The path to sustained greatness is not a straight one, it is filled with pitfalls and dangers and misfortune, oh my. To successfully navigate the path it is necessary to push the boundaries, to evolve to meet novel challenges, to fall and then rise like a phoenix – better than before. For an example let’s consider the Beatles, one of the most acclaimed bands in modern music. The Beatles have many songs (I’ll let you argue about which ones below) that are beautiful pieces of music – comparable to Barcelona games like the ’10-’11 Champions League final. On the other hand they also produced (well Lennon did at least) the cringe-worthy Revolution 9 which sounds like a mix between nails on a chalkboard, the “most annoying sound in the world” Lloyd makes in Dumb and Dumber, and me singing in the shower. Throughout their career the Beatles were constantly attempting to evolve their sound – to make themselves better. Revolution 9 was a side effect of their drive, just as Barcelona’s recent struggles are a side effect of Pep and the boys’ pursuit of greatness.
Many Cules were wondering how the boys would react after having potentially lost the league only 3 days ago. Against Leverkusen they managed to overcome their recent difficulties and record their first Champions League knockout away win in the Guardiola era (EDIT: super memory fail). On top of that Messi broke the record for goals in the Champions League knockout stages at the tender age of 24. On top of that Sanchez managed to not only score his first Champions League goal ever, he grabbed a second as well. These three major milestones indicate that Barcelona isn’t just building on what has made them successful in the past, but also expanding their repertoire and evolving to address areas of weakness. This match was an encouraging sign for the team that makes it easier to understand their poor form over the last month – even the Beatles put out some awful songs in their quest to push the boundaries and evolve their sound.
With all that said, this game was no Revolution 9.
Unlike the match over the weekend Guardiola chose to leave the youth on the bench, starting Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Abidal, Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta, Adriano, Messi, and Sanchez. Xavi was left out due to calf problems and Pique was left out so he could concentrate on composing sappy poetry. The bench was filled with padawan learners, boasting Pinto, Bartra, Dos Santos, Thiago, Roberto, Pedro, and Cuenca.
Barcelona was ready to play and immediately set about controlling the match with patient passing and good pressure, particularly in the midfield. Leverkusen were probing when they got the ball, quickly looking to get the ball wide to Schurrle and Augusto. However the first 10 minutes were devoid of chances for either team and Leverkusen began to drop nine men deep, preparing for the long siege that lay ahead. The first good chance came when a combination between Messi, Fabregas, and Alves saw the ball fortuitously squirt through the defense to Sanchez who was free on the right. Schwaab managed to cut out the cross to Messi with a textbook sliding challenge. Credit where credit is due, Schwaab defended well in this match despite his early yellow.
In the absence of Xavi Fabregas was playing a much more disciplined role in the midfield, spreading the ball around the pitch and occasionally looking for the hail mary to Sanchez as he loves to do. He was still getting forward, but seemed to be picking his chances more carefully – he made one particularly incisive run to beat the offside trap but couldn’t make anything of it. For the majority of the first half Leverkusen were defending and when they weren’t they struggled to put together three passes due to the pressing of the hungry mint green wolves on the field. Meanwhile Barcelona just kept patiently passing and probing, confident that the opportunities would come if they continued to trust the system.
Iniesta was involved in a couple missed chances as he didn’t pick up a phenomenal 40 yard run by Alves, who looked like the Road Runner getting the best of Wile E. Coyote up and down the right flank all night. Shortly after Iniesta played the ball off of the back of Messi’s head from 30 yards. 2 points. The ref calls Sanchez offside after a cross from Cesc and looks like he may soil himself. Poor guy, imagine the pressure he must feel with all this talk about the refs.
With 10 minutes left in the half Leverkusen begin to step out of their shell and commit four or five players forward (and cross midfield a couple times). This led to chances for Barcelona, as Messi cradled a brilliant ball from Alves off his chest as if cradling a baby. Unfortunately even Messi was surprised his touch was that good and nothing came of it. The breakthrough finally came when Leverkusen were caught up and Messi played a brilliant flick with the outside of his left foot into the path of Fabregas and Sanchez who both knew exactly where Messi was going to play it. Sanchez beat Fabregas in a quick game of rock, paper, scissors and then beat the keeper just as easily to make it 1-0. Messi had one more solo run that didn’t quite come off, and the whistle blew. Half time. 78% possession. 1-0 away. Cool, calm, and collected.
The second half began with Leverkusen needing a goal and playing like it. As they pressed high up the pitch and committed men forward the match was much more open than in the first half. You couldn’t be blamed for seeing a goal coming, especially after Friedrich got a toe on a long free kick but couldn’t direct it. Barcelona was looking to take advantage of the new space behind Leverkusen’s defense as Puyol played a nice chip that just skipped out of Sanchez’s reach.
It was Leverkusen who found the goal only six minutes into the half. A half clearance followed by a distinct lack of pressure from the midfield led to a cross that Barcelona couldn’t clear. Six or so headers in a row ensued and all of Puyol, Mascherano, and Adriano failed to clear the ball, which dropped to Augusto. Augusto played a delicate chip into Corluka whose cross evaded Abidal before Kadlec towered over Sanchez to head past a wrong-footed Valdes. It was a team goal by Leverkusen, and a team concession by Barcelona.
But Barcelona didn’t skip a beat, not a single head dropped, and everyone just went back about their business. The best example was when Alves took a precise freekick right at some guy in the stands – everything was back to normal. A quick restart led to Adriano finding Fabregas wide open across the pitch. As Fabregas strolled forward Sanchez began to move to the center while Alves furiously overlapped on the right. Leverkusen’s left back was forced to maintain enough width to deal with Alves that Fabregas could play the classic pass that splits the fullback and the centerback. Sanchez burst onto the scene, rounded the keeper, and coolly slotted home.
