On a night in which the Celtic defense looked unbreakable at the back, Barcelona needed a little something special from someone unexpected, and Jordi Alba, who hasn’t the best of seasons up to this point, fell into that certain slot with a dramatic winning goal.
It was one of those matches we’ve seen plenty of from Barcelona at the Camp Nou this season so far, where things have gone a bit harder for them. A lot of possession, but something seems to be moving a bit slower, less smoothly, against these teams that play a very disciplined “park the bus” kind of match, especially if they go up and take the lead very early.
It’s hard to talk about defensive problems in this match, because Celtics never actually attack. Their one goal came from a free kick cross that bounced off Javier Mascherano and into the net. That was it. From here on out it was Barcelona pushing forward, mostly with Andres Iniesta drifting towards the left. He got to score a fantastic equalizer after a very impressive passing combination between him, Messi and Xavi, but for the rest of the 49 minutes leading up to Alab’s goal, it was pure frustration.
Alexis Sanchez isn’t going through a good phase. He always feels a bit stuck on the left wing, and couldn’t beat the man marking him all night long. It did help Alba, in probably his best match since the summer with Spain, to overlap and be constant menace and option coming from the left and moving into the middle, but Alexis’ goals will be very much needed as the season goes along, and him being confined as just a winger for most of the time instead of letting him play a more central role hurts both him and the team.
We can’t continue without a word on Lionel Messi. Celtic probably made a decision before the match that no matter what happens, they weren’t going to let Messi beat them. The Argentinian got to test Fraser Foster more than once, but in all of his efforts to switch positions – drop back or fill the striker role for a while, he couldn’t find the kind of space and freedom he needed. It’s weird that there’s no actual thought of moving him towards the wings, at least for a short amount of time during the match, switching with either Pedro and Alexis, to give Barcelona a different kind of look.
For once, it was a match which probably had Vilanova more angry at his attack than his defense, which wasn’t threatened for the rest of the contest after conceding. Vilanova has tried to change something from Barca’s trials at busting defenses last season by offering a more direct approach, but this match was the return to the old ways of spreading somewhat of a fan-like barrier across the Celtic box and slow, patient passing until something opened up.
As Alba’s goal showed, sometimes, when a defense is disciplined enough not to fall out of position, the best approach is to crowd the box and gamble. Crossing isn’t something Barcelona do much or well due to their style preferences and the average height on this team, but flinging strong balls as close as possible to the keeper while having at least two or three options waiting inside, as opposed to none on most days, is often a good way to create that opening that wasn’t going to happen by playing the usual style.
Besides Alba celebrating a rare goal, his importance is the option of offering something different to a team that still manages to win every match they play this season (except for the Clasico), but sometimes needs a bit of shaking up and some sort of energy shot from somewhere unexpected. Alba, after a sluggish start to the season, is starting to fill that role.