Did anyone know that bats are the only flying mammal?
I know, right? We all figured that all they did was give us the willies, flitting around church spires in small European towns, screeching and entangling themselves in hair and whatnot. But no. They pollinate, disperse fruit seeds and do all kinds of good things.
But bats also do baaaad things, such as get knee-deep in your ass, keep you on your heels and make you rely on superhuman efforts from your mop-topped captain and a goal keeper who I don’t want to hear anyone give shit to this season. Period, full stop.
I didn’t like the way that this match felt when I fired up the DVR and frankly, I’m pretty thrilled that we got out of it with a point. Why? We were collectively awful, saved once from a loss once again by individual performances. This is not a big surprise, given that 10 of the starting 11 were away on International duty. Guardiola rolled out Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, The Yaya, Keita, Xavi, Messi, Iniesta and Pedro!. It was a lineup that gave me pause, because I just didn’t see where the goals were going to come from.
And I thought we were going to need goals for sure, as those damned bats came storming out of their cave, putting the kind of pressure that you put on a side that has 10 of its starting 11 still groggy from serving their countries. They applied the kind of forward-looking pressure that we customarily do, and decided that rather than man-marking Xavi, they’d just flood the midfield with numbers, cutting off every available passing lane to, from and anywhere in the vicinity of Xavi.
It worked. Rather than the calm back passes that our attackers can feed back to Xavi that he calmly collects, waiting to pull the string on another assault, bats were flitting all around, sticking legs out, stealing stuff and running the other way. And when Messi one-touched a sloppy, off-target ball back to Xavi, I just couldn’t believe that it was going to be 1-0 so early in what looked to be a difficult match.
But as the Valencia attacker came storming in, there was Eric Abidal, flying in to remove the ability to cut and beat Valdes. Suddenly the only option was straight on, and Valdes made himself huge, smothering the only real shot that the attacker had. It was an excellent save, and there were more to come from the man who might never give me an easier Man of the Match selection. I so want Phil Schoen to keep talking shit about Valdes, because every time that he does, Valdes has an excellent match. The man was Zamora last season. Yes, he had some cock-ups. So did Casillas, a keeper who Schoen and Ray Ray believe shits gold nuggets.
Victor Valdes was the principal reason that we drew today, against a side who were better than we were for almost the entire match. We had better individual players, but they were a much better team. Which was why we spent almost the entire half on the back foot, with our defenders scrambling, Abidal clearing ball after ball into the box as Puyol made like a fireman.
But even then, we had chances. Pedro slipped in a ball to Puyol that found our Captain right on the doorstep, with a big, fat problem: The ball was on his left. As he struggled to shift the ball to his right foot, rather than just poking it toward the goal, Valencia’s defense shut him down. And Messi had a rotten touch in the box, on an attack that could have, and would have been dangerous at another time.
And Valencia were rampant. Even Xavi lost a ball, that he and Alves quickly double-teamed back into our possession, and Puyol knocked off a horrifying giveaway. The defense was running around like it was fire drill day at the insane asylum, and The Yaya was seen telling Abidal, after the latter ran into him trying to clear a ball, to calm the hell down, because The Yaya was in control.
Then Valencia were sprung loose on yet another attack, off a perfectly weighted ball that was sitting there, waiting for the attacker to run onto it, until …. what was that!? Valdes streaked into the picture to smother and cover that pass, as if he had been shot from a cannon.
The Yaya and Keita were more important than ever in this match, as their abilities to become midfield attackers should have become paramount. But the entire side was playing on the back foot, as tight as you will ever see us, worried about conceding and not being able to get the goal back. So The Yaya just took the ball from anyone who came near him, and Keita buttressed the efforts of the back line as Captain Caveman found his sea legs and went from ??!! to flat-out spectacular. Pique even got his act together as he came sprinting in to save a sure-fire goal, knocking away a pass attempt to a wide-open Valencia attacker.
And my misgivings about our attack proved to be well-founded, because Iniesta isn’t a real goal-scoring attacker, Pedro! is a sub not a starter, and he needs service to work his magic, and Messi should not have been on the pitch. But even if he was on, the defense was completely set up to play him and only him, because they knew that Iniesta or Pedro! weren’t going to beat them. Our attack calmed down as the match began to come to us as Valencia tired, but we couldn’t capitalize, because half of the players who were playing, shouldn’t have been. Yes, that means: Xavi, Messi, Pique, Puyol and Iniesta. But without capable backups for them, what options does a coach have, really?
And now, a public service annoucement: Did anyone miss Henry today? You should have, as Abidal waited on the sideline time after time for a place to pass the ball to, missing our French winger’s constant presence and availability for the pass. Never mind the fact that our offense was forced to exist in this narrow corridor, because we lacked true attacking width. I would have preferred to see Jeffren rather than Pedro!, frankly, because a pure winger might have helped. Instead, Iniesta made thoughtless runs into the box, that found him with no passing angle and even if he had one, no attacker within easy passing distance.
Which is what Henry does, and why his injury is as vexing to our attack as that of Ibrahimovic. Because with a club such as ours, that is possessed of such midfield magic, the wings have to provide midfield space. We didn’t have that crucial element that was badly needed against a club that was told, “Just keep your body between the ball and the goal. Period.”
