By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Editor
For 45 minutes at Mestalla last night, Valencia made Barcelona look ordinary. This was the Catalans' third 2-2 draw in the space of 10 days, but unlike the other two, they could very easily have lost this one.
Against Real Sociedad at Anoeta, Barca had raced into a 2-0 lead and were left stunned by the Basques' second-half comeback in a game they should have had wrapped up before the interval. Three days later, at home to AC Milan, they conceded after a minute but were one up heading into the last 60 seconds - having had 75 per cent of the possession - and were somewhat unfortunate to be hit by Thiago Silva's last-gasp leveller. This was different.
Unai Emery's Valencia have never beaten Barca, as Mestalla has proved a happy hunting ground in the past for the men in red and blue, who had won 30 times in 76 league games in this away fixture, one more than the home side themselves. Barca had needed a late Lionel Messi goal to seal a 1-0 win in last season's corresponding clash, while Pep Guardiola's side were forced to dig deep at Camp Nou to come from behind and claim a 2-1 victory over Emery's men. Valencia had also won their first three league matches to top the table.
Barca knew, therefore, that they would be in for a game.
Road runner | Mathieu exploited the huge spaces down the left against Barca
Valencia let the Mestalla grass grow a little longer than usual in an attempt to unsettle Barca's fluid passing style. And it worked. Guardiola's men struggled to stroke the ball around with their usual precision and fluency, although much of that was to do with Valencia's excellent work off the ball and pressing in midfield. Even Messi was looking frustrated, staying on the turf when he wasn't given a foul by the referee following contact with Adil Rami close to the Valencia penalty area, and later scuffing a dreadful pass straight to a rival in central midfield.
The locals needed an own goal from Eric Abidal to take the lead and saw that advantage wiped out by Pedro just one minute later. But Barca were struggling to live with the home side's high-tempo game, and Pablo Hernandez was given both time and space to blast home a second midway through the first period.
Both of Valencia's goals arrived from the left flank, with full-back Jeremy Mathieu - playing as a winger and ably assisted by Jordi Alba, who was sent off right at the end for dissent - striding forward at will to exploit the spaces left by Barca's three-man back-line, and, in particular, Dani Alves.
The Brazilian was again pushed high up the pitch as he began as an extra midfielder. But instead of attacking freely as he did in the 8-0 demolition of Osasuna at the weekend, he was left exposed and stagnant, offering little in attack or defence, thus leaving Barca's three defenders, Abidal, Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol - who, like Valencia's David Albelda, was making his 350th league appearance for his club - under enormous pressure.
“It was a wonderful spectacle. We could have won at the end, but they had their chances earlier so I believe a draw is a fair result.”
- Pep Guardiola
Puyol still looks some way short of his best and lacks match fitness following a long spell on the sidelines. The Barca captain avoided punishment as he handled right on the edge of the area shortly before half-time and allowed in-form Roberto Soldado to escape his attentions, only for the striker to miss an open goal from just two yards out as he scuffed the ball in the wrong direction. It was a lucky let-off for the visitors.
Guardiola's decision to play 3-4-3 had looked flawed, although Alves can appear suspect as a defender even whan playing further back anyway, as evidenced by the fact that Emery's side had exposed the Brazilian at Camp Nou last season as well. With Puyol struggling somewhat, as Mathieu admitted after the game, Barca's defence - without the injured Gerard Pique - continues to look threadbare. Everyone at the club will hope that the pair can resume their excellent partnership before too long.
Even if they do, Valencia proved that Barca can be vulnerable when put under sustained pressure. The problem comes later, when players inevitably tire. That is exactly what happened to the home side last night as they lost midfield lynchpin Albelda to injury and Guardiola's men pressed high up the pitch in the second half, with Alves restored to a full-back role. The Catalans eventually found an equaliser through the excellent Cesc Fabregas, who became the first Barca midfielder ever to score in his first four league games, and could have gone on and won it as they missed several chances late on and saw a Messi penalty appeal turned down by the referee.
“We are content, but we're not happy because we wanted to win the game. We took advantage of the spaces, but not as much as we wanted to.”
- Unai Emery
After the game, both coaches declared themselves content with the point, which was a fair result on the balance of play. But Guardiola will be the happier of the two, having seen his side emerge from a tough away fixture with a draw, which had earlier seemed unlikely, and a point which keeps them one ahead of Real Madrid, who were frustrated in a goalless encounter at Racing Santander earlier on Wednesday. The Barca boss will, however, remain concerned at his side's defensive frailties, an issue he may now look to address in January.
Valencia, meanwhile, remain on top of the pile with 10 points from their four matches. Can they win the league? It's unlikely, but they have continued their excellent form from the end of last season and it will be interesting to see how long they can keep pace with Spain's big two. Certainly, they have set the benchmark for other sides facing Barcelona in the league.
Before the game, their former coach Rafa Benitez was announced to the crowd and stood up to receive the recognition from the club's fans, having led Valencia to the title in 2002 and 2004. The current side on show at Mestalla looks just as good as either of those teams, having stood toe-to-toe with the best team in the world last night. Now, other sides will look to do the same.
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