I’m not customarily one of those “I told you so folks,” but when everyone was predicting destruction for Rubin Kazan, a few folks were cautious. Last year, when we were sweeping all before us, that prediction would have been easy. We would have wiped the floor with them. This year, in the wake of iffy team displays that have been bailed out by individual brilliance, we were ripe for the picking.
What did it take? A resolute team with absolutely nothing to lose, poor finishing on our part and two plays, both facilitated by a defender who has a contract on the table, but shouldn’t have been on the pitch.
This picture of Pedro! says it all. He was the beneficiary of our absolute best chance of the second half, a half filled with hope until it was cruelly snatched away by a casual stab at the ball by Bojan Krkic, who did a Busquets, directly into the path of an attacking Kazan player. The Yaya tried a sliding tackle ….
Abidal was running for all that he was worth, trying to stop the play somehow, somewhere, and Rafa Marquez stood there as if he was waiting for the train as the player rushed past him, and the deed was done. Was this one of the greatest upsets in the history of club football? Some are painting it that way.
I view it as a club getting its just desserts, and a necessary wake-up call.
Guardiola rolled out a starting lineup that was a bit problematic for me. It’s no secret that I don’t think Marquez has what it takes any longer. And this was true before the knee injury. So, when I saw Valdes, Alves, Marquez, Pique, Abidal, The Yaya, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro! and Ibrahimovic, I was worried, for a number of reasons.
1. Marquez has been shit for a while now.
2. Where’s the cover? When we’re forced to play three back because Alves has pushed up, your trio must all be lock-and-load defenders with closing speed and ability to play the angles.
3. Kazan was going to park the bus, and the width and attacking up the flanks would be essential to breaking it.
4. No Keita? With a team determined to play off the counter, Keita would have been more valuable than Iniesta or Pedro! in keeping the middle locked down. That killed us on the go-ahead goal.
Yes, it’s easy to call it now. But the match started off brightly with a killer ball from Ibrahimovic to Iniesta, who probably would have scored a goal were he not child-sized, and easily muscled off the ball by the defender, who calmly tapped it away. Who knew it was to be that kind of night, as chance after chance went begging, lacking that final pass to complete the deal.
And the goal came so quickly after that, the cameramen were surprised. A simple clearance to Marquez led to a stupid, casual one-timer that he shanked directly into the path of a Kazan attacker. Valdes didn’t have a chance as the ball was blasted into the top corner, taking a glancing blow off the woodwork. That such an absurd shot beat our on-form keeper said a lot about what kind of night this would be, and this goal completely changed the match, because now we had to chase it, and chase we did. We kept the ball, and bombarded their box with attack after attack after attack as the Rubin Kazan defenders stuck legs and feet out, fouled, grabbed, pulled and tugged to kill momentum, waste time and inch ever closer to their miracle.
Yes, play was rough. Yes, the ref allowed it to be rough. So what? We should be used to it by now. Our arrogance as we swept the world aside last season has to be paid back, and that payment is coming from officials who say “Okay pretty boys, play through it.” So Xavi is loose on a break, and a defender just steps on the back of his foot. The boot comes off, the attack is stopped and all is fine in the world, right? It’s football, a professional foul. Last season, we played through those fouls. This season, they disrupt us because we aren’t anything vaguely approaching being on song, and teams know this. Touches aren’t as secure, players are lunging for balls instead of taking the extra step to get into position, and counters are coming fast and heavy.
And there will be more.
Is it justice that this loss came? Some would say yes, that we deserved it for thinking we could be collectively mediocre and skate through the season. I personally believe that any time we don’t win, it’s a travesty perpetrated by the football deities to make us appreciate it more when we resume winning. That they decided to snatch away a must-win match, particularly in light of Inter Milan drawing at home to Dynamo Kyiv, is particularly painful.
So we battered and scrabbled at the lock until two pieces of individual excellence broke the dam. Xavi played an inch-perfect pass to Ibrahimovic, who calmly controlled it and blasted it off the woodwork and past the keeper. It was 1-1, and the goal was brilliant. There isn’t any breakdown for this goal, other than to say it is precisely the kind of play that we purchased Ibrahimovic for. Flip the ball in to the big target man, and watch him do his thing. Now that’s bus breaking for you.
Then we began to go all out for the go-ahead goal, and Rubin Kazan were content to do little more than keep all 10 men behind the ball and wait for their chance. I won’t recap what already happened, as I did above. Suffice it to say that once that goal went in, a shot where again, Valdes was figuratively and actually defenseless, it felt like the lost points that it was feeling like for me, from the moment the first ball was dropped. Because here’s the difference between this year and last year, and it’s huge: speed of play.
Last year, we were past a defense and in the box before anybody really knew what was going on. But last year, we had all off season to prepare and train and get ready. This year, it’s SuperCups, and exhibitions and injured strikers and World Cup duty and a general malaise that was masked by a bright start in the Liga. The Valencia match was a warning sign, as we really should have lost that one, as well. So in my view, though this loss is shocking on paper, it was coming, like a big, ugly-ass freight train. I’m actually nauseous as I type, because losses sicken me. But even more, losses that smack of the Rijkaard years bring back profoundly unpleasant memories of matches dominated, only to fall away on a fluke play or last-minute breakaway goal.
