Well, now. Not sure what to say about that one. Actually, I do:
Elegant, workmanlike and except for two Keystone Kops moments, drama-free. Dinamo Kyiv rolled into the Camp Nou, full of the same quotes that have been buttressing the hopes of every club we’ve played so far this season, stuff like “Well, we’re going in to win,” “Barca can be beaten, blah, blah, blah.” And perhaps we can, but you aren’t going to win it by setting up shop in your own end, kicking at every ball and player that comes near you.
I’m not a footballing genius, but I know that much.
The players aren’t happy with our performance, and they shouldn’t be. It was another lackluster performance as a team, but they didn’t really have to be spectacular. What they will find more vexing is that they were off …. passes, player movement and finishing, were just off. Messi was off, Xavi was off, it was just in full clunk mode.
And don’t get me started on the early defensive lapses, and the defensive lapses in general, that a better side would have capitalized on. But thanks to two sterling plays: Pique’s last-gasp stab at the ball to put off a Dynamo attacker sitting right on the doorstep, and Abidal nipping into the box to tackle the ball away, preventing a sure-fire scoring chance, we didn’t concede.
Which was just as well. That 2-0 could easily have been 10-0 and probably would have, had this match been played about two months later. Individual plays are saving our bacon right now, which is pretty much to be expected. Also to be expected is that you can see signs that the team is really coming together, but those moments are fleeting. Goal.com had a piece that essentially says we’re not finishing as well now that Eto’o is gone and Henry is injured. Now, that’s a pretty stupid piece, but I do wonder something very different: Has the arrival of Ibrahimovic and his array of possibilities harmed our tika-taka game just a little?
Last season, we pretty much had to pass the ball into the net. This season, the option of dumping it in and letting Ibra do his thing is alluring. Just pass it in and let him do his thing. And more often than not, he does. Which means what? Dunno. But maybe Hector does.
But let’s deal with that later, because we have a match to dissect right now.
Guardiola rolled out pretty much the only lineup that he could: Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Pique, Abidal, The Yaya, Keita, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Ibrahimovic. And they had a collective case of the early shits, with passes flying about everywhere, even Xavi deciding to gift Dynamo players with possession. And the defense was the living, breathing embodiment of not knowing when to just clear the damned ball, so Dynamo set up shop in our end early, a seduction that lured the viewer into thinking that they were actually going to come out and play.
But no, once we fixed the lapses and regained possession of the ball, they did what every other side does: Manned the battlements and played defense, their intent being to keep us from scoring, and if they found a goal or two, so much the better. But 0-0 was the objective.
We counter with passing and movement and, this season, a bus-breaking Swede. So there were still chances galore that either went begging, or were a sliver away from a pass being completed, and having one of our attackers storming in on goal. Those passes will come. Not to worry.
Dynamo’s stalwart defensive effort is to be commended, as they threw legs, bodies, spare water bottles, whatever they could in front of passes, as we slashed player after player through their box, only to be blocked at the defense or by the keeper. But this wasn’t going to be another Inter. Even in the brief time since that match, we’ve gained some sharpness, helped by the fact that yet another side decided to let Xavi run around free and easy, with only light marking. So a delicate little interplay developed between Iniesta and Keita that was supplemented by Xavi. Little destabilizing runs got their defense moving, then a killer ball from
Alves Iniesta found Messi right at the edge of the box, where he did what he does best. His little shimmying ballerina run resulted in a low, hard shot that the keeper got a touch of, but a touch insufficient to keep it from being 1-0.
Individual brilliance, but not at the expense of team dynamic, it must be said. The ball and player movement that created the space for Messi to play into, not only with Xavi and Iniesta pressuring and creating, but Ibrahimovic dragging two defenders around with him whereever he went, created the opening for Messi. And he made no mistake.
