On Sunday, FC Barcelona traveled to Pamplona, looking to extend its unbeaten run in La Liga to 17 games against bottom-of-the-table Osasuna. Despite facing a very spirited Osasuna side supported by an outstanding crowd of nearly 20,000 fans, not to mention a blinding fog that thickened as the game went on, Barça was not expected to encounter much trouble en route to three points. What they did find was a classic brawl and a home side that had not come to simply serve as punching bags for Barça. In the game’s dying minutes, La Blaugrana trailing last-place Osasuna, and were face-to-face with an upset defeat for the ages.
What a difference a year makes! Had this game taken place 2007-08 season, trailing an inferior opponent in a hostile environment, it would not have been at all surprising to see the Barcelona players lose their focus and ultimately fall behind 3-1, or even 4-1. However, this is not last season! What Barcelona took from their visit to Osasuna is worth more than just three points- on a day when they were not at the brilliant best, this Barcelona side exhibited the character and the heart of a champion. It’s these victories, in seemingly meaningless games where defeat could be accepted and justified, that define great teams. If, as they seem poised to do, this Barcelona side goes to become a team for the ages, this will have been the game in which they elevated themselves from merely a dominant club, to greatness.
In the game’s opening minutes, it looked as though the Barcelona juggernaut would continue to steamroll through Spain. In the tenth minute, Lionel Messi produced a characteristically brilliant run and looked like a lock to score, but his shot, which beat Osasuna’s keeper, Roberto, glanced off the posted and was cleared before Messi could pounce on the rebound. However, despite dominating possession for the next 35 minutes, Barça were not playing up to their usual high standards, were only able to generate three shots on goal, coming from a pair of threatening moves from Thierry Henry and a straightaway attempt from Xavi. As the first half wound down, with Osasuna looking as though they’d be taking a scoreless draw into the dressing room, La Blaugrana were able to conjure up a moment of brilliance to opening the scoring in stoppage time, as Messi found Samuel Eto’o near the top of the box, and Eto’o produced a beautiful strike that beat Roberto in the lower left corner, just second before the halftime whistle.
Despite holding the slim 1-0 lead, Barcelona’s somewhat uninspired play continued in the second half. Given the difficult conditions, combined with Barcelona’s ability to dominate when holding a lead, the match had the look of an unspectacular, businesslike away win against outclassed competition. This continued until the 63 rd minute, when Osasuna, who had quietly built a bit of momentum, won a corner, which shockingly found its way into Victor Valdes ’ goal, after being headed high in the air toward the vacant far post by Miguel Flaño, which should have been manned by Gerard Pique. Following the equalizer, with the home fans working themselves into a frenzy, Osasuna became the aggressive side, their confidence and belief growing by leaps and bounds.
It was against this backdrop that the intensity of the game was ratcheted up several notches in the 70 th minute- with Sergi Busquets on the ground following a hard challenge, Lionel Messi held up play in anticipation of a whistle from the referee that never came. As Messi stopped, Osasuna’s Josetxo, in a resourceful but very shifty move, crept up from behind and stripped Messi of the ball sparking an attack at the other end. Once Barcelona had managed to neutralize this attack, chaos erupted at midfield, as Barcelona’s players were livid at Osasuna’s show of poor sportsmanship, while the home side defiantly defended its actions. The volatile situation was ultimately diffused, though not before three players (Victor Valdes for Barça; Josetxo and Walter Pandiani for Osasuna) were booked. Following the incident, the home side managed to find even greater confidence, carried by their now fanatical crowd, all of which culminated in one of the season’s most jawdropping, David v. Goliath moments, as Walter Pandiani found the back of Valdes’ net, giving Osasuna a 2-1 lead.
It was then, faced with their greatest adversity of the season, defeat seemingly inevitable, that Barcelona players put their stamp on this squad. With Andres Iniesta, having entered in the 65 th minute, and Bojan Krkic replacing the ineffectual Seydou Keita in the 77 th, Barcelona again began to dominate possession, particularly on right wing, where the combination of Messi and the out-of-this-world Dani Alves, was obviously too much for Osasuna to deal with. Having played a solid but unspectacular game to that point, Alves dominated the game’s last ten minutes, seizing the moment and creating opportunities leading to each of Barça’s final two goals. In the 80 th minute, Alves made a beautiful run down the right wing, and as he approached the touch line, he sent a picture-perfect cross across the Osasuna box, where Xavi was waiting to unleash the equalizer. Just a few minutes later, again on the right side, Alves won the ball from a defender and found Messi on the wing. In moment that only he can create, Messi moved down the right wing at full speed, before sliding toward the left, and with three defenders all within three yards of him, the best footballer on Planet Earth today fired a laser from the top the box, which curved around the keeper and slammed the door on Osasuna’s upset hopes, giving Barça a dramatic 3-2 victory.
Perhaps Barcelona should never have been trailing in Pamplona, but the reaction of Pep Guardiola’s men in the face of such adversity could prove to be the signature moment of the season- not to mention 2009’s greatest finish, just eleven days into the year.