It was that kind of a match, one in which both teams came out hell bent for leather, in which the winner was right on the tip of someone’s boot, a match that even as it didn’t feel like a draw, was destined to be so by the Footy Gods.
Guardiola: “I told Bielsa that his players are beasts. I never played against such an intense team, players that runs so much.”
Bielsa: “It wouldn’t have been just if we would have won the game. A draw is a fair result.”
It was a match that was characterized by mutual respect from the coaches beforehand. On the sodden, rain-drenched pitch that became something of a quagmire, it was one of the best matches we’ve had the pleasure to witness. Bilbao came out and, as their coach promised, turned things into and end-to-end track meet, like the basketball game Bielsa said he wanted.
A draw was fair indeed, even as we might not like the outcome.
Undefeated, for all that’s worth
Evil Empire coach Jose Mourinho said that he would rather lose once than draw three times. If you look at the standings, you can see why. Three draws means six lost points. One loss means just three, which is why we are looking up at them from second place in the table, three points down and closer to third place than first. For now. Because this club’s identity is being forged on the anvil of opponents who are giving us their absolute best. Bilbao played like lions in their San Mames cathedral. They ran, fought, clawed, battled, acting not like they didn’t respect our quality, but rather like they respected it so much that they were willing to give everything on the pitch in search of a result.
It was glorious to witness. The rain never stoppped pouring down, and neither did the two worthy opponents. The only flaw in this match, if there was one, was that three of the four goals came from errors, even as one of them, their first, was a beautiful strike that left Valdes with no answer. We were pressured as never before, pressed by an opponent who demanded our best, because our best is what it was going to take to win this match. We didn’t hold up our end, which explains, even as wonderfully as they played, why we played to a draw.
So what the hell happened?
Simple. A high-quality opponent worked its heart out. We came out with a lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Abidal, Busquets, Adriano, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Messi. Yes, it was the Adriano on left wing experiment, and not even 5 minutes into the match, it almost bore stunning fruit as he took a pass and spanked a too-weak shot toward goal. Was Messi beckoning for the cutback? Sure. Would have been a sure thing, too. But that’s life in football matches. as you just don’t realize how rare the chances are going to be. We ripped them open with some lightning-fast one touch football that found us in their box in numbers. That early opportunity, properly finished, means a very different match, one that they have to chase — which is when we are at our best.
As it was, things remained balanced on a knife edge until the first error came, off a Valdes long pass that was intended for Alves. Only he knows why he didn’t fight harder for the ball, but the result was a springboard counter by Bilbao. Mascherano had one chance to stop it and went for it, just missing the tackle. With our defense at sixes and sevens, the putaway was easy and just like that, we were down 1-0. But Bilbao, unlike another opponent, didn’t close up shop. They kept going for it as did we, and suddenly there was Abidal, who laid a perfect cross onto the head of Fabregas, who banged home a deft header to equalize. It was a beautiful goal that again, came from fast, one-touch efforts. Their ceding space was unavoidable, because the ball moved so quickly that space was inevitable. Abidal had lots of it, so did Fabregas, who was free and clear on the wrong side of the defender.
But of course there were more goals to come, and their second came off a comedy of errors that began with Mascherano banging a ball back for Valdes, rather than just smashing it into touch. Unfortunately, the pitch that had been holding up balls for the entire second half, decided to act like an ice rink. Valdes couldn’t reach the fast-moving ball, and the ensuing corner was something of a joke, as Abidal fluffed his lines on the clearance and the ball bounced toward our goal and off of Pique, Own goal that put us 2-1 down, with egg-smeared faces and a match that was maybe beginning to feel like a loss, as Bilbao, amazingly, began to play even harder, adding physicality to their pressing intensity and aggression.
Then, as on the other end, a crazy sequence of events unfolded as Iniesta took a pass and slid it toward goal. It was bobbled by the keeper, not properly cleared and Messi was right there to slot home. 2-2, and the Footy Gods had been appeased. And so it ended.
What was Bilbao doing right?
