This is the kind of match that gives fuel for the fires stoked by those who say that certain teams have no business being in the Champions League, that big clubs such as ours, even though Viktoria Plzen is a champion in its own right, can stroll along with a guaranteed 3 points.
Those people are stupid.
Fast, brave and resourceful, the scoreline could easily have been 2-0 for the home side, even before the Messi penalty. What kind of a match would that have made for, then? Plzen had two extraordinarily good scoring chances, both of which should have resulted in goals. One was the result of a brilliant stop by Victor Valdes. The other was just one of those moments when a professional gets the yips. It happens.
If either of those two goals go in, it’s a very different match. Would we have scored enough to win? Probably. Maybe. Dunno. But hats off to Plzen who, even when they went a man down on a call that was harsh, continued to try and try and try again, putting on a lovely show for their very vocal home fans and playing like a champion.
We were just too good for them on this night.
Milestones and weirdness
It was a weird night of milestones, weird because who didn’t spend the first 5 minutes of that match thinking, “We’re getting our asses handed to us by that team in black. Damn! Oh …. wait …. never mind.” It was just bizarre. Meanwhile, the numbers just keep ticking over: Guardiola’s 200th, Messi’s 200th, Valdes’ record-setting, 824-minute streak of not conceding, 500 goals in the Guardiola era, the last fittingly coming off a Pique backheel for a Messi slot home. Milestone after milestone after milestone in a match that, saw us guarantee qualification for the knockout stages, where the real Champions League begins.
Another bit of weirdness was how similar this match was to the Mallorca match, in that the opponent started out brightly, screwed the pooch on a golden scoring opportunity then gave up a penalty that was converted by Messi, to functionally make the rest of the match academic after a moment of Messi excellence guaranteed at least a brace for the (again) clean-shaven, hyperactive wee one.
And Xavi didn’t start, or even play. That was weird. No Iniesta, either. And Villa was left off the squad in Champions League, the one competitition he’s actually been scoring. That was also weird. About the only normal things were the result, and the way that the result was derived, as Messi has returned to his dynamic self. Messidependencia? An argument could be made. But what team doesn’t depend on its best player, when you really sit down and think about it.
Guardiola came out with a lineup that showed he was serious about taking care of business, with Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, Thiago, Adriano, Cuenca!, Messi, Fabregas, the first time that our first-choice back line has played together this season. The omnipresent Xavi was absent, however, which made for some disjointed-looking possession sequences as Thiago and Busquets filled the bill in a less-controlled, yet more dynamic way. But it was real quality that carried the day. Our players were just better than their players. Aside from the counterattacking, excellent chances, they couldn’t string more than three passes together without us taking the ball and proceeding on our merry way. The usual gaudy possession stats in our favor made this clear. I thought that the match was over at 0-2, because conceding two goals to a full-strength side for us is rare, much less a team that is down to 10.
Once we got up by two, we pretty much just passed the ball around and made sure that they didn’t do any harm, conserving energy for what is sure to be a very difficult weekend match, as we head to Fortress Bilbao. And that was that.
Goals, beautiful goals
No, it wasn’t a manita, but it could easily have been. The first goal was very straightforward, even as it was brilliant. Thiago dispossessed a Plzen player with style and aggression, then slotted an excellent ball to Messi, who did his swivel-hipped thing before being brought down in the box. And get this: he went left on the ensuing PK. How ’bout that? The second came off a brilliant 1-2 between Messi and Adriano, who found his way to the right spot for a flawless feed, that Messi slotted home. The third came from a delightful move and cross by Cuenca!, that was headed home by Fabregas. The fourth was sublime, as a dynamic passing sequence found Beanpole sliding a lovely backheel to Messi, who rounded the keeper and slotted home for that Barca ideal, the ball that you could walk into the net.
Despite the scoreline, however, it wasn’t a boring or ugly match. I liked the way that Plzen played. But the breaks of the game didn’t go their way, and we ultimately had too much quality. That was that.
The astute will note that Cuenca! has picked up the exclamation point that Pedro has long-since forsaken. The dude was brilliant again today, with runs, crosses, tracking back on defense to make and facilitate steals and an overall level of quality that finds its ultimate marker in the fact that the team is playing complicated buildup play with him as though he’s been there all season. And it certainly looks as though he has been. Some thought that he wouldn’t start this match, but there he was again, in a New Pedro (or at least Replacement Pedro for now) role that will exist until the Real Pedro comes back from injury. But for now, Cuenca is making hay while the sun shines, and doing so with endearing style. He’s fearless, and will take on defenders at the drop of a hat. His crosses are accurate after he creates the space, and he understands how valuable the ball is. We keep raving about him, for very good reason.
