At his post-game press conference on Saturday night it seemed Gerardo Martino’s biggest problem ahead of Barcelona’s Champions League last 16 first leg at Manchester City is who to start.
Martino had played eight of tomorrow night’s likely starting XI against Rayo Vallecano at the Camp Nou — Xavi Hernandez was resting a troublesome calf muscle, and defenders Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba substitutes. Barca were 1-0 up inside 100 seconds, and not at all flattered by the 6-0 final scoreline.
The night’s star turn was once again Lionel Messi. The Argentine forward has taken a while to pick up full match fitness since returning from injury in January, but could already have had two or three before he finally scored with a sweet chip over Rayo goalkeeper Ruben just after the half-hour mark. After completely dominating proceedings — and rifling in Barca’s fifth goal from 20 yards — he was substituted with 15 minutes remaining as Martino thought of tomorrow.
“I hope Leo has still not reached his top level,” the coach said. “We are in the presence of a player who appears only once every 30 or 40 years.”
Messi’s first goal was made by Cesc Fabregas, who had an excellent game while taking on Xavi’s play-making role for the night.
Martino is still trying to find a way to fit those two, plus Andres Iniesta, into his XI (a problem which even stumped Pep Guardiola) and might squeeze them all in tomorrow night.
“Iniesta, Cesc or Xavi all have the ability to read the game,” ‘Tata said. “The two ‘interiores’ (Cesc and Iniesta) played very complete matches. For the 90 minutes they controlled all elements of the game.”
Fabregas’ greater athleticism could see him in the middle against Yaya Toure and company, with Iniesta pushed wide-left. Right-wing looks a battle between Alexis Sanchez (who fired in the third against Rayo) and Pedro (who tapped in the fourth). Or at least it did until €86m summer signing Neymar appeared from the bench after a month out with an ankle injury and hammered the sixth from 35 yards.
“It is difficult to pick a team when you have all these players available,” Martino said. “They all deserve to play.”
Asked if the performance was a message to anyone watching in Manchester ahead of the last 16 ties, the Argentine coach was more cautious.
“This game is the best message we could send to ourselves,” he said. “Playing like this, our chances grow. I always believe we can play better.”
6-0 was a nice warm-up, but City manager Manuel Pellegrini knows Barcelona from his spells coaching Villarreal, Real Madrid and Malaga, and does not share Rayo coach Paco Jemez’s attacking approach.
Barca’s players were unlikely to have been watching City’s tactically impressive 2-0 FA Cup win over Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea just before they kicked off.
Tomorrow Pellegrini will likely have fit-again Spain international Javi Garcia covering behind Yaya Toure in midfield, patrolling the area Messi likes to operate in.
But the space left down the right-wing by David Silva drifting infield could be exploited by Barca, with Dani Alves pushing forward, and Messi perhaps dropping that side to receive the ball.
What is sure is both teams will look to dominate possession, not just sit back and defend, Martino reckoned.
“Against City, the team which manages the ball best, and has it for longer, has a better chance of going through,” he said.
It already looks like the tie of the round.
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