Easy cup win helps Barcelona stay sharp

Posted by Dermot Ledwith

Players always say competitive games keep you fit -- the muscles ticking over and the technique sharp -- so there is no harm playing the odd dead rubber like the one Barcelona did with Cartagena in the Spanish Cup on Tuesday after a 4-1 win away from home in the first leg.

Barca ran out easy 3-0 winners, with goals from Pedro Rodriguez, Cristian Tello and Neymar in front of 47,000 people who turned up for one of those unnecessary 90 minutes that have to be faced if you want to taste the glamour of cup success at the end of the season.

- Match stats: Barcelona 3-0 Cartagena

It was also a fourth consecutive win in all competitions, and that will keep things ticking over nicely as a unit before Sunday's trip to Getafe for the final game before the winter break.

The small town of Cartagena on Spain's sunshine southeast coast obviously thought the event was important enough to send 2,000 fans on the eight-hour drive up the Mediterranean. And the part-timers who currently sit fourth in Group IV of the Spanish 2B league -- the third level that is split into four regional leagues -- put up a better performance than many more prestigious sides have been able to do in recent years at Camp Nou.

There were rare outings for Sergi Roberto, Alex Song and Tello, but perhaps some questions arose as to why Pedro and Cesc Fabregas were risked in such a game with a big away test at Getafe to come on Sunday. That risk was magnified when Fabregas tried to burst through two defenders on the edge of the area early on, only to receive a crunching tackle from both sides. Fortunately, Fabregas got up as if nothing had happened and Barca survived the evening without injury.

In his defence, Gerardo "Tata" Martino has shown until now he is not a coach afraid to rotate players, and he surely must have studied who needed minutes and who needed a rest ahead of what will be the last game for two weeks on Sunday.

Barca will be without Neymar due to suspension in the south of Madrid on Sunday, they are of course also without Messi and will have to look to the attacking skills of Fabregas, Pedro and Alexis Sanchez to get the goals needed to guarantee top spot in La Liga over the Christmas break. Both Fabregas and Pedro were withdrawn with 15 minutes to go for Andres Iniesta and Alexis, and Jordi Alba also got 10 minutes to help him on his road back from injury.

For Carles Puyol it was the chance to start a game at Camp Nou for the first time since March, and it will now be interesting to see if he can be useful in 2014. Puyol had discussed this week the possibility that this could be his final season at the club, but he proved what a great competitor he is by being alert to clear the danger on 57 minutes, when a lone Cartagena attacker burst through on goal. He proved yet again he can face 90 minutes when called upon and will undoubtedly become competitive the more games he gets.

The Cartagena side, coached by former Sevilla player Luis Tevenet, had come well prepared and was ready to defend with nine outfield players shielding their keeper. When the away team finally did get forward in the 27th minute, they had a little purple patch that served to wake Barca up.

First they won a free kick on the edge of the area that was delightfully curled against the post by Antonio Megias with a left-footed shot. The 29-year-old, who has spent 10 years wandering around Spain's lower divisions and even tried his luck with eight games for one of Slovakia's top side, saw perhaps the most special moment of his career denied by mere centremetres. Then the visitors hit another post from a slightly offside position and Barca awoke from their slumber and grabbed the opener.

Song played the ball out to Martin Montoya, who was in his customary advanced position on the right-hand side; he took one touch to control before playing in a perfect ball that Pedro crisply hit first time into the back of the net. From that moment it was smooth sailing for Barca, a practice game of attack against defence -- Neymar attempted to run things his own way, with silky skills, continuously probing with direct, or if blocked, more vertical running. Sergi Roberto again showed he can be trusted and has a future in the heart of the Barca midfield, and Tello got his goal.

It came on 68 minutes and it had a slice of fortune about it when Neymar played him in on the left-hand side of the area; the youngster advanced on goal before hitting a shot that took two deflections before hitting the net. But a goal is a goal, and it goes with the one he got against Celtic last week and marked progress for the youngster, who has been used sparingly by Martino.

Those substitutions were made, and to wrap things up, Iniesta had time to produce a piece of magic to free himself from the attentions of two defenders and plant the ball on Neymar's head to allow the Brazilian get off the mark in the Spanish Cup.

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