Then we started to work our way into the match with a bit more possession, and a spectacular counterattacking chance that produced a pretty staggering choke from Pedro!, who received a perfect pass from Xavi, with plenty of time for a one-timer past the keeper. But by the time he controlled the ball and dicked around, the defense closed him down. He was left to wonder what might have been, and let me help him out with that one: You had the match on your boot, and you choked.
Hope that helps.
And it almost looked like the killer miss, but then Valdes came up with one of the saves of the season really, off of a David Silva attack that found him latching onto a perfect pass. Valdes, in effect, played the one shot that Silva had, and cradled the ball in his belly to end that danger. It was towering, a moment of excellence that overshadowed a moment of shame, as Alves was laying on the pitch with a severed jugular vein, clearly from being brushed with an opponent’s arm hairs. Oh. Wait a minute. No, he’s fine. He isn’t going to die. Whew!
And that was pretty much it for the match, with neither side really threatening much after that, being content to take the point and go home. Everybody was predicting a very, very difficult match for us, because of the World Cup duty by so many of our players, and a series of rather unimpressive team performances. I only wish they weren’t right. It was a defining match, one that if we had put Valencia to the sword, would have caused the Liga to stop the season right now, and declare us the champions. Instead Valencia played their hearts out, and came away with a draw that they can rightly believe should have been a win.
But here’s something to think about: Valencia played an amazing match, and we were collective shit. And we drew. We shouldn’t have, but we did. We’ve all watched quite a bit of La Liga. Does anyone think that any other side in the Liga would have gotten out of the Mestalla with a draw, with the match that Valencia played today? Let me help you out with that answer …. no. Does this mean that we have the makings of Champions? Frankly, I can’t tell yet. I still haven’t seen a convincing team performance, because as predicted, World Cup years are a bitch. But we’re in with an exceptionally good shot, the best of anyone, I think.
No, they didn’t have Villa, who might have kept himself on side where Mata strayed. But we didn’t have Ibrahimovic either, which made Messi’s day a lot harder. And does anyone think that Henry would have choked on that ball in the box from Xavi that Pedro! did The Thinker over?
Team: 3. Charity begins at home, not on the road, dammit! What was with all of the giveaways and generally sloppy play? You’d think that you’d all been away, serving your countries or something. Jeez.
Guardiola: 6. He understood what we all came only late to understanding, which is the guys weren’t going to be all that good, and his options were limited. Ibrahimovic? He was ready, and had we gone down a goal, we probably would have seen BANGS. But there really wasn’t anyone to bring on, just stabs in the dark with the likes of Krkic, though I would rather have seen Jeffren.
Valdes: 10. Find me a flaw in the match he played today. Valencia had three glorious chances, and he stopped them all. His distribution was smart, and he controlled his box. He just knocked me out today with his play. If he isn’t the keeper he is, we lose this one.
Alves: 5. Defense was solid, but he is too risky with the ball when surrounded by defenders. You can’t always dribble or ticka-tack your way out of a jam, and he lost possession more than usual. And his playacting was unforgivable, leaving us 9 on 11, counting the absent Messi.
Pique: 6. Funky early, then really came into the match. Quite the goal-saving tackle, but I would have liked to have seen him more in his Piquenbauer role, bringing the ball up to start the offense and relieve pressure on Xavi.
Puyol: 8. Like Pique, he was way off early, and that giveaway could have killed us. But man, did he come on with extraordinary defense in both team and one-on-one aspects. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: That man deserves to retire with this club. When he plays the kind of controlled match that he played today, I just don’t know if there is a better central defender in the world.
Abidal: 8. He wasn’t funky at the beginning, nipping in to steal ball after ball, showing off with his pace as he ran plays down and making a general wall of himself. He had a little bit of a tendency to run around too much, which The Yaya reminded him of. He also knew not to get too far forward, given the wing attacks of Valencia.
The Yaya: 6. Solid but unimpressive. His usual attacking prowess and ball control going forward wasn’t there today. Ox-strong on defense, however.
Keita: 7. Quietly effective in his thankless midfield role.
Xavi: 6. A few fine passes, but generally ineffective. This was in part because of the conscious decision to remove him from the match, but he wasn’t moving with his usual precision and quickness, either. If we have a real option, he probably doesn’t play today.
Iniesta: 7. Very good match, with lots of energy. But you could watch him make runs into the box and think “Dude, where ya goin?” I don’t think he had a real answer except for “That way.” So defenders would just shut off the back door and funnel him toward the end line. If why anybody who advocates for him as an Henry replacement at this time, needs to think about it a bit longer. Not yet.
Pedro!: 5. Some good moments, some great passes, including that ball to Puyol that deserved a better fate. But man, did he choke on that ball from Xavi, and he gave it away a lot.
Messi: 2. He shouldn’t have been out there. He had the thousand-yard stare, and was walking around the pitch when he wasn’t directly involved in a play. Perhaps this was the match he needed to shake the national team malaise out of his system.
Busquets (for Xavi): 5. He started so well, then began trying to gild the lily, and scare the crap out of me. I am so worried about January. Simple Busi is Good Busi.
Krkic (for Pedro!): 3. Man up, kid. You could have made a difference, but you’re thinking too much. You think yourself out of an advantageous position.
Next up, after a few days of much-needed rest, is Rubin Kazan at home in what should be a winnable Champions League tie. Ibrahimovic will be back for that one, which will make a ton of difference.
Until then, Forca Barca!