In this week’s Weekly Podium, Barcelona’s win at the Mestalla takes top prize, while transfer market blunders earn Manchester United the Brick award. Eric Krakauer takes a snapshot of the best and worst in European football.
Thirty-nine minutes into this game, and you would be complaining that yet another team was hardly putting up a fight against Barcelona, in a league that is routinely criticized for being a two-horse race. Messi was on his way to a hat trick – which he completed two minutes later – and Valencia looked stunned into self-destruction.
By halftime, though, Helder Postiga had pulled two goals back, setting up a tantalizing second half, which offered everything except more goals. In the end, Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium played venue to arguably the most exciting matchup in this fledgling European season.
Barcelona began the game looking like a team that had rediscovered its attacking verve. Cesc Fabregas pulled the strings in place of Xavi, who was rested, Neymar was more influential and appeared more adapted to his new role and teammates, and Messi looked like…Messi. The Argentine capitalized on two of Valencia’s mistakes, and then slotted his third after a swift combination with Fabregas and Neymar, with the Brazilian assisting the four-time Ballon d’Or winner. Messi’s hat trick was the twenty-third of his career, and increases his tally of away goals to 100 in 125 appearances.
However, it wasn’t Messi that provided the moment of the game. Postiga, the man brought in to replace Roberto Soldado, produced that moment when he smashed a volley past Victor Valdes in spectacular style, only four minutes after Messi scored his third. Clearly inspired, the Portuguese headed his second just a minute later, exposing Barcelona’s set-piece defending.
The second half proved just as exciting, but this time it was both goalkeepers that took center stage with some incredible saves. Diego Alves foiled Messi twice, when it looked certain that he would score, and Valdes continued the fine form he displayed against Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa by denying Jonas the equalizer.
Valencia may have left the pitch defeated, but Miroslav Djukic’s team looks good enough to compete for a Champions League position, even though Soldado claimed he departed the club because it lacked ambition. Although, Tottenham’s new man may soon be forgotten if Postiga continues to score at the current pace. Paulo Bento can only hope that the forward does the same when Portugal plays Northern Ireland in its next qualifier.
Barcelona, on the other hand, are beginning to look more like the cohesive unit that breezed through the league, last season. Tata Martino stated that he saw his best Barcelona, but he should still be concerned about the team’s ability to defend set-pieces. One has to wonder why the Catalans gave up their search for a center-back. Fortunately, in his current form, Valdes will be very hard to beat.