x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Fever pitch at Camp Nou

Pep Guardiola spends much time downplaying the brilliance of his Barcelona side.

Theirry Henry, right, scorer of Barcelona's first, challenges Mallorca's Jose Miguel Gonzalez.
Theirry Henry, right, scorer of Barcelona's first, challenges Mallorca's Jose Miguel Gonzalez.

BARCELONA // Pep Guardiola spends much time downplaying the brilliance of his Barcelona side. "We're not the best the team in Europe and we haven't won anything yet," the Barcelona manger opined, attempting to calm the feverish Catalan public before the league game against struggling Mallorca. Guardiola's sane words did little to ease the hyperbole among Catalans convinced his team are destined for greatness. Sublime league form and a seemingly unassailable lead at the top of Spain's Primera Liga would back up fan optimism, yet Guardiola has a substantial task managing the rabid expectation which is continually fanned by a voracious local media.

On Saturday night, Mallorca's Aritz Aduriz briefly pricked Barca's inflated bubble of expectation as he gave his side a shock lead after 15 minutes. Mallorca were the last team to win at the Camp Nou in the league last May and Adruiz showed no fear as he robbed Yaya Toure in midfield and outsprinted defender Victor Sanchez before gleefully chipping the oncoming goalkeeper Victor Valdes. Parity was restored on 32 minutes when Thierry Henry - one reason why Barca have been so spectacular this season - equalised from a Xavi corner.

A 70,000 crowd roared approval as midfielder Andres Iniesta was introduced as substitute after an eight-week injury absence. The gifted playmaker soon made an impact, tapping in Eidur Gudjohnsen's low cross in the 76th minute to give Barca the lead. The watching Lionel Messi, who returned late from a Christmas break, and his international manager Diego Maradona applauded heartily. The goal was not without controversy as Mallorca's players surrounded the referee in protest, convinced Gudjohnsen was offside when he received the ball.

"We all make mistakes but it hurts when a refereeing error destroys a match," offered the deflated Mallorca coach Gregorio Manzano. Toure made it three for Barca in injury time after a run took him past several opponents. "It was difficult for us tonight," said a relieved Guardiola. "Mallorca played very defensively, but we showed patience, order and calm. The first game after Christmas is very dangerous and we saw that at the start of the game. The result was fair."

Barca moved 11 points clear before Sunday's games, while Valencia, who also played Saturday, edged into second after beating rivals Atletico Madrid 3-1 at the Mestalla. Two goals from David Silva and a David Villa penalty defeated the in-form Madrilenos. Valencia were two up before a Diego Forlan penalty made it 2-1, but Silva's second goal midway through the second half put the game beyond Atletico.

amitten@thenational.ae