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Offshore drilling, Spain: Barcelona 3, at Málaga 1

Jan 13, 2013, 11:14 PM EDT

Malaga CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Getty Images

The typical formula for combating Barcelona is absorb their attack, stay very deep and compact, and on rely on counters. While the approach rarely leads to results, teams like Celtic, Chelsea, and Rubin Kazan have had success. Only José Mourinho’s Real Madrid has been able to go blow-for-blow with their rivals (and during the Special One’s first year in Madrid, it was too close to literal blows).

That’s why it’s surprising when a team like Málaga not only plays Barcelona straight up but is able to compete with Spain’s runaway leaders. For over a half on Sunday, only an aberrational first half mistake separated the two sides.

In the second, however, a Cesc Fabregas goal doubled Barcelona’s lead, and although Málaga again dialed up the intensity after a brief period of shock, Barcelona a superficially comfortable 3-1 victory.

It’s not exaggeration to say this game could have gone either way. Ignacio Camacho’s ill-advised first half back pass (after a collision between Málaga teammates on a Willy Caballero goal kick) gifted Lionel Messi the half’s only goal. Before that, Málaga was almost as dangerous as Barcelona, frequently able to get at their opponent down Barça’s right flank.

Given the tenacity with which Málaga was playing, the game may have broke differently were it not for one unfortunate, atypical mistake.

Man of the Match: Barcelona was playing, right? OK, then: Lionel Messi was Man of the Match.

The choice is both the default and justified. While the opening goal was gifted — Camacho’s backpass easily intercepted before Messi rounded Caballero at the edge of the area to finish into an open net — Messi assisted on each of Barça’s other goals. In the second half, a nice 20-yard diagonal allowed Fábregas to race past Sergio Sánchez and finish against Caballero’s left post. On Thiago Alcantera’s 82nd minute goal, Messi laid off a pass to the substitute midfielder ahead of his 19-yard blast.

(MORE: Video of Messi’s goal Sunday)

By Messi’s standards, it was an average day. He less dominant than opportunistic, but in match where Málaga’s tenaciousness held most of his teammates in check, the Ballon d’ Or winner was still the game’s best player.

Threesome of knowledge

1. Beware Málaga in Champions League - Spain-based Guardian and Sports Illustrated correspondent Sid Lowe was high on Málaga’s chances to go far in Champions League when December’s knockout round draw was made. Manuel Pellegrini’s team had cruised through their group, but against a floundering Milan, a Zenit squad in turmoil, and an outgunned Anderlecht, it was difficult to gauge how ready Málaga was for the next phase.

If Málaga plays like they did today, they’ll be a major threat in the knockout round. Few teams have players like Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Sergio Busquets in midfield. The elite talents of that trio were the only thing that kept Barcelona in control at the Rosaleda. Were it not for the midfielder-esque skills of central defenders Gerard Pique and (to a lesser extent) Javier Mascherano, Barça would have been thrown off by high pressure from Roque Santa Cruz and  (and Jeremy Toulalan and Camacho in behind them). Less talented teams would have crumbled.

Even Real Madrid at their best — as talented but slower than Barcelona — would have had trouble. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are capable of dealing with Málaga, but teams like Manchester United, Juventus, and Paris Saint Germain? They’d struggle.

Porto – Málaga’s Round of 16 opponent? They’re in trouble.

2. That extra dimension of Andrés Iniesta - Were it not for Andrés Iniesta’s ability to turn upfield and move the ball vertically, Barcelona may have been relegated to knocking the ball sideways to try and get around Toulalan and Camacho. But at various moments in the match (most importantly, during Málaga’s last surge in the middle of the second half), Iniesta’s ability to dribble through Málaga’s initial pressure was the only thing that allowed Barcelona to keep the ball.

It was an example of the exquisite balance in Barcelona’s midfield. Neither Xavi nor Busquets are capable of carrying the ball like Iniesta, yet Iniesta can’t run a game like Xavi. And neither man’s capable of providing Busquets’ support.

Today, Barcelona needed Iniesta to shine. When teams pack it in, they’ll need Xavi to unlock them. And against teams that can win the ball and counter through the middle, Busquets will need to step up.

3. Barcelona’s defense coming around - Early this season, Barcelona’s defense looked suspect, but because their opponents rarely had the ball, the goals allowed numbers stayed low. Yet when you watched Tito Vilanova’s team you couldn’t help but wonder what teams like Bayern Munich would do to them in Champions League.

Now the defense is coming around. During Málaga’s first half advances, the back stayed organized as attacks into the space behind Daniel Alves forced the defense to reorganize. Gerard Pique (playing right-center half) calmly forced the play away from goal, where Sergio Busquets dropping into the back left the team prepared to deal with Málaga’s followup.

Instead of seeing their defenders isolated and desperate, Barcelona fans saw their team coolly deal with the type of attacks they’ll see against the world’s better teams. And with their defense playing better, those fans have reason to expect their guys will hold up.

Packaged for takeaway

  • By the end of the game, Barcelona’s possession number was at a typical 64 percent, though the shots on goal only favored them 4-2. Most of possession came in the second half after Fábregas’s goal temporarily disillusioned Málaga.
  • At times, there seems to be little difference between the team’s two right backs: Spanish internationals Jordi Alba (Barcelona) and Nacho Monreal (Malaga). But in the second half, Alba flashed the quality that sets him apart, coming from nowhere to overlap Iniesta in the box during one mid-half movement. Nothing came of it, but the speed with which Alba joined the attack created a “yeah, that’s what makes him different” moment.
  • Were it not for some strong reads early from Caballero, Barcelona may have rolled out to a typically easy victory. Three times in the first half hour Caballero charged off his line to deal with attacks. Still, it was an early stop on Lionel Messi that really deserves some attention. It wasn’t a leaping save, so you won’t see it in a highlight, but in going to ground on his right arm before reaching across his body to stop the ball with his left, Caballero showed the type of athleticism that’s often overlooked. A lot of goalkeepers can make the leaping stop, but to be able to both divert an attacker and recover to block his followup is something that would ask too much of a lot of pure shot-stoppers.
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