Even the return of Lionel Messi as a second half substitute could not inspire Barcelona to victory against Osasuna on Saturday evening. They were held to a 0-0 draw in Pamplona.
The Blaugrana were unable to equal Real Madrid’s record of nine consecutive victories to start a La Liga campaign. However, coach Gerardo Martino may be more concerned about his side’s inability to get on the scoresheet for the first time in 65 league encounters.
The visitors were undoubtedly the superior side throughout the 90 minutes, but it mattered little. Cesc Fabregas had the best of the rare chances his side created, but the Spaniard’s troubles mirrored those of his side. He was let down by his final touch.
In front of a baying crowd at El Sadar, Barcelona struggled for fluency and cohesion in the first half.
Neymar’s impressive individual runs—which only occasionally created clear-cut openings—were at odds with the attempts of Xavi and Andres Iniesta to create space with the passing in close quarters.
Time and time again, Barca edged into promising positions only to be just off the mark.
Fabregas was particularly guilty of this. He twice overhit through balls to Neymar that surely would have seen the Brazilian break the deadlock.
He demonstrated his frustration moments later when he threw out a hand to try and redirect a Martin Montoya cross that was agonisingly out of reach. He received a yellow card for the act.
The half-time break gave Barcelona 15 minutes to iron out whatever issue was afflicting them, but when they returned for the second stanza, the same problems were evident. Barcelona continued to dominate but were let down by their finishing.
Fabregas wasted the two best chances—the first, from Sergio Busquets’ lob, saw him underhit his own elevated attempt straight into Andres Fernandez’s hands.
Soon after, the No. 4 had another chance to open the scoring, this time from Xavi’s slide-rule pass. Even with time to settle himself on this occasion, Fabregas could only skew an unbalanced swipe well over the crossbar.
Martino's frustration mounted, and he turned to the trump card on his bench—Messi. Introduced with 20 minutes remaining, the Argentine’s presence immediately unsettled the Osasuna backline.
But Javi Arribas, who had been imperious all game, made Messi his personal responsibility and shackled him at every opportunity.
Better defenders than Arribas have tried and failed in that pursuit, of course, but Messi—still returning from the thigh injury sustained at the end of last month—did not appear to be 100 percent.
At no point was that more obvious than in his one true opening of the game, when he was played in by Xavi. Usually he would thump a first-time volley into the net, but on this occasion, he whiffed at his first attempt, lost his balance and then prodded a timid effort directly at Fernandez.
Another effort, from 25 yards, was similarly disappointing.
As the game entered the final five minutes, the crowd began to sense that a famous draw was in the offing. Their team did not disappoint, showing impressive defensive diligence to repel attacks, even as the likes of Adriano and substitute Cristian Tello edged into position.
With exactly 180 seconds of injury time completed, the referee blew the final whistle.
Barcelona had been held to a draw and will be off the top spot in the table if Atletico Madrid win in the day’s later kick-off against Espanyol.
"The point is insufficient," Martino said afterwards, according to Goal.com (via translation). "But I'm happy with the team's performance, because Osasuna can hurt you and do not often suffer defensively."
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Barcelona's attentions now turn to Tuesday's Champions League meeting with AC Milan before the small matter of Saturday's Clasico against arch-rivals Real Madrid.
Osasuna, meanwhile, have a full week to prepare for an away trip to Sevilla.
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