Now let’s deal with some points, shall we?
Team: 8. Some clunky moments, but overall the quality was just too high, collectively and performance-wise. Plzen just weren’t allowed to play, after those two breakdowns in short order seemed to rouse the side.
Guardiola: 9. Pretty close to perfect, but I have to fault him for not pulling Alves once the match was out of reach. I’d rather be without him for BATE than Milan. But when I noted that he had a coaching job on his hands, getting the side and Messi back to excellence, mission accomplished, it seems.
Valdes: 10. He didn’t have a lot to do, but did it all perfectly, including stopping a potentially match-changing 1-v-1 with a Plzen attacker. And congrats again on becoming the team’s record-setting keeper. Hard to believe he hasn’t already set that mark, isn’t it?
Alves: 4. Kind of a mess this match, with an uncharacteristic spree of giving passes away, prompting more than a few quizzical looks from teammates.
Pique: 6. Took Beanpole a while to work in. He was pretty dire early, including sloppy marking that almost led to a Plzen goal as a cross came into the box. Then he got it together. And nice assist.
Puyol: 7. Still working his way back, and a few positional glitches evinced themselves in a fine overall match. He knows where to be, and defines how to play Barca center back with his up and back movements, and reading of where the ball is going to be, two passes from now.
Abidal: 9. What a match. He was playing so well at CB that we forgot what a killer LB he is, with pace that covers for the sins of teammates. He was even being a better Adriano than Adriano, contributing to the attack with overlaps and runs up the left side. His calm assurance with the ball was also on display.
Busquets: 8. Quiet excellence from a player in a role that he was bred for. Passing, getting in the way, stealing balls and kick-starting attacks were his calling cards today, done with almost Keitaesque anonymity. You don’t realize how lustrous he was until you watch and say, “Oh, that was No. 16. There too. And there …. dang!”
Thiago: 8. Wow. Just. Wow. He isn’t Xavi, he’s Thiago. His dynamism on both ends of the pitch continue to captivate, as he, too, is everywhere. His defense isn’t something that people expected, but he is stalwart in regaining possession for the side, while delivering mostly unerring passes. If his brother is better, that’s just crazy.
Adriano: 4. Dude went on walkabout. Ramzi quipped via Twitter that he thought the match was being played in Plzen’s usual stadium, and went there instead. He popped up to assist Messi on the second goal, then went back to standing around on the left, as Abidal demonstrated how to be part of the attack, you have to actually move instead of standing there waiting for the ball.
Fabregas: 6. Excellent interplay and a very nice headed goal. And full credit for running alongside the Plzen defender during their best scoring chance, denying him options and making it easier for Valdes to make the save. That, to me, was his most impressive moment of the match.
Cuenca: 9. He isn’t promoted yet, but he will be for next season. For sure. He’s ready. We still haven’t seen him in a big match against a top-quality side, it must also be noted. But see my rave above.
Messi: 8. Excellent match, as he continues to ask “Crisis? What crisis?” Keep him shaving, please, as it seems to be Bearded Messi who has the clunks. Again, for those who say that people were silly for questioning whether he needed a rest, note how differently he is moving then and now. It really is amazing. Now, he wants the ball all the time, not just on offense when somebody passes it to him. The hat trick came so easily, and out of the overall team flow, most importantly.
Keita (for Busquets): incomplete. Came on, did his Keita thing in a match that was effectively over. Plzen was out of energy, and we kept the ball.
Maxwell (for Alves): incomplete. Man, would I liked to have seen that sub a few minutes earlier. Again, not a lot for him to do.
Sanchez (for Abidal): incomplete. Good to have him back in the lineup. He brings another dynamic, dribble-beating player to the fore, but one who understands the value of defense, possession and making up for your errors by regaining possession.
And with this victory, we are through to the knockout stages. Whether we will be top of group of second depends largely upon the result of the next CL group match, against Milan in their house. Oh, for one second of marking/defending, eh? But that’s life in the big city.
Thanks for reading, and in closing, has anyone noticed how often the entire team celebrates our goals? Maybe I just don’t watch enough other teams, but that strikes me as a quality that’s worth commenting on. Later.