Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you our Man of the Match, Seydou Keita, whom we all affectionately call Keiteee! He was absolutely, spot-on brilliant tonight in a crucial match for the side, against an opponent who was perfect.
Because they were about as threatening as a puppy, and we knew that going in. But more importantly, we went in rested. This team would have given Rubin Kazan the hiding that Isaiah predicted in his preview. The movement was sharper, the passing crisper and the energy was much, much higher. Tonight, this club would have beaten pretty much any club in the world, because for the first time this season, it played as a full-on team. Not individuals working toward a collective goal, but a team. The difference was crucial.
When a club isn’t playing as a team, players such as Keita don’t get the opportunity to shine, because people aren’t doing their parts to make sure that everyone on the pitch has an opportunity to excel. Messi makes his runs and loses the ball. Iniesta runs to nowhere. Xavi circles with the ball, because nobody is making the runs off of the ball to present him with options. It’s all a mess.
But when everyone is active, rested and energetic, this is the result. This match was so completely, so comprehensively dominant that it kind of got a little boring …. okay, I’m kidding. But I wanted Zaragoza to put up a little fight, just so that people wouldn’t say “Yeah, but it was just a Segunda side. What can you expect, really?”
Everything about this match was exceptional from a team perspective, particularly the interplay between our midfielders and attackers, and the flexibility that such things afforded the likes of Keita. Because when Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Ibrahimovic are flowing, Keita is the guy raking up the leaves, so to speak. Ramzi, his most eloquent defender, is no doubt smiling at the all-pitch match that Keita had, one that made me so happy because he has been very good to great all season long. But this is the match that will make everyone say “Hey, yeah! Keita!”
Guardiola rolled out a lineup that showed his concern over the attacking prowess of Zaragoza: Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Txigrinski, Maxwell, Busquets, Keita, Xavi, Initesta, Messi, Ibrahimovic …. NOT! It’s easy to take chances with the back line in this kind of match, and this would have been the match to start Marquez.
Note also the forward/back left and right back. With Maxwell’s abilities to go forward, he’s a good choice since Puyol is a purely defensive right back, rather than the roaming force that Alves is. So there is always somebody home, which Puyol was in every instance except the goal, but he had pulled up lame, clutching and checking his ankle. I sure hope he’s okay, since we’re fresh out of right backs if he goes down.
Ultimately, there isn’t a whole lot to say about this match, so I’ll just make a few points, document the goals, then get to the ratings. Why isn’t there much to say? Because we dominated against a club that played its way into the Liga, but didn’t really deserve to be on the pitch with us. The lads got some confidence back, and learned to play as a team, which is crucial going into a very important stretch of matches.
–Zaragoza tried a different take on the Xavi Control approach, fronting him early with two men. But once we got the goal, and Iniesta stopped mucking about trying to be a winger and became Xavi Jr., that took care of that nonsense.
–Messi slowly but surely is getting his confidence back, and he did so by becoming the player that I so love to see, a team player who looks to make his teammates better, then takes advantage of the chaos that he can sow, when a defense doesn’t know if he’s going to pass or make the run.
–This is the first match in a while in which I have been happy with the movement off the ball. Note how there was always someone to pass the ball to. Now recall how time and again in recent matches, one of our players would be stranded with the ball, bereft of passing options that could advance an attack. Huge difference.
–I know that everyone tires of hearing me say this, but Ibrahimovic expands the capabilities of this club in a way that, if everyone can be healthy at the same time and on form, is going to make us a truly frightening force. Better than last year? Yes. Absolutely. Because just as Keita is so dangerous at that box-to-box running, with Ibrahivmovic you have a great striker who is also an exceptional midfielder. Did anyone notice the pass that he made to Maxwell to keep an attack going, where he in effect bounced the ball off of his instep to bypass the defenders that thought they had him shut down? And the interplay that is developing between he and Messi? Crazy. So excited.
Goal nr. 1: Keita header into the roof off a set piece, a very simple play that still has me giddy with unfettered delight, because the ability to score from set pieces makes us a much, much more dangerous side. Keita also split two defenders to head the ball in.
Goal nr. 2: This one makes me even happier, because Iniesta got hacked, winning a free kick, which Ibrahimovic decided he wanted to use to amputate the keeper’s hands. You don’t realize how crucial strong hands and wrists are to goalkeeping. Well, we do now. What a screamer! Wonder if that had something to do with how unhappy Alves looked, sitting in the stands? Just asking.
Goal nr. 3: Keita knocks in a perfect cross from Ibrahimovic, but lest anyone forget, Xavi laid out a pass for Ibrahimovic to run onto that should be enshrined is a “This is how you play attacking mid” hall of fame somewhere. The commentator was spot on in saying “Everything about this football club just makes you feel good.”
Goal nr. 4: This time it was Keita crossing to Ibrahimovic, taking a pass after Iniesta battled like a cornered albino wolverine for possession of the ball. Then Ibrahimovic knocked in a volley with the outside of his foot. The goal looked so easy. But good Lord, it wasn’t. No way, no how.