Guardiola had better have some answers. I know that I have one, and he’s big and French. I like Pedro! and what he does as a substitute, as I’ve said time and again. Watching him dither away attacks in the first half frustrated me. Yes, he’s playing the best that he can, and more’s the pity. Because Henry, the much-maligned striker/winger/whatever dude, would have ripped shit to shreds tonight. Suddenly, those Robinho rumors make sense. Guardiola sees what we saw tonight, that without Henry in the side, the left side of our attack is fundamentally invisible.
Team: 5. Not as bad as they’ve been recently, but they lack precision and pace. Attacks are too slow to build, and the amount of negative passes was distressing, as if they were out of ideas, or worried about making the wrong decision with the ball. Confidence? Whatever it is, we aren’t collectively sharp.
Guardiola: 3. How do you not start your best players in a must-win match? And is Krkic really the sub for Pedro!? It should have been the other way around. No respect for Kazan, eh? Does that explain Marquez starting?
Valdes: 5. I reckon it’s hard to stop two blasts when you’re just standing there watching us attack and attack, and he couldn’t really do a lot for either one, but he was there for both, which means he guessed right. So make the play.
Alves: 3. His marker was playing into acres of space whenever Rubin got the ball. Alves should have made them pay on the offensive end, but he didn’t, preferring to play those dangerous little one-twos with Messi, while surrounded by defenders. And now he’s out for three weeks. So Puyol goes to right back, and we probably see more Marquez in the away leg to Rubin Kazan. Shit!
Pique: 6. Loose with the ball at times, but strong going forward. Our defenders really didn’t have a lot to do tonight.
Marquez: 1. Yes, 1. That’s these many. The first goal was all him. The second was a team effort. The Yaya just misses the sliding tackle, and Abidal is caught up the pitch. He comes ripping back into the picture, and had the outside of the attacker. All Marquez had to do was make some kind of a play to slow him up for a fraction of a second. He didn’t. Is that second goal all his? Nope. But he could have stopped it more effectively than any other defender.
Abidal: 8. Monster. Owned his side again, with calm defending. He also assumed that intermediate level of possession control that Henry usually does, making smart passes and the occasional overlapping run. But you could tell that he respected Kazan’s wing attacking abilities.
The Yaya: 8. Massive. Saved defenders’ bacon time and again, tirelessly won possession back all over the pitch, ran attackers down and stole balls. Just a great match.
Xavi: 5. He was unmarked, so he should have been a lot more influential. Poor control in the first half cost us an almost sure goal as he took a perfect pass from Messi, only to bounce it off his feet.
Iniesta: 6. Good match from Ghostface, who played himself down by being too slow with his passes, time and again. There were fewer dribbles to nowhere tonight, mostly because that was Pedro!’s job.
Messi: 5. Started out great as he let the match come to him, and time and again capitalized on great distribution and smart passing. Then the one-on-one Messi showed up, and things went downhill for him. Fouls are frustrating him this season, and he tries even harder to beat a defense one-on-one. Not a good trend. People will claim that Rubin played a good match in marking you tightly with 3-4 defenders, and laying lots of ticky-tack fouls on you. In the first half, you had lots of smart movement and excellent passing. Why abandon what was working?
Pedro!: 6. Little P!, I know that you’re trying your best. But you have to play more quickly, because even though you’re playing in Henry’s position, you’re not Henry, who can make a two-step burst and lace in a perfect cross. You, on the other hand, are almost Hlebian in your ability to derail an attack. With all the space you had to play into, you should have been owning that side of the pitch. And precision over power gets us that second goal.
Ibrahimovic: 8. Wilingness to play and make himself available, and what a goal! It made up for the one he should have scored, but scuffed the shot on in the first half. But his passing and facilitation were exceptional. I love me some BANGS.
Krkic (for Pedro!): 3. Look Kid, at least Pedro! didn’t give the ball away in a primo attacking position. You can’t just stick a leg out. Move your body and control the damned ball. That goal was 80% you. And if you’re going to cock up like that, make up for it with exceptional play. Question for the class: Is it time to declare the Krkic experiment over for now?
Keita (for Marquez): 5. Solid but unspectacular. He should have been starting, though. If he and Puyol start, it’s a very different match.
Busquets (for Alves): incomplete. An injury-based substitution that had no effect.
And now, no Alves. For 6 matches or 3-4 weeks, whichever comes first. In some ways, I think we’re a better defense without him bombing up the pitch. Unfortunately, Puyol’s diminishing pace makes him maybe not the most confidence-inspiring choice out there. Last season, we were lucky with injuries. This season, not so much. We’re still top of the group on goal differential, and Inter are bottom. But the problem with losing this match is that now, we have to go into the cold lands and get results. Period, full stop. Which means that we have to start playing a lot better pretty damned fast, and hope for a mild winter out in those parts.
I admit it: My hope was to have my Inter match be meaningless. Now, with a very tight group, anything can happen. I still think we qualify, but now we will have to work a lot harder to do so.
And yes, Rubin Kazan deserve full credit. They battened down the hatches and defended as if their lives depended on it. And they got two goals from three shots on goal. Not bad production. Not bad at all.