Working like dogs, and applying midfield pressure that found us wanting in the ball movement and physicality departments. Iniesta wasn’t his usual graceful self, and found that every time he got the ball, he had to beat two Bilbao defenders just to find space to pass it to a teammate. They clogged passing lanes, stuck legs out, harassed and battled as they restricted the battle to the midfield. They played us like we play others, pressing in the midfield to gain possession, thus shortening the distance to goal. It didn’t work as well as it does when we play it, but it worked well enough to keep us on the back foot for a lot longer than we like to be.
Coaches in contact sports such as American football often talk about “giving it up for the team,” putting everything that you have on the line for your teammates. Bilbao did that, and we gave it right back. So they turned it into a track meet played in a green lake. The open game benefited us, as chance after chance came, only to have us fluff the lines. Iniesta missed an open net, Villa shot it right at the keeper twice, all playing right into the hands of a dynamic, resolute Bilbao.
Did we do anything wrong?
Aside from not finishing our chances …. yes. We allowed the match to be frenetic, rather than calming it down with possession. Yes, we love an open match. We generally don’t love a frantic match, and that was some of the difference today. Bilbao, with their pressure, kept things turned up to full boil. So there were instances where we had more time, or got a little hasty, such as the Mascherano blast back to Valdes, resulting in the corner that put them in the lead. It’s one of the rare times that an opponent forced us into playing in a way that we don’t want or need to play.
Team: 6. We played well, but not at our best. Passing distances were too high as we let their pressure dictate to us how the match would be played. And the wasteful finishing continues.
Guardiola: 7. A good starting XI, but one that could have benefited from an earlier introduction of Alexis Sanchez, and some Keita, to deal with their physicality in the midfield.
Valdes: 5. A couple of excellent saves, but also had the long pass that led to their break for the first goal, and in my view he should have been more aggressive to clear his line for their goal-producing corner. Run out there and punch the ball away, or somehing.
Alves: 5. He’s just a little off these days, but the effect on the attack is huge. And too often (again this season), an opponent caught him pinched toward the center of the pitch, which unbalances the entire back line. He’s guilty of one touch too many-itis, as he wants to Make A Difference.
Mascherano: 6. He’s had better matches, as he was down from his Puyolesque omnipresence. And dude, if you’re going to go for the steal, do so in a way that stops their play..
Pique: 7. Good match, but lost too many physical battles to Llorente. Just in the wrong place at the wrong time on the own goal, unfortunately.
Abidal: 6. Strong overall play, and what a cross for Fabregas, but you have to clear your lines. Sometimes, there isn’t time to be calm on the ball. You just have to blast it out, the old “anywhere but here” defensive axiom.
Busquets: 5. He dwelled on the ball too long today, and lost every physical battle. Some good moments, but also plenty of “I’m dead! I’m dead!” action that detracts from the fact that he’s one of the best in the world at his position.
Xavi: 7. Had to work harder to establish his usual command and control, and we definitely lost something when he left the match. Perfect pass after perfect pass flowed from his feet, and we could have used him in the second half, when the pitch was becoming increasingly difficult to read.
Iniesta: 5. Off match today, with very poor finishing. There were times when the ball needed to be kept moving, rather than dancing at the feel of one of our masters.
Adriano: 5. Drifted in and out of the match entirely too much. More action from him would have helped open up the pitch even more. And that shirt tug in the box could have killed us.
Fabregas: 7. A beautifully taken goal, and his defense is an underrated aspect of his game. He was tracking back like a demon today.
Messi: 5. Talk about drifting in and out. There were times during the match where you forgot he was out there, made all the more noticeable by the times that he materialized and did something remarkable. We deserved a better shot at the winning goal at the end of injury time than him dribbling about, only to lose the ball.
Sanchez (for Xavi): 4. Not the kind of dynamic effect we were hoping for, but this isn’t his kind of a match. The muck and mire dilite his effectiveness at playing his game.
Villa (for Adriano): 6. Active and aggressive, with a fire I haven’t seen in him for some time. But he has to stop shooting directly at keepers.
Thiago (for Pique): 5. Boy, you almost wonder what might have happened had the substitution came before that own goal. Ah, well. Again, too frantic for his skill set, resulting in a lot of lunging and flapping about.
So suddenly, we’re 3 points down to EE, and people are panicking. Why? This club is working its way into form, still. Injuries and the like have made it difficult to find a rhythm. But we will, and when we do, look out!