Finally the UEFA Champions League away match jinx, under Pep Guardiola, is broken and FC Barcelona secured their first away victory in Europe against Shakhtar Donetsk at the Donbass Arena. The Catalans have taken one more step towards the coveted UEFA Champions League Final and can meet either Tottenham Hotspur or Real Madrid in the semi-finals, the latter most likely.
The Shaky Start
Barcelona started without four of their regular starters. Puyol and Abidal are still recovering whereas, Iniesta was suspended for this tie. Pedro, however, started from the bench and went on to make an appearance in the later stages of the match. The Spanish champions have a thin squad and untimely injuries further stretched them. Guardiola was wary of the pace of the Shakthar attackers and started with Mascherano at the heart of the Barcelona fortress to partner Pique. The Argentine is more robust and agile than Busquets, who on the other hand knows how to control the tempo of the game at the centre of the midfield. The ploy worked as Mascherano exceeded expectations and moreover made up for Busquet’s lack of pace. The host’s extremely agile attackers targeted their left flank and tried to exploit Dani Alves’ defensive abilities or the lack of it. Not only did they attack in recurrence, they also got the first corner of the match, which is rare and bears testimony to the shaky start that the Catalans had had.
Shakhtar’s Wings Clipped
The absence of influential Srna and Rat was evident as Shakhtar’s wing play did not have the usual venom. Srna wasn’t fit to start and Rat was suspended owing to a yellow card that he received in the first leg at the Camp Nou. They could only stretch a makeshift Barcelona defense but could not exactly unsettle it. And on occasions they did, Victor Valdes came to the rescue. Around the 7th minute, Jadson laid-off the ball in Adriano’s path. The Brazilian’s powerful shot was however, parried off by the ever reliable Valdes.
FC Barcelona’s Recovery
After an erratic start to the match, the visitors got hold of the tempo, as the game progressed. From a mere 55% possession around the 25th minute mark to 60% possession in the next 15 minutes substantiates the grip of the Catalans on the match. The pitch, to a large extent, wasn’t supportive, as many of the Barcelona players slipped on multiple occasions thereby disrupting the rhythm of their quintessential harmonic game play. Lionel Messi and Ibrahim Afellay tested the Shakhtar custodian, Pyatov, from distance but the latter parried it away. There was a sense of déjà vu, when around the half hour mark, Messi tried to chip the ball over an onrushing Pyatov. Similar to his save at the Camp Nou, here too, Pyatov denied the World Player of The Year.
Lionel Messi’s goal
Nobody controls Barcelona’s midfield better than Xavi. Despite not being at his best, the midfield maestro did enough to unruffled the opposition. His regular diagonal balls from the centre of the park were collected by Dani Alves and more often than not, the Brazilian and ran into the Shakhtar defence to assist his attackers. The only goal of the match too is the result of one such interplay. However, Alves was fed by Messi this time and the Brazilian returned the favour by replaying it to Messi, who scored with ease. The point to be noted here is the importance of David Villa. In a dummy move across the penalty box, Villa pulled the core of the Shakhtar defence out of position and that left acres of space for Messi to finish off the tie. With Barcelona’s goal, Shakhtar’s hope of a comeback withered. With that Messi bagged his 9th of the Champions League and the 48th of the campaign, highest by any player in the Spanish League.
The Second And Final Half
Shakhtar went into the break with the danger of losing their two and a half years of record at home and desperation was apparent in the team’s approach on the other side of the half. Messi kept mesmerizing the Shakhtar defense. Ibrahim Afellay tested the goalkeeper yet again but couldn’t get anything extra. Through the course of the match, Shakhtar defended deep. The combination of Ishchenko, Rakitskiy and Shevchuk was duly protected by Hübschman, who also did the dirty job in the midfield. The extra defensive cover, the slippery pitch and the absence of key personnel proved to be reasons enough for Barcelona to stop at just a goal.
Shakhtar was extremely agile in their counter attacks and to a certain extent exploited the left flank. A competent Mascherano and an ever-reliable Victor Valdes stalled any hopes to salvage some pride for the hosts. Adriano, on the other flank was quite energetic and combined well with Afellay with his mazy runs. However, that did not result into anything fruitful.
Guardiola substituted Xavi with Jeffren and Pique with Milito to keep them fresh for the imminent El Clasico. Villa to made way for Pedro to give the latter some playing time ahead of the crucial tie at the Santiago Bernabeu. The good point, apart from the first away win in Europe since the summer of 2008, is that none of the players succumbed to any injury and won’t be suspended for the semi-final tie against either Real Madrid or Tottenham Hotspur. In the press conference, Guardiola dedicated this victory to Bojan, who is out for the rest of the season. Whether the team goes the distance or not, your guess is as good as ours. However, Barcelona never fall short of producing an exciting contest and one can be assured that Guardiola’s men will play to the best of their abilities to repeat the 2008-09 season.