Real Sociedad dealt a major blow to Barcelona’s title chances by inflicting a fully deserved 3-1 defeat on the Spanish champions at the Anoeta on Saturday.
Barcelona looked to have woken up from their slumber when Lionel Messi brilliantly equalized Alex Song’s own goal before half time. But, with their coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino ejected from the sideline at the break, Sociedad tore them apart in the second half. Barcelona’s defense was woefully exposed as first Antoine Griezmann put the hosts back in front before David Zurutuza increased their advantage minutes later. With Barcelona showing little sign of finding a way back into the match, Sociedad might even have won more convincingly had Carlos Vela not struck a post with the goal at his mercy.
In what is shaping up to be the closest La Liga title race in recent memory, Barcelona have now slipped behind their great rivals Real Madrid for the first time this season. Atletico Madrid have the chance to join Real three points clear of Barcelona if they win their game on Sunday.
Following their Champions League win at Manchester City in midweek, Martino opted to make six changes to his lineup. And such a mass rotation against a team with the quality of Sociedad will surely be greatly questioned in the aftermath of such a resounding defeat. The defensive issues were not helped by the rotation, but, in truth, run far deeper and have been in evident throughout the campaign.
Belying what was to come, it was Pedro who had the game’s first chance when sweetly exchanging passes with Andres Iniesta before shooting wide from the edge of the box. But the home side were becoming an increasing threat on the visitors’ goal. Barcelona’s defense was allowing holes left, right and center and Vela almost took advantage before shooting off target. Victor Valdes had to be alert, too, to stop a cross being turned in, but the breakthrough was coming.
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There were no surprises that it was from a set-piece where once again Barcelona were caught cold. Sergio Canales got the ball back from a short corner and whipped a sensational cross in that Gorka Elustondo got to ahead of Song and his header came off the chest of the Barcelona midfielder and left Valdes with no chance.
Almost immediately, Barcelona hit back with the kind of goal out of nowhere that they are always capable of producing. Messi instigated the move then, after Sergio Busquets, cleverly stepped over Martin Montoya’s pass, took a perfect first touch and before the Sociedad defense could react he had already slammed the ball into the bottom corner from the edge of the area.
That might have been expected to be the signal for Barcelona to take control, but it proved anything but. The signs were bad for the visitors when their coach was sent to the stands for the second half and it proved the precursor to a 45 minutes to forget for the Catalans.
Within 10 minutes of the restart, a simple long ball forward left the Barcelona defense scrambled. Marc Bartra flicked on the aerial ball meaning that, though Vela had clearly been in an offside position, there was no flag. The Mexican squared it perfectly across the box for the fast-arriving Griezmann, who stretched and fired past Valdes.
If that looked bad from a Barcelona defensive point of view, Sociedad’s third goal, just five minutes later, was even more damning. Griezmann, despite the damage he had already caused, was allowed an unfathomable amount of time and space on the right to whip in a cross and, with Barcelona’s defenders simply standing in a line appealing for an offside flag that rightly never came, Zurutuza ran from deep and touched the ball past Valdes.
Sociedad were doing a fine job at the other end, too. The one occasion Messi looked like producing something special in the second half, he was surrounded by bodies, one of which was able to block the Argentine’s shot to safety.
The abiding memory, though, will be of the defensive fragility at the other end, which so nearly cost a fourth goal. Gerard Pique’s casually attempted clearance allowed Xabi Prieto free down the right and the substitute helped the ball across the box where Vela should have put the exclamation point on the win, but instead struck the bottom of the post.