Um, wait a minute …. I like being right, but not about this. I kept blathering about a team malaise, wanting our players to prove me wrong, to have everything click into place in glorious fashion as they gave some deserving club the hiding that they didn’t deserve, but hey, there they were.
Not today. Today, it was again a club in disarray, a tired, disjointed, disinterested-looking club that played not only the worst match of this season, but the worst match that I can remember a Guardiola side playing. This team has always, always been characterized by effort. Even when not playing well, there was a collective effort that at least put them in a position to have things happen. Sure, we were hitting balls directly at Javi Varas, but stuff was happening.
Today, there was no effort, no fire, no nothing except one remarkable goal from one remarkable player.
Hair Gel and Magic
Our midfield maestro celebrated his record-setting 392nd(!!) appearance for the Blaugrana in style, by drawing the foul to set up the free kick, then bending an exquisite shot past the Grenada keeper, who looked back at the ball in the net as if thinking “How the hell did that happen?” Easy. Magic strike, magic man. Xavi wasn’t slacking in the effort sweepstakes today, slicing and dicing while probably wondering, as he did during the Sevilla match, just what the hell his attackers were doing out there. He danced and shimmied, pulled strings and tried things against a Granada club that is, frankly, woeful, standing strong to try to grab a point as they clutched round-trip tickets to the Segunda in their hard-working hands.
The gulf in quality was immense today, but we did our level best to play down to them. Egalitarian? Sure. Generous? To a fault. But one thing is for sure, we can’t say that Xavi didn’t do his part today, and not only from the goal.
Guardiola started Valdes, Alves, Mascherano, Abidal, Maxwell, Busquets, Xavi, Fabregas, Cuenca, Messi and Pedro, a side that should have been more than sufficient to destroy Granada. But, when 25 seconds into the match Fabregas had already misplayed two passes, you got the sense that it was going to be that kind of a day. We were a team in name alone, players who have been playing together for years, playing as if they were some group, cobbled together for a pickup match against a local club. And these could be, and still might turn out to be, very dangerous times. There is an insane schedule coming up, whose only saving grace is that the teams should all be very beatable, except for a few: Mallorca, Plzen (CL), away to Bilbao (!!!!) and Hospitalet (Copa), Zaragoza, away to Milan (CL) and Getafe, then home to Rayo Vallecano.
There is a nice, 11-day break you think, from the 9th-20th of November but no, there are Internationals to be played. This will be a season-defining stretch for this team, that will have to play its way out a malaise the likes of which I have never seen under Guardiola. Yes, it got 3 points today, but think of this for a moment: If not for a moment of amazing brilliance, it’s a 0-0 draw. Against Granada.
Call me a hater, say I love Frenchies, whatever. Messi needs a break, and I just don’t see him getting it. Go back and watch this match, or the last few matches and think about how often you’ve seen him walking. Effort has always defined his game, a constant effort that finds him in the right place at the right time because he’s always moving. In the second half today, a misplaced Granada ball would have fallen right to him, had he been running. Old-school Messi would have run onto the ball and, with just one defender and a helpless keeper to beat, slotted home. Today, he ineffectually watched the ball roll right past him, looking as if he wanted to summon the energy to go get it, but just couldn’t. I hate watching him like this, and not only because it hurts the club. I know, I know …. I hate Messi. Be that as it may, it sucks to see the greatest player on the planet walking around like an injured veteran, waiting for the ball to come to him to actually decide to do something. Recall when people slagged Thierry Henry for a very similar behavior. Messi. Needs. Rest.
At least there was Cuenca
In searching for bright spots, the play of 20-year-old, starting XI debutante Isaac Cuenca is one. He was quick, aggressive and fit right into the side. He looked like a ping-pong ball at times, or rather like a puppy who had a new ball and wanted to play, while the older dogs just wanted to lay around and lick their butts. He threw in a couple of crosses that deserved better fates, and almost celebrated his debut with a goal, but for some lightning reflexes and a fine save from Granada’s keeper.
Remember the Mascherano debate?
“He’s a card magnet who will kill the side.” “He can’t pass gas, much less a football with the quality necessary to hold a spot in our exalted side.” “All he can do is tackle hard.” “We paid too much for him to sit behind Busquets.” Full props to Ramzi, who called wrong on all that stuff, and how right he was. Mascherano was another bright spot today, a bundle of boundless energy and focus. A pitch-length run with the ball, late in the match? “Yes! I can do that, coach! Let me at him!” Whenever Granada got a sniff of an opportunity, he was there. And his passing out of the back is swift and sure, bereft of the dithering that sometimes hamstrings us in attacking from the back. Bang! Ball is spot on, man-style. He had a wonderful match today, and I can only repeat what I said after the Sevilla match: Dude has to be in the side. These days, he’s playing as consistently well as anybody on the club.
Not only is he going through a rough patch, but now he has two weeks to think about it. There was a mini-discussion on Twitter, as someone suggested that Pedro has found his real level, that the goal-scoring wonder of the past few seasons was a fluke, that we are now seeing the real Pedro. I don’t know if I would go that far. I do know that he certain hasn’t been the same player after his injury last season. How he returns from this one remains to be seen. The unfortunate part is that it took him a while to regain that headless chicken zest for the game that he had. It was almost like he was starting over, post-injury, working his way back to being Pedro!!. And now, another setback as the infirmary list just grew a bit longer. Maybe we, like Arjen Robben, should start a casualwear line, just the stuff for when you’re chillin’ in the stands.
