Sunday, September 30, 2012
Everything falling into place for Tito?
Dermot Corrigan, Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan
The anger at the final whistle inside Sevilla's Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan was palpable. While Barcelona's players celebrated a last gasp 3-2 comeback victory on the pitch, home coach Michel grimaced in disgust from the stands, unrepeatable chants aimed at referee Mateu Lahoz rang around the ground and Sevilla's players lamented two key late decisions that they felt had gone Barca's way: a red card for a supposed head-butt by Gary Medel on Cesc Fabregas at 2-1 in Barca's favour with less than 20 minutes remaining and a possible handball by Barca's Thiago Alcantara that was ignored by the officials before Barca's 89th minute equaliser.
Sunday morning's local papers echoed this rage. 'Nervion does not give up points, they were robbed,' screamed the cover of Sunday morning's Estadio Deportivo. 'From scandal to scandal,' was El Correo de Andalucia's front-page headline.
Barca midfielder Fabregas was at the centre of the storm, not for his two finely taken goals but because TV replays suggested that he at least made the most of what contact there had been from the Chilean midfielder's forehead. When pressed to explain live on Spanish TV by Canal Plus reporter Ricado Sierra, Cesc retorted: "If you want, I'll do it to you and you can tell me if it's a red card." This looked the reaction of someone who knew he had done wrong but did not want to admit it.
The game had begun in the same manner as Real Madrid's visit two weeks ago, with the Rojiblancos' German midfielder Piotr Trochowski rifling in an early opening goal. But where Sevilla had been able to hold out for 89 minutes against Jose Mourinho's side, Barcelona took the points through substitute David Villa's injury-time winner, again showing an ability to come through tricky away matches, by whatever means possible, which they had not displayed last season under Pep Guardiola.
"It would be better not to suffer in games, but the key is to have a capacity for sacrifice," Tito Vilanova said. "We did a lot and we did it well. At the end we had to take risks. I do not think a draw would have been a fair result. We had many more chances, enough to win the game."
Vilanova was also full of praise for Fabregas, whose last La Liga goal had come back on January 8 at Espanyol. Right up until the 53rd minute, when a loose ball fell his way on the edge of the Sevilla box, the ex-Arsenal man had looked out of touch and low on confidence. When his first-time strike flew past Sevilla 'keeper Andres Palop, the celebration was more a release of frustration than an outpouring of joy, and from there he - along, of course, with Lionel Messi - was Barca's key player.
"Cesc has again today been at a very high level," Vilanova said. "He always has such a will to win - you could see that in the first goal. Each day he is getting better. I do not know how many kilometres he ran today."
Although the views on Fabregas were split, there was agreement from everyone that Mateu Lahoz - known in Spain as a referee who lets the game flow, and for that reason as Mourinho's favourite official - had been poor. Vilanova thought the head-butt decision had been correct, but was still not satisfied.
"Mateu Lahoz changes the way you play, not the result," he said. "The point comes when the players do not know what is a foul and what is not. He leaves me confused."
If Vilanova was "confused" by some decisions then Sevilla coach Michel was more than baffled, after a game in which his players were penalised for 15 fouls to Barca's three, and also claimed a penalty when Jordi Alba seemed to clip Alvaro Negredo's heels inside the area at 2-0. The ex-Getafe boss denied he had said anything to deserve his banishment to the stands but stressed he preferred not to give any more attention to Mateu Lahoz.
"I do not want to talk about the referee as that would take away from players who played excellently tonight," he said. "Sevilla were punished very harshly. It makes you angry to lose having played like that."
That was fair from a coach whose reputation is increasing game by game. After overcoming an initial spell of Barcelona dominance, Sevilla were not flattered by a 2-0 lead early in the second half. This was no parking of the bus and hoping for a 0-0 but a cleverly set trap into which the Catalan side seemed to have fallen. Twin pivotes Medel (when on the pitch) and Hedwiges Maduro provided a solid base, allowing fellow midfielder Ivan Rakitic the space to regularly spring winger Jesus Navas and the excellent Alvaro Negredo in attack. Medel also got forward to set up both his side's goals.
"I believe in my team, in what we are doing," Michel said. "I focus on my own team, who were very good. We do not deserve to go home without any prize. We lost in the last five minutes, against a team like Barcelona, having played with a player less. I congratulate my players."
The former Madrid midfielder's decision to look to attack Barca's makeshift central defensive pairing of Alex Song and Javier Mascherano made sense, with both again looking more than rocky. Song was too easily bypassed as Negredo expertly took Sevilla's second goal, while Mascherano was regularly in trouble when the ball was played behind him.
With the centre not holding the full-backs struggled too. Dani Alves - back in the stadium where he made his name - was at fault for Trochowski's opener, while Jordi Alba had his hands full with the superb Navas. Again the injured Gerard Pique and especially Carles Puyol were missed.
"It would be better not to have any absentees and even more when they are men like Pique and Puyol," said Vilanova, who then stretched credibility a little. "Song played very well, at a very high level, taking into account that we played many minutes with just three at the back."
At the end, though, Barca had the three points, and the extra boost of Villa confirming his own return to sharpness, with his third goal in just 112 on-pitch minutes for Barca this season. Six wins from their opening six La Liga games equals a club record held by former coaches James Bellamy, Johan Cruyff, Louis van Gaal and Guardiola. Only under Bethnal Green-born Bellamy, back in 1929-30, has a league trophy not followed such a start.
A win over Madrid at the Camp Nou next Saturday, and the bookies might stop taking bets on this season's La Liga title race. Even though his side have yet to come close to the fluency displayed in their best moments under Guardiola, they are finding ways to keep winning, while internal strife continues to hamper Mourinho's team. Even better for Vilanova, Andres Iniesta and Puyol are both back in the squad for Tuesday's Champions League group game at Benfica.
Saturday's events in Sevilla showed that, by hook or by crook, things are falling into place very nicely for the new Barca head coach.