VILLARREAL - BARCELONA
Sandro hands Barça three golden points in El Madrigal
Canarian academy product came off the bench to score the only goal of the game, despite Barcelona's dominance in possession.
Luis Enrique's decision to seek a meritocracy at Barcelona continues to bear fruit. In El Madrigal, one of the trickiest stadiums in the league, Barcelona gained three points that were earned by digging deep when youth team product Sandro fired home the only goal of the game. It had to be Sandro; Sandro, as his namesake Rosell said when he was still at the helm of the club, never misses. And if that is true it is thanks to this new version of Leo Messi, who puts more goals on a plate than he scores.
Messi has been accused, perhaps not without good reason, of being a player who gobbles up the space other forward need to thrive, like an invasive alga that kills off the ecosystem attempting to survive by its side. Faced with Messi, strikers of the calibre of Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa have all thrown in the towel but it seems that, as is the case with the cruellest of species in the natural world, Messi is merciful to the creatures that spring up within his environment. The Argentinean looks after Sandro as he does Munir; an alpha tiger teaching his cubs to hunt.
It would not be fair to gird Barcelona’s success in El Madrigal solely on Messi, who is unfolding like a butterfly when previously he was a hornet. Luis Enrique’s boldness also merits praise. The manager was not afraid to field Munir from the outset, or Sandro in the second half, both young players whose hunger reaffirms the Asturian’s theory of meritocracy, based on the first of his commandments and the next ten: he who trains best will play. On this dictum Enrique selected his line-up against Villarreal, with the caveat that Messi is perhaps more equal than his comrades: because he is worth it, because he has earned that right, because he is the best player in the world and because he has accepted the task of taking two young players nurtured by Enrique under his wing.
Barcelona find themselves in a curious situation: for the first time in a long time the starting line-up is unpredictable and the idea of fierce competition for places is not a slogan, but a fact to be obeyed. Not one of the sports dailies correctly second-guessed Enrique’s pan in El Madrigal: we all had opted for Xavi and Neymar in the starting 11. Rafinha and Pedro got the nod.
And it came to pass that Sandro put the finishing touch to the hard work Messi put in across 90 minutes, who kneaded the game like a baker treats his dough; without haste, sometimes with more urgency and sometimes with a gentle touch, but always in perfect control.
Barcelona were tactically perfect in the first half; everything that Luis Enrique had planned unfolded on the pitch, except the opening goal. Chances were created and Barça dominated but Pedro and Munir both failed to break the deadlock. Messi rattled a post from a free-kick and Víctor Ruiz intervened providently to prevent Barça going ahead as the visitor turned the screw, but they were also a little flat.
In the second half, to conjure a remedy to his side’s lack of penetration, Enrique summoned Neymar from the bench. Subsequently, Barcelona wasted a host of chances and Villarreal twice hit the post. But, still lacking teeth, Enrique turned to Sandro, who following Xavi’s lead and Messi’s dangerous run, scored the golden goal for his team.