My oh my, how we’ve grown to hate Internationals. The players travel hither and yon, sometimes not returning in the best of condition, usually to an opponent who has had everyone sitting around at home, watching our boys get tired via the telly.
And we look lackluster, drop some points and everyone grumbles. But we can thank EE, who is playing very good football right now, for the impetus necessary to find us razor-sharp this time out, against a Zaragoza side that was done in by its own pugnaciousness. It was a match that wasn’t as close as the score indicated, as we were light years ahead of them in every category except shots at an opponent’s Achilles tendon. It was one short of a manita, with the luxury of a second half through which we could coast, ahead of an important Champions League match against Milan.
Was anybody else bored?
Guardiola came out with an “I’m serious about this one” lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Maxwell, Keita, Xavi, Fabregas, Sanchez, Cuenca and Messi. The pressure on Saragossa was incessant, as Messi was playing like a demon, or maybe a dude who wanted to put this match to bed early so that he could coast home. Either way, it was very clear that Saragossa was out to maybe nick one on the counter, with a game plan that started with keeping us from scoring, and ended with keeping us from scoring.
And truth to tell, their plan worked for a while, even as our threat was constant. Then it took an unlikely goal scored in an unlikely way, to put things right and begin the road to relaxation. We scored a headed goal off of a set piece. Xavi dropped a ball directly into the perfect spot for a marauding Pique to head hom, complete with spectacularly dorky arm position, like he’s dancing on some music video show.
It was 1-0, as Eric Abidal, on the bench, tried to teach Fontas the cool shake celebration that he and Pinto are so fond of, and having much hilarity doing so. The players know, and they knew that 1-0 meant done deal. Game, set and match. Then, when Fabregas set up Messi with a flawless ball that our scoring dynamo slotted home, that really was that, and everyone knew it.
So now what? And that was the problem with this match, for those seeking excitement. We kept the ball, Saragossa didn’t do much with it when they had it except give it back to us (except for a couple of occasions). The end.
Now for me, this made for a dishwater-dull match, mostly because the opponent didn’t really seem all that interested in trying to make it something compelling. We even tried to help them out, as Pique headed a ball away, directly to a Sara attacker, who dished the ball wide, which has become all the rage as it usually means you’ll catch Alves pinched in toward the middle. They did, as well, and Alves got smoked as his man smacked in a cross that could have been danger, but Puyol cleared it. And if anyone noticed the look that Captain Caveman gave Alves after that one, you’re probably still quaking in your boots. It was withering, and deserved.
We scored two more goals, one that has probably been ruled an own goal by now, as Fabregas found Keita in the box with a perfect ball. Keita headed down to Puyol, who tried an effort that was stopped, then he tried sort of snaking his way to the ball, that was rammed home by a diving Sara defender. And then Villa broke his 500+minute non-scoring drought with a diving header off of a delight of a cross by Cuenca, a player described by Ray Ray as a “wonderful adam’s apple on the run.”
And I had a hard time staying awake.
Meanies get what they deserve
This was actually a very cool match to have, leading up to the Milan tie, because Saragossa is big and physical, as Isaiah noted in the preview, being rather fond of leaving little calling cards. This played right into our hands, allowing us to gut their defense almost at will. We struggle against physical-but-disciplined defenses, who play spaces rather than players, preferring to stop the ball rather than put somebody on their butt, or flick at their heels. But when Sara kept coming at us with those niggling little “One for you ….” fouls, they left spaces that couldn’t be closed. The rest was easy.
Is Saragossa of the quality of Milan? No. But the way that we kept playing our game, successfully, in the fact of some big, nasty ol’ brutes was nice to see. And we didn’t even play at a level approaching our best, even as it was a level that was plenty good enough to win at a canter.
Team: 7. Loved the interplay and link-up action, as well as the challenges via superb passes. There were a few defensive lapses that would have allowed a better team to score, that need to be shored up.
Guardiola: 9. Hard to fault anything that he did, except for not taking Messi off when a match was decided. One day, that might cost us. But the lineup made perfect sense as it kept the pitch wide, facilitating things for our midgets. How did he know that Maxwell was ready to have a blinder of a match?
Valdes: 7. Called upon a few times, always perfect. Looks like he’s been working on his long, attack-starting passes, as well.
Alves: 6. Gets too cute with the passing interplay, and Puyol’s glare at him was justly earned. His tendency to get caught pinched toward the center is a problem. He doesn’t have real pace to catch and keep up with attackers, who almost always get the corner turned on him for a pass into our box.
Pique: 7. Beanpole was very good today, with key interventions, an excellently taken goal and more intelligent passing out of the back, rather than those bombs he is so fond of, that too often cede possession to the other side.
Puyol: 8. That man and his throbbing Catalan heart are amazing. Interceptions, taking fouls, one huge clearance after the Alves blunder and a kicking, clawing, scratching goal.
Maxwell: 7. Wow, what a match. He was almost like Abidal, except with even more attacking intent. Granted, Saragossa weren’t going to test our defense all that much, but still. Fine match from a player who always finds a way to be of value.
Keita: 8. Keiteeee! Great assist, great getting in the way. His physical presence was exceptional today, from end-to-end.
Xavi: 8. Gorgeous and inevitable. His passes, particularly that header to Pique, are unerring. Because Sara didn’t pressurize the midfield that much, giving him time to work his glorious ways.
Fabregas: 9. Monster match, from beginning to end, on defense and offense. His passing, movement and directness into the box are all what our offense has been needing. He left some goals on the table, or sure, but there’s always a next time.
Sanchez: 5. Dispossed way too easily, didn’t seem to know quite what to do. Had a couple of nice moments but overall, pretty adequate.
Cuenca: 7. Did some drifing in and out of the match but man, when he was involved. I don’t want to blaspheme here, but I might leave Pedro sitting until we can fully suss out Cuenca.
Messi: 6. Got off to a bright start, even as his passing was way off in this match. Lovely attacking football, but as he entered energy conservation mode, he drifted in and out of the match as he saw fit.
Thiago (for Xavi): 6. It’s interesting that people keep saying that Thiago isn’t playing as well because he isn’t the dynamic offensive force that he was during preseason. But when you look at how he plays defense for the side and controls play, he’s a delight. He’s fearless, and not shy about getting stuck in.
Iniesta (for Sanchez): 7. Aggressive and dynamic, even after a few rounds of Iniestabuse. He just seems to materialize where the ball is, ready to do some damage.
Villa (for Fabregas): incomplete. Didn’t get enough time for a full rating, but had some good moments, including the goal. Let’s hope that helps him begin to find the back of the net in the Liga more often. We need him to succeed, ultimately.
Next up, midweek, is AC Milan, who boast one braying jackass of a Swede named Ibrahimovic. I want to beat them. Bad. And these guys will probably be a huge help in doing so: