Offshore drilling, Spain: Barcelona 3, at Málaga 1

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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.

Allardyce: Referee Moss “wasn’t brave enough” to send off Wanyama

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Sam Allardyce is feeling strong these days (and every day).

The Crystal Palace manager is disappointed in referee Jon Moss after the head official failed to give Victor Wanyama a second yellow card following a tackle on Andros Townsend in the first half of Spurs’ 1-0 win over Crystal Palace on Wednesday.

Sitting on yellow for a foul on Luka Milivojevic, Wanyama slid late on Townsend. The midfielder certainly made sure it looked worse than it was, but even without the tomfoolery it could’ve been a yellow.

[ RECAP: Palace 0-1 Spurs | Pochettino reacts ]

Moss instead gave Wanyama a talking-to, and Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino subbed the fiery midfielder at halftime. Allardyce isn’t too happy, as a dismissal may have given his side a chance at adding Spurs to its list of defeated Top Four candidates.

From the BBC:

“The second challenge was the worst. Mauricio was very clever to sub him at half time. I think the referee made the wrong decision, I don’t think he was brave enough.”

Woah. That merits a punishment for someone like Jose Mourinho, so let’s see if the FA sends a fine Allardyce’s way. To be fair to Big Sam, we wouldn’t have been surprised to see that second yellow.

Yet it wouldn’t take that much “bravery” to send Wanyama off at Selhurst Park as opposed to, say, White Hart Lane. For what it’s worth, Moss has sent off three players this season and one of them was Granit Xhaka at home for Arsenal against Swansea.

La Liga wrap: Real, Barca boast blowouts

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La Liga isn’t exactly competitive from top to bottom, and both Real Madrid and chasing Barcelona took advantage of weaker competition on Wednesday.

[ RECAP: Palace 0-1 Spurs ]


Deportivo de la Coruna 2-6 Real Madrid

When your “B Team” includes James Rodriguez and a certain Alvaro Morata, life is pretty good.

Zinedine Zidane watched as Real took another step toward a first La Liga title since 2011-12 behind a James brace and markers from Morata (below, with style), Lucas Vazquez, Casemiro, and Isco.

Barcelona 7-1 Osasuna

Barca effectively relegated Osasuna. Despite braces from Lionel Messi, Paco Alcacer, and Andre Gomes, the headlines were stolen by Javier Mascherano.

The Argentine scored his first ever Barca goal in just his 318th appearance for the club.

Elsewhere

Leganes 3-0 Las Palmas – Luciano Neves bags brace.
Valencia 2-3 Real Sociedad – Visitors build 3-0 lead.

Standings

 

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Barcelona 34 24 6 4 101 33 68 13-3-1 11-3-3 78
 Real Madrid 33 24 6 3 90 38 52 12-4-1 12-2-2 78
 Atlético Madrid 34 20 8 6 60 25 35 12-2-3 8-6-3 68
 Sevilla 33 19 8 6 58 39 19 12-3-1 7-5-5 65
 Villarreal 34 17 9 8 49 27 22 10-3-4 7-6-4 60
 Real Sociedad 34 18 4 12 52 47 5 9-4-4 9-0-8 58
 Athletic 33 17 5 11 46 37 9 12-3-2 5-2-9 56
 Eibar 33 14 8 11 52 45 7 9-3-5 5-5-6 50
 Espanyol 34 13 11 10 45 44 1 8-5-4 5-6-6 50
 Celta Vigo 32 13 5 14 48 52 -4 9-1-6 4-4-8 44
 Alavés 33 11 11 11 32 40 -8 5-7-4 6-4-7 44
 Valencia 34 11 7 16 49 59 -10 7-4-6 4-3-10 40
 Las Palmas 34 10 9 15 52 61 -9 9-6-2 1-3-13 39
 Málaga 34 10 9 15 40 49 -9 8-2-6 2-7-9 39
 Betis 33 10 7 16 36 51 -15 6-6-5 4-1-11 37
 Deportivo 34 7 10 17 37 57 -20 6-5-6 1-5-11 31
 Leganes 34 7 9 18 30 51 -21 4-5-8 3-4-10 30
 Sporting de Gijón 34 5 9 20 37 67 -30 4-3-10 1-6-10 24
 Granada 34 4 8 22 27 72 -45 4-4-9 0-4-13 20
 Osasuna 34 3 9 22 35 82 -47 1-6-10 2-3-12 18

Pochettino: “Challenge is to keep going” ahead of North London Derby

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Mauricio Pochettino was thrilled to see Tottenham Hotspur’s title push continue with a win over in-form Crystal Palace on Wednesday.

Spurs won 1-0 on a beautiful Christian Eriksen goal from distance, moving back to within four points of Premier League leading Chelsea.

[ RECAP: Palace 0-1 Spurs ]

Pochettino’s men didn’t stop fighting for the winner despite relentless fight from the home side, with improving mettle on display this season.

“Unbelievable. Very good performance. I think second half we played much better than in the first half. It was difficult in the first half for us to move the ball and find the space but we changed the shape at half time and it was more fluid, we started to find the space and started to push Palace deeper and deeper.”

After two tough London Derbies — Spurs fell 4-2 to Chelsea in Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal — Tottenham now has the big one: a visit from Arsenal in the North London Derby.

“It was good to get the three points and be alive in the race for the title. The challenge is to keep going. It is always better to win but it is true [the Arsenal game] is a big derby, perhaps the last at White Hart Lane and I think it will be an exciting game.”

We’re ready for it. Spurs will be favored to pick up all three points, but all bets are off when it comes to the NLD. That’s especially true considering the ticking Top Four clock for Arsenal and the title fight for Spurs.

Palace 0-1 Spurs: Eriksen saves the day

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  • Sakho stretchered off
  • Eriksen rescues title hope
  • Spurs four back of Chelsea

Palace made them work for it.

Tottenham Hotspur didn’t exactly sends chills down the spine of Chelsea with its performance, but Spurs found a way past tricky and in-form Crystal Palace on Wednesday at Selhurst Park.

Christian Eriksen‘s pretty goal sealed the three points for Spurs, who have five matches to chase down four points from the Blues.

Palace sits 12th, seven points clear of 18th place Swansea City.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Two in-forms started with confidence, Harry Kane lashing wide of the frame for Spurs and Wilfried Zaha driving Palace on the right wing.

Another in-form Eagles attacker, Christian Benteke, did well to create space and hit a low shot that forced Hugo Lloris to ground.

Victor Wanyama was on yellow when he slid to intercept Andros Townsend, taking the Englishman to the turf. Jon Moss gave Wanyama a harsh warning, but did not produce the red card.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Moussa Sissoko and Son Heung-min were called upon soon after the break to liven up Spurs attack.

The substitution that stood to shake up the match was Palace center back Mamadou Sakho, who was hurt with about 40 minutes to play.

Eriksen stung a shot across goal for the eventual winner, a rare moment of class from a three-match day that didn’t quite fit the standard of the Premier League.