By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
There have been a few howlers from Victor Valdes this season, but the biggest blunder of all arrived, unexpectedly, on Thursday. The goalkeeper, via his agents, stunned Barcelona as it was announced he would be refusing their offer of a new contract. The decision is understandable; the timing terrible.
The night before, Barca had played perhaps their sloppiest 45 minutes of the season at Camp Nou as they conceded a last-minute equaliser against Malaga in a Copa del Rey quarter-final first leg, a game which they had dominated entirely after coming back from a goal down in the first period. Then Valdes' bombshell brought a mixture of anger and shock on Thursday, and although the club attempted to play down its significance ahead of Saturday's tough trip to Real Sociedad, it was far from ideal preparation for a fixture the Catalans had failed to win in either of the previous two seasons.
Barca lost 2-1 at Anoeta in 2010-11 and let a two-goal lead escape from their grasp in a 2-2 draw last term. Such slipshod showings do not often occur with this team, but history repeated itself on Saturday as the Catalans quickly assumed a winning position and then threw it away. Lionel Messi's early drive and Pedro's close-range strike saw the visitors go two up early on amid partial floodlight failure. The lighting may have been poor, but Barca's players were having no problem picking each other out in their bright yellow and orange shirts.
|A CONTROVERSIAL CHARACTER
|Victor Valdes is a popular player among Barcelona fans and a key element in the club's three Champions League triumphs in 2006, 2009 and 2011, but the goalkeeper has never been far from controversy in his time at Camp Nou.
After he was promoted to the first team by Louis van Gaal in 2002, Valdes refused to turn up for a game with the B side as he sat at home and declined to answer his phone. He was subsequently fined €12,000 and forced to say sorry.
Then, in 2009, he upset fans and club officials alike by demanding a higher salary than both Xavi and Andres Iniesta, asking Barca for €9 million per year in tense contract negotiations which were eventually resolved.
His prickly personality also affected his international career and he was not called up to the Spain squad until 2010.
Valdes' performances this season have been off colour and the revelation, via the media in a statement to Spain's news agency EFE on Thursday, that he will leave when his contract expires, has angered both fans and the media in Barcelona. Many now want him out.
Real Sociedad were playing well too, though, and the Basques saw a strike ruled out for offside at 2-0 down. They then pulled one back through Gonzalo 'Chori' Castro five minutes before the break and the game swung in the locals' favour after Gerard Pique was dismissed with just over half an hour still to play. The defender had been booked for failing to allow Carlos Vela to take a quick free kick in the first half and had carried on arguing with referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco. That, presumably, did not go down too well with the Pamplona-born official and the 25-year-old was given his marching orders for a fairly innocuous foul after 56 minutes.
It was his sixth sending-off as a Barcelona player but perhaps the most costly as Tito Vilanova's team then saw Castro equalise six minutes later and Imanol Agirretxe shocked the visitors with a winner in added time. If anything, Barca had looked the more likely to claim all three points, but Agirretxe exploited space in the visiting defence to poke home and the Catalans suffered their first loss in La Liga this term.
Barca remain very much in control of their Primera Division destiny; Atletico Madrid can close the gap to eight points with a win over Levante on Sunday, while Real will still be 15 behind even if they triumph on a tough trip to Valencia on the same day.
There is, therefore, no reason for alarm. The Catalans have claimed 18 wins from their 20 matches in La Liga this term, a 90 per cent winning success rate, and remain in complete control at the top of the table. Nevertheless, the events of this week will worry their fans as the business end of the season approaches.
Valdes was not at fault for the goals, with the spotlight surrounding Pique's dismissal. Many of his team-mates claimed the expulsion had been unjust, while Pedro told reporters that the red card had "conditioned" the match. It was certainly a contributing factor, but the defender was warned by Vilanova at half-time to take care as he was already on a yellow and Andres Iniesta was later extremely fortunate to escape a second booking and an early bath himself. So Barca can have few complaints.
Tito's team now need to take stock and regroup ahead of their crucial cup clash at Malaga next week. After the sides' 2-2 draw in the first leg, victory or a high score draw will send the Catalans through to a possible Clasico meeting with Madrid in the semi-finals. But failure to do so will see another trophy chance go astray.
Meanwhile, Valdes is set to explain himself to the press early next week. The goalkeeper should have known better than publicly revealing his contract snub through his agents and the media. His actions did nothing to help team morale at a time when their coach is continuing to fight serious illness and with the side's next big test just around the corner, the sooner it is all cleared up, the better.
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