At 2-1 the fun wasn’t over, and Leverkusen quickly fashioned a chance for Augusto due to Barcelona losing the ball in midfield and some poor defending. The game remained open without many chances until Thiago replaced Iniesta in the 60th minute. Leverkusen created a great chance as Busquets misplaced a pace and the Germans blitzkrieged towards our goal where Schurrle somehow headed it into the path of Castro storming through on the left. Castro blasted the ball but Valdes got just enough of a touch to push it onto the post. It was the sort of chance that a team of Leverkusen’s caliber can create, and it took a great reaction save from Valdes to keep it 2-1.
Leverkusen were looking dangerous and creating chances, but it was coming with significant risk as we continued to try to get men behind their defense. Thiago played a long through pass to Sanchez before Alves and Messi combined for a shot. It was a great give and go between Alves and Messi which highlights why they like playing with each other so much – they are able to form triangles with only two people. It’s the 70th minute which means Adriano has played a full game and he limps off to be replaced by Pedro. Barcelona again tries to find space behind, with Messi playing Thiago through but Thiago is stonewalled by Leno.
In the 72nd minute Messi is all alone with two large Germans but he casually nutmegs Schwaab, squirms free, and smashes it against the outside of the post. If that move didn’t put a smile on your face I don’t know what will. It gave me the giggles. Keissling came on and tried to create some late drama, but Valdes was up to his diving header. The boys are still pressing for another goal and create several half chances – cutting through Leverkusen’s defense almost at will, but just not being able to connect the last pass. Cuenca steps on for Sanchez in the 85th minute. Late in the game, leading 2-1, we’ve seen this team take its foot off the peddle before. Not tonight. Messi gets the ball in the middle of the field and shrugs off a guy twice his height and weight who is dragging him down before finding Alves running through clear on goal. Alves has just Leno to beat and he… whips an inch perfect cross onto Messi’s boot for Messi to score.
It was an unbelievably unselfish gesture that symbolized the teams performance tonight. On the back of their recent poor form the team played calm, intelligent football. The players were working for each other and trusting each other. There was seriousness in their game tonight, but also joy. It was a good result, and good performance, and it reaffirms there is light at the end of the poor form tunnel.
Valdes: B+. Had almost nothing to do in the first half until he ran way out to concede a throw in, mostly out of boredom I think. Jolted awake by Leverkusen’s early goal in the second half, he proceeded to deny Castro with a great fingertip save. Saved Kiessling’s diving header well. Long passing radar was a bit off while Leverkusen were pressing.
Alves: B+. Motored up and down the right flank like only he can do. Created several dangerous chances by getting behind the defense, the best of which he laid on a platter for Messi. His freekicks however, are absolutely terrible.
Puyol: B. Seemed less interested in putting out fires tonight, almost as if he was more confident with Mascherano next to him than he usually is with Pique. Put in a solid day at the office but will wish he had done better with one of the several chances he has to clear the ball right before their goal.
Mascherano: B. Calmly did his job at the back. Stepped up to win several balls at midfield as he has made a habit of doing. His passing was good when it was to another defender or Busquets, but his long passing wasn’t great. If he wasn’t ahead of Pique in the lineup before, this match should cement him there.
Abidal: B-. Must have worn his steel toed boots today as his touch kept deserting him in crucial moments. Did well defensively both on the left and sweeping up through the middle. His movement off the ball was good as well, but his touch led to losing possession too often.
Fabregas: A-. Asked to play a more reserved role than he has been lately. Responded by spreading the ball around the field well and being more conservative with his passing (minus the occasional ball over the top, he loves those too much). Was incisive with his runs forward and covered for his teammates when they attacked. One of the better games he has played in the midfield.
Busquets: B+.Was sporting the best facial hair on the pitch, to make up for the huge band-aid on his knee which seemed to act as a target for the opposing players’ boots. Did his job quietly but efficiently – winning the ball, distributing quickly, and always making himself available.
Iniesta: B. Kept the ball well but didn’t have the flair he usually exudes when he is fully fit and was relatively quiet all night. He came off for Thiago at 60 minutes without an injury, so it was a good day
Adriano: B. Didn’t offer much of a direct threat on the wing but maintained possession well. Dropped deep to help with defense and in midfield often. Nothing spectacular, but kept things ticking over well. Subbed at 69 minutes for Pedro.
Messi: A. His dribbling was a menace for the Leverkusen defense all night. When he wasn’t nutmegging Schwaab he was dropping deep to keep possession and facilitate play, or playing give and go’s with Alves on the right flank, or playing through balls for Sanchez, or pressing Leno at full pace to earn a throw in… a good match.
Sanchez: A-. Didn’t contribute a whole lot to build up play but constantly stretched Leverkusen’s defense with his running and acted as a reliable outlet. Got behind the defense and on goal twice and finished with the calm of an assassin both times. Worked hard in defense. Certainly would have preferred to stay on in search of a hat trick, but Pep is determined to keep him healthy.
Thiago: B+. Came on for Iniesta and gave the team a jolt of energy right when we needed it. Got stuck into several tough tackles and sprayed some nice passes around on the other end. It’s amazing to think this is his first full year in the squad.
Pedro: C-. Offered the team the a couple opportunities to practice their corners, but other than that contributed very little. His poor form continues.
Cuenca: N/A. Gave Sanchez 5 minutes of rest, ran 30 seconds off the clock, and didn’t have enough time to make an impact.
* All grading is done on the curve.
I’ll leave you with a line from the Beatles that I think applies to being a fan in the greatest era of Barcelona’s history: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”