Sevilla 2 Barcelona 3
Pep Guardiola’s first failure to win a competition as Barcelona coach arrived well over a year after taking charge at the Camp Nou. It came at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in Seville. That night, Manolo Jimenez’s men were completely outplayed by a rampant Barca and suffered a 1-0 defeat but advanced to the next round of the Copa del Rey on away goals, having triumphed 2-1 in the first leg. This time, they faced the same side now coached instead by Antonio Alvarez.
When Barca are playing well, they zip the ball around and probe constantly for openings in the opposition defence. When they desperately need a goal, they do not resort to long-ball tactics in the traditional manner of teams chasing a game. They play exactly the same way but, improbably, even quicker. The urgency Barca showed in the second half that night made for some startling football, perhaps the best they have ever played under Guardiola, despite their eventual exit from the competition.
So the Blaugrana made the trip back to Andalucia for arguably their most important game of the domestic season with much confidence. Within just five minutes, they were vindicated to a degree. Maxwell stormed forward from left-back, a clear demonstration of Barca’s attacking intentions if one was ever needed. His excellent pass found Lionel Messi, who eluded two markers in familiar fashion before lashing an angled drive away from Andres Palop into the far corner.
Barca were settled and they continued to press as Sevilla struggled to impose themselves on the champions. On paper, it looked a very tricky penultimate game of the season. In reality, it looked a damning indictment of the massive gulf between the top two sides in Spain and their nearest contenders.
The blue-and-red shirts continued to flood forward. Soon enough, Xavi’s delicate lofted through ball placed Bojan through on goal to double the visitors’ lead. In contrast, Sevilla offered no more than a single Luis Fabiano effort in the way of an answer.
After the interval, the home side improved but not to any great effect. Barca’s miniature three-pronged strikeforce soon punished them. Firstly, Bojan skipped down the left side and cleverly accelerated away from Sevilla right-back Abdoulay Konko. All the Frenchman could do to halt the youngster’s progress was to tug his shirt gratuitously. In return, Konko received his marching orders.
The third goal arrived when Pedro fired expertly into the far corner on the half-volley and it looked all over. Bojan shot wastefully wide after exceptional play from Messi down the right but it appeared insignificant as his side led by three. And with Real Madrid in the process of being held to a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu by Athletic Bilbao, the title would have been Barca’s by the end of the night had the scorelines stayed the same.
Suddenly, Barca’s backline crumbled. First Frederic Kanoute and then Fabiano took advantage to reduce the arrears to just one goal with twenty minutes remaining. On the sidelines, Guardiola was furious. The Barca coach slammed the wall of his dugout with his palm as Kanoute pulled Sevilla back into the game and this anger increased when his strike partner profited from non-existent marking at an innocuous deep free kick.
The nerves set in. Kanoute unsuccessfully claimed for what would have been a soft spot kick when Puyol looked to block him off in the area. Again, Barca needed a goal to ease the growing tension. Events at the Bernabeu were exacerbating Barca’s discomfort as Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema and Marcelo pulled Real four goals clear of ten-man Athletic.
He conveys such a cool and collected manner for long spells but as the game headed into injury time, Guardiola was a bundle of nervous energy. His arms were waving agitatedly. His eyes were anxious. One final long throw from Sevilla’s Lithuanian substitute Marius Stankevicius was safely repelled and Barcelona had clinched a crucial victory.
The way their players celebrated on the pitch at the final whistle, it seemed as though they had clinched the league title itself. Three points against Valladolid at the Camp Nou next weekend and that dream will become reality. Anyone betting against?