From then on it was off to the races, as Dynamo still seemed to be thinking “Well, we could be in with goal differential. Man the walls!” And they kept playing defense, as we kept blasting shot after shot, chance after chance at their hard-working keeper. Xavi blasted one right at him, Ibrahimovic knocked a hard, low free header at him. The saves were easy, but the shots were hard. A lesser keeper would have spilled at least one of them. But we were just teeing off, as the Dynamo defenders would just clear the ball. A defender would roll up to intercept, and the machine would re-set.
Ibrahimovic didn’t score, but he was spectacular in his role as striker/midfielder, with pass after creative pass. His back heel for Messi was just a little too hard, or the second goal would have been a beauty.
And then in the second half, it was time for The Destabilizer, and this was the result:
Pedro! was a major difference maker, although I’m sure that like everyone else, you questioned him coming on for Iniesta. But Ghostface needed the rest, in case Henry is going to be out longer than anticipated, and the second half, after the opponent has been chasing shadows, is the perfect time to bring in The Destabilizer. You Giuly fans (like me) will recall that when Giuly started, he wasn’t all that hot. But when he came in for the second half, or with about 20 minutes left, his pace and relentless movement were so effective. So it is with Pedro!.
The other thing to note is the calmness with which Pedro! played. You could almost see him wanting to dart about, but he would check himself. You could almost see him checking himself, and the result was remarkable. He was the unplayable wild card, that didn’t take long to come up a winner.
Messi made a damaging little run, and (finally!) dished off the ball to Ibrahimovic, instead of some one-on-one nonsense. And Ibra knew what to do. He held the ball, scanned the scene, and Pedro! made yet another slashing, diagonal run. Ibra slotted a perfect ball, hit just hard enough to get past the lunging defender, but not so hard that Pedro! couldn’t control it. And like lightning, he controlled the ball and smoked it past a helpless keeper, with an amazing shot.
Why amazing? Because he had about a millisecond to spank that ball, because the keeper had it sussed out, and Pedro! was bracketed by defenders, leaving him only one possible angle to shoot into. The keeper knew, everybody in the stadium knew, I knew. The trick was to control and shoot in that miniscule fraction of time. Awesomeness.
More importantly we had the second goal. So the Ibra for Jeffren substitution made sense, because our defense wasn’t going to concede two, or even three goals, right? Right? The way that Carles Puyol was playing? You’re kidding, right?
But then, Busquets came on for The Yaya, and shit started falling apart in the center of the pitch. As with Keita, sometimes you don’t realize how effective The Yaya is, until he isn’t. So rather than the human wall with telescopic legs (even though he was a bit off), you get this colt unbound, running around like a crazy man. Busquets is playing like Pedro! right now, as if he is trying to prove himself with every ball, and every moment, instead of just playing football.
He had three separate chances to clear a ball and didn’t, resulting in a chance, in the box, that was very calmly cleared with an elegant tackle, by Abidal, our consistently best defender this match.
And that was that, right?
Busquets again, in an attempt to clear a ball, decided, when he was just outside of his box, to head it up into the air, and where it falls, I know not where. Well, it fell right to a Dynamo attacker, who tried to lob Valdes who was out from his net playing sweeper keeper, thinking surely nobody would do something so stupid as to …. “D-oh!” Pique and Puyol went charging back, and might have made it had the shot not, thankfully, been high.
I’ll tell you right now. People are saying lay off Busquets. I will, when he stops trying to kill the team. As for right now, January is scaring the crap out of me, because he would be our only defensive mid on the roster. And does anyone really want to deal with the idea of him as that line between the midfield and the back line? Really? I don’t care how big a Busi fan you are, it’s a question that you have to ask.
Now, whether we were craptastic, rather ordinary or just saving ourselves depends upon your worldview. I say it was a little bit of the latter two. But we definitely have some kinks to work out, because we left a pigpile of goals on the table because of sloppy, inaccurate play. Guardiola wasn’t satisfied, “Pot vs Kettle” Alves says the defense has to improve, everybody says that we were too loose.