A yellow for you, and one for you, and ….
So there was the story on the weekend about the drunk referee at a match in the Czech Republic. He could barely stand, and sent off 3 players from the same side for no apparent reason, though those of us who have imbibed in quantities sufficient to render us barely able to stand, know that there was a very good reason: They had horns! And not just one. A LOT of them. Well, assuming referee Muniz Fernandez, aka Gordon Gekko was sober, then this was one of the worst performances by a head official that I have seen in some time. Fitting, perhaps. 12 yellows and two reds, not to mention many an unfathomable call. Maybe he, like us, was just playing down the level of the competition. Who knows?
This will be a true test of Guardiola’s coaching acumen, as he figures out how to get his charges right again. I’m shocked that EE isn’t petitioning the Liga to have the Clasics moved, to be played back-to-back on oh, this weekend, ohpleezohpleezohpleezohpleez. He has a number of problems on his hands, not least of which is that his lightning rod, his spark plug has gone horribly awry. It’s no secret that this club feeds off of Messi, which explains a lot of why the players are playing as they are these days. Like leader, like followers. How he will get out of this one, and what the damage will be, remains to be seen. But things will have to be handled very carefully. Clearly, Messi isn’t going to play his way out of this spell. The team can, however, but you wonder if it needs Messi to not be out there to do so.
Hey, jackass, what about the match review?
What is there to say, really? We strolled around, had some passing drills when we could string a few together, and rarely threatened their goal. Messi did once with a too-casual effort that was hooked off the line, Villa souvenired a shot that should have been a goal, don’t get me started about Pedro, and Cuenca was stopped. Those chances were rare. Mostly, with more than 70 percent possession, we were content to make sure that Granada didn’t have the ball enough to beat us. And that’s pretty much what happened. It’s 3 points, and some will console themselves by saying that’s all that matters.
Team: 2. Collectively, decidedly, mediocre. A better team would have waxed our hides today as the group played like lackadaisical strangers, even as individuals tried to lift the collective.
Guardiola: 7. Right lineup, right substitutions that were, however, a bit late for my tastes. He isn’t the kind of histrionic, get yourself ejected coach that can sometimes snap a side out of a malaise. But I think he also knows that his players know him well enough to see right through any such ruses.
Valdes: incomplete. I know. He played the whole match. But he didn’t do anything except spray a couple of bad passes. Weird, that one.
Alves: 3. I’m starting to wonder about my Three-Year Brazilian theory. He joined us in 2008, and here we are, wondering why he isn’t the same player that he’s been, particularly after that big, fat renewal that should have made him happy. He was outrun a number of time up the flank, to be saved by Mascherano. Loose control and bad passes were also abundant for him today.
Mascherano: 8. Magisterial, to borrow a Ray Ray-ism. Everywhere, all things all at once, stopping their attack, starting ours, intercepting balls and re-starting attacks, he was just a marvel, building a stronger and stronger case for full-time status.
Abidal: 7. The French Greyhound is working his way back to full force with his second fine match in a row, up and back, up and back incessantly, contributing to the attack, then chasing their leakers around as Granada showed fine spirit after going down 0-1.
Maxwell: 6. Strong effort, though there were some misplaced balls that were par for the course, team-wide today. His positional sense was on full display today, as well.
Busquets: 7. Another good one, in a match that was perfect for his skill set. But again, a strong performance within a pile of crap.
Xavi: 8. Did everything he could, including scoring a goal. My Man of the Match today. I’m going to consult with a physics teacher to figure out how he got that ball through to Messi, though it was just offside.
Fabregas: 3. Yes, he was out there. But this is his second lackadaisical, unimpressive post-injury appearance.
Cuenca: 6. Could have scored higher had he been more involved. His effort and energy should have been infectious but all too often, he was stranded on the left as the game went on without him.
Pedro: 4. Funny that he was most useful on the defensive end, where he was least needed. He just doesn’t have that eye for where to be any longer, and his control has all but deserted him. This injury comes at a very bad time for him, as if there can ever be a good time for an injury.
Messi: 3. He was part of the few moments of danger that we created, but he was spraying passes everywhere, and walking when everyone else was running, only seeming inclined to play when the ball came to him. Sorry, but that level of effort is, for me, inexcusable.
Villa (for Pedro): 3. When he wasn’t disappearing, he was misplaying passes or shooting wildly.
Iniesta (for Fabregas): incomplete. He tried. He should have been a fresh spark, but was subsumed by the overall malaise.
Keita (for Xavi): incomplete. A late sub that was more to get Xavi off the pitch, than to get Keita on it.
Next up this weekend is Mallorca, sitting 12th in the table right now with 9 points (to our 21). Do they have the talent to do some damage to us? All else being equal and if we were in form, no. But we aren’t, so this could be a very worrisome match. Thankfully, we’re at home.
And hey, there was a moment where the team was evincing cohesion. No, really: