono and there were to be no further goals as Barcelona held out for a comfortable 3-0 victory, with the defence picking up their routine clean sheet.
Manager Pep Guardiola was understandably happy with his team's display as they remain at the top of the pile; ahead of surprise packing Levante on goal difference and one point superior to Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid. Guardiola praised his side's ability to adapt to their opponent's defensive approach and ease to victory.
"Attacking against a side with 10 men behind the ball is never easy. Teams who come to play can create chances but...when one team sits back and plays more on the counter it is more difficult for us. That is inevitable but we have been able to overcome that today."
FC Barcelona's next match is against Czech outfit Viktoria Plzen who make the daunting trip to the Camp Nou on Wednesday evening. Barcelona currently have four points from two matches in Champions League group H after the 2-2 draw in the opening game against AC Milan was followed by a comprehensive 5-0 victory away at Bate Borisov. If Barcelona are able to perform up to their recent standards, it could be another goal-fest at the fortress Camp Nou.