And they’re all right. Spot on, no nonsense right. But here’s something to think about: We made the champions of the Ukraine look like a Segunda side as they chased us around while we peppered their nets with shot after shot after shot. Yes, our group last year was easier. Sporting is always the cure for what ails a side. But it’s looking as if Dynamo is the second-best side in the group, based on what they did to Rubin Kazan, and what Inter didn’t do to Rubin Kazan. We’re top of group now, which is where we should be. Now let’s consolidate against Rubin the next matchday, and start worrying about the knockout stages.
Team: 5. Still a bit clunky. The connections aren’t being made right now, but I still say that we’re better right now than we were at the same time last season.
Guardiola: 6. He should have had the lads more ready to play. The Pedro! sub was nice, the Busquets sub wasn’t. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Monument would have been perfect for that situational substitution.
Valdes: 7. Very good match though as usual, he didn’t have a ton to do. He has to talk to his defenders. He had that cross caught, but Puyol’s head got in the way, and we almost conceded as a consequence. Call Captain Caveman off, and make the catch.
Alves: 6. He recovered nicely from getting smoked by yet another quick winger to have a pretty good match. Nice passing, movement and crosses into the box.
Puyol: 7. He, too, was an early mess, and I almost had a heart attack when the attacker waltzed right past him into our box. Then I had a real one when he knocked the ball out of Valdes’ hands. But boy, did he become He Man, Master of the Universe.
Pique: 7. His attacking runs were so effective at creating space for the front line, and his defending was excellent, except for some early lapses.
Abidal: 9. Full-on stud, from sideline to sideline and in the center of defense, with saving tackle and interceptions galore. And people used to hate him?
The Yaya: 6. Curiously anonymous, but again, this wasn’t his kind of match. But he was uncertain in possession, and not as controlling of his space as he usually is.
Keita: 8. When he learns to control and shoot, we are going to have about a million goals. Meanwhile, his level of play has been consistently excellent. In the “If you’ve nothing nice to say, say nothing” file, he knows when to fade away, and let Iniesta, Messi, Ibra et al do their thing. He isn’t man crush level yet, but he’s up there.
Xavi: 9. A few bad touches away from perfection. Another team was crazy enough to mark him loosely, and he destroyed them. What absolutely beautiful passing and movement from him.
Iniesta: 7. Boy, was it nice to see Ghostface back, for good and bad, but mostly good. Yes, he ran his way into nothingness as is his wont, but his passing was spot on. He and Ibrahimovic were magical yesterday, and really should have gotten better results, i.e. goals and assists. Yes, it was penalty, dammit.
Messi: 5. Yes, 5. Go ahead, call me a jackass. Then watch the match again. Way too many loose balls, uncertain movement and too much one-v-one nonsense. Yes, he scored a goal, and it was a beauty. But a few shining moments do not a high rating make.
Ibrahimovic: 8. He’s also my Man of the Match. Why? Because he played defense, held the ball to set up attacks, made passes and was an almost constant threat. Every club is worried about getting posterized by some crazy-ass Ibra goal, so he can essentially change the way that a back line plays whenever he wants to, as he pretty much always has 2 or 3 companions. He understands that, and uses that power to create space for Xavi, Messi and Iniesta. And his assist to Pedro was magnificent.
Pedro! (for Iniesta): 7. A much better match from The Destabilizer, with more control, command and man, what a golazo.
Jeffren (for Ibrahimovic): 5. Had some nice moves, but pretty average overall. But he was brought on for fresh legs and to take advantage of any lapse in the Dynamo defense. He almost did.
Busquets (for The Yaya): 3. If you’re only on the pitch for a few minutes, and in those two minutes your ineptitude results in two scoring chances for the opponents, you need to examine your approach to the game. Every time he’s come on the pitch, the opponents have either scored, or had a great scoring chance.
And finally, I leave you with this. Not a penalty, my ass.