Málaga feels like it should be the kind of team to make things difficult for Barcelona, with its cagey approach and ability to hold possession. But results continue to give the lie to this idea. Last season’s pair of 4-1s was tempered but slightly in La Rosaleda on Sunday night, where the champion-to-be put together a fairly comfortable 1-3 win to rack up a record 55 points in the first half of the season. A clásico tie against Real is the only time in 19 outings that debutant head coach Tito Vilanova’s team has failed to land all three points.
But Málaga boss Manuel Pellegrini was left with the nagging idea that things could have gone another way, had his team not gifted Leo Messi the opening goal after a tight first half-hour. Up to the moment when Ignacio Camacho’s guileless back pass was intercepted and punished by the fleet number 10’s feet, the Chilean coach had seen his forward trio press hard on Barcelona’s engine room, and, when an attack was able to develop, the sensibly low-down-the-field defensive line was well marshaled by the accomplished Martín Demichelis. But all that effort takes a toll and Málaga did not match its defensive aplomb with its customary poise on the ball; too quickly was possession given away and with Javier Saviola confined to the bench and Joaquín unable to find space, Málaga offered little threat to Víctor Valdés’ goal.
“I go away with a feeling that if the first half had been scoreless, we would have won,” Pellegrini insisted after the match, adding that the second goal, four minutes after the break, killed off the game. That strike, however, demonstrated the near-impossibility of being successful in imposing a strategy against this Barça. From the midst of massed Málaga ranks, Messi looked up and chipped an exquisite pass into the path of Cesc Fàbregas, whose quick touch and shot offered a flawless example of the importance of having two serviceable feet. Then show time began with Andrés Iniesta conducting the orchestral swirls of passes and flicks until sub Thiago took a more direct route to make it 0-3 with a low shot. Fresh from the home bench Diego Buonanotte gave an eponymously sweet end to the night by sweeping his free kick over Barcelona’s wall.
Earlier in the evening, Atlético extended its lead over third-placed Real Madrid with a 2-0 home win against Zaragoza. Such is Barça’s dominance that with 19 rounds still to come, the biggest fight appears to be over the order in which the runners-up will finish. In the King’s Cup this week, Barcelona and Málaga will do it all over again while Real and Valencia start the quarterfinals on Tuesday.