Goal nr. 5: This one made me happy, because it came from a brilliant Iniesta pass to Messi, who lofted a delicate rainbow over the keeper. This goal was a just reward for the brilliant, unselfish match that he played. And finding the back of the net can only help his damaged self-confidence in the aftermatch of his time with Maradumber.
Goal nr. 6: It was a free header for Keita, but think about this: He generated enough power to smoke a ball past the keeper, from a standing jump. He must be able to tow cars with his neck muscles.
Yes, we conceded, when a rotten pass from Maxwell led to a jailbreak. Valdes made an exceptional save to stop the initial shot, but when the blast from the outside came at him, he had some back luck in that his one-handed save bounced off his back hand and into the net. Conceding like that irritates me, because we lost control of the match for a moment. I suppose that being 4 goals up will do that to a side, right?
Team: 9. Still a few moments of sloppy play, but overall, an excellent performance when they could have just phoned it in and won 2-0 or something. The constant movement and hunger for the ball were extraordinary.
Guardiola: 9. Not sure what he did to get the lads ready for this match, but damn! He also understood the value of starting Messi and letting him play, to get his mojo back.
Valdes: 8. Some amazing saves to control Zaragoza jailbreaks late in the second half. Would someone again tell me why he isn’t playing for Spain? Is he the best keeper in La Liga right now? What makes his play even more amazing is that he doesn’t have a spotty defense to keep him on his toes. He never sees the ball then suddenly, he has to have the concentration to make a reflex save or stop a breakaway. Dude’s good.
Puyol: 7. Didn’t have a lot to do until we started getting sloppy, when he kept putting out fires with excellent play that ranged from right wing to center of the defensive box.
Pique: 6. Just solid defensive play. Had a couple of lapses, but got bailed out.
Txigrinski: 5. Slooooow. His lack of pace is worrisome for a lad who, like the rest of our defense, strays so far up the pitch. The couple of times he tried the Txikenbauer thing didn’t go so well. But he’s looked a lot better against better opposition.
Maxwell: 6. Strong effort in controlling that side of the pitch. He helped Pennant make clear why he was available on a free transfer. But his shit pass led to the Zaragoza goal.
Busquets: 6. I give him major props for his solid play with the ball. He would take and distribute. But he always goes off song and sure enough, he started holding the ball too much, and doing the wrong things with it. And he can’t defend straight up without fouling.
Xavi: 8. He had a few loose touches that brought his overall rating down, but what a match. His passing was mostly pinpoint accurate and always with the attack in mind.
Keita: 10. And not just because of the hat trick. He played defense, won balls, broke up attacks, made himself available for possession retaining passes and did just about everything except drive the bus to the match. He even gave Messi an affectionate hug after a chance went begging, as if to say “Don’t worry, dude. You’re still the best player alive.” The smiles from Ibrahimovic and Guardiola when Keita scored the hat trick were warm and genuine.
Iniesta: 7. He once again demonstrated the absurdity of people suggesting that he start at left wing over Henry. It’s boys against men. He was also struggling to beat defenders off the dribble. But he still isn’t in full form yet. His role as Xavi’s Mini Me brought him to full flower, as he bossed the left side of the midfield, battling for possession and making excellent passes.
Messi: 8. Loved his play tonight, for its intelligence and unselfishness. His close control is superhuman. That play where he flicked it around the defender, then went to get it would have been the goal of the season, had Ibra kept himself on side.
Ibrahimovic: 9. Astounding match from BANGS, that began with that perfect dummy to set up Messi’s first miss of a glorious chance. He played defense, harassed the keeper, battled to win the ball back, scored goals and notched assists. Again, one of those stat hog nights that demonstrated why we spent that crazy-ass money on the dude.
Marquez (for Pique): 4. He comes on, and we concede. Coincidence? Actually, yes. Maxwell’s horrific pass to Xavi was easily picked, and led to the Zaragoza break. Marquez did his usual following of the ball, rather than examining the situation and placing himself where it will do the most good. The goal wasn’t at all his fault. Txigrinski bears culpability for running back into the box aimlessly, instead of covering the trailer.
Krkic (for Ibrahimovic): 5. Ran around, looked cute, showed some good energy, but didn’t have much of an effect.
Jeffren (for Xavi): incomplete. Final Fantasy came in too late, really, to do much of anything except give the Camp Nou crowd the opportunity to give Xavi a standing ovation.
We remain busy, with a Copa match against Tercera side Cultural Leonesa, then mid-table Osasuna on the weekend, then the Champions League return leg against Rubin Kazan, where I can’t wait to see what our rejuvenated side can do. Henry will be back from injury, and I expect him to get some minutes mid-week probably, then a few more on the weekend. But he will make a significant difference in the CL tie, which I expect us to win.
And that’s what I know.