If it’s another tight, sloppy match, it must be Pedro! Time. Anyone who wonders why his name carries the exclamation point need look no farther than today’s Copa del Rey opener, against a Cultural Leonesa side that really didn’t have much interest in the attack. Those thinking this would be a wide-open match as the Segunda minnows were buoyed by the giant killing yesterday, were to be bummed.
But that’s okay, because we have the secret weapon, the match-breaker. He’s done it time and again this season, and he did it again with opportunistic movement and dead-eye shooting that resulted in a brace and, dare I say, an advance to the next round of the Copa.
And I big “Whew!” was had by all, because early on, this match felt like a draw. We were very tentative and loose in possession, but Cultural really didn’t have much to say on the attacking end, except when they were able to take advantage of our “What the hell” right back, Jeffren. Guardiola came out with Pinto, Jeffren, Marquez, Txigrinski, Maxwell, The Yaya, Keita, Busquets, Gai Assulin, Pedro! and Krkic.
My first thought was “Where are the goals going to come from, since we don’t have a striker out there.” Helping me remain calm, however, was the tentative, “Don’t kill us” approach that Cultural took to this match, an outing that really, there wasn’t a whole lot to say about. We didn’t have a true midfielder out there, just a trio of defensive midfielders. So as was to be expected, we didn’t really have full midfield control as the middle of the pitch ceased to be a starting point for our attack.
So the offense was left to the right pass, a good run and a killer shot …. which was what happened, twice. In the first goal, Krkic made a nice run that was stopped by a pair of Cultural defenders. He was just able to stab the ball to Pedro!, who roofed it past the keeper for a 1-0 scoreline.
Now at this point, you expected Cultural to come out with guns blazing in an effort to wrest control of the match away. Instead they continued pretty much as they had, willing to play on the counter, but not wanting to risk the men forward that would result in them getting smoked by one of our attacks.
Which didn’t stop said attacks from happening, in a match that really should have ended 4 or 5-0. But tentative play killed a few excellent attacks, along with Krkic, who did his part to keep the point spread tight on numerous occasions, including a “still don’t know how he missed that one” chance in the box. But he took, controlled, dribbled, thought and by that time, the chance was gone, like my fondness for him in our starting lineup. Yes, even in Copa matches. The emergence of Pedro and Jeffren means that you can’t play Krkic on the wing, where he is most effective. So it’s striker for a young man who just gets knocked around like a pinball by bigger, stronger defenders.
And oh, yeah …. that second goal. It was a simple enough affair, or one that seemed simple enough, it must be said. Jeffren took a pass, made a run at his defender to put him on the back foot, then popped a lovely lob to Pedro! who, holding his run to stay onside, one-timed the shot past the keeper. The resultant 2-0 might as well have been 10-0. Guardiola made a few changes to tighten up the overall play, and we began to kill the match with possession, stroking the ball around and trying an attack when a good opportunity presented itself.
Now, the defense wasn’t all that satisfied with that 2-0 scoreline, so Marquez and Txigrinski kept trying to give the Cultural players the ball, to give them a sporting shot without their having to run so far with it. Though a very friendly gesture, my preference would be that such things never happen again. But the defense really calmed down when Guardiola subbed on Abidal and moved Maxwell to right back. Our French Greyhound, though he did have a moment or two of mere mortality, handled his business on that side of the pitch.
And that was that. The thing about these early-round matches is to play smart, get a couple of away goals and close it down at home. You don’t want any injuries or surprises, and you want to make sure that the lesser side fully understands the natural order of things. Wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what happened.
Team: 5. Aimless and rootless without that midfield engine, it was a spotty performance that was marred on the defensive end by lapses that, were we playing a better side, would have resulted in us conceding, for sure. Nobody seemed all that sure on how to play together.
Guardiola: 6. Saved himself with the right substitutions. He was confident that he could play pretty much any lineup and not concede, but hats off to him for realizing that Jeffren at RB wasn’t working.
Pinto: 7. Didn’t really have a lot to do, but patrolled and controlled his area well.
Jeffren: 5. This score is kind of his aggregate. He kicked ass once he returned to the attacking end of the pitch, but man was he a crappy right back. He understands that to unsettle a defense you have to run at it, which facilitates gaining the space to do something cool.
Marquez: 4. A number of horrific giveaways thankfully resulted in little real danger. He’s still playing his way back into form, I hope. Because if this is the Marquez we can expect for the duration, it’s kinda got the suck.
Txigrinski: 4. He was as stinky as his central partner, with more crappy passes and tentative defending. Made a couple of nice plays that saved our bacon, but he hasn’t been the same since the return from his knee injury.
Maxwell: 5. I’m still not completely convinced by this one. He had a number of loose balls early, and spotty control. He solidified, but I still wanted to see more overlapping and attacking play from him.
The Yaya: 7. Man-sized match, and another good, not great one from our rock of Gibraltar. Like the other A-teamers, it’s difficult to know what to do sometimes with unfamiliar players, and he showed that uncertainty at times.
Keita: 5. A solid, all-pitch match that must have been quite a come-down for him from his hat trick excellence.
Busquets: 5. His role was difficult to discern at times. He, like The Yaya, had some early giveaways, but The Yaya played out of his. Busquets’ diving and flailing about doesn’t become him. Yes, it draws fouls sometimes. But if he gets the hell up when he was brushed in the box, he probably nabs a goal. Instead, he got some more grass stains.
Assulin: 5. Yet another match in which he failed to fully impress. Had some fine moments, such as that amazing, ankle-breaking move in the box, but the chance wasn’t followed up on.
Pedro!: 8. Didn’t kill attacks with his dithering on the ball, which is much progress. He showed the confidence of a starter out there, and was clinical with both finishes. I still think, with all else being equal and the real side is in the house, that he’s our first sub.
Krkic: 2. Sorry, but The Kid was awful. Between killing a sure-fire 3 on 4 break to thinking too much in front of goal, he was just off today. I don’t know if it’s confidence, or the need to be absolutely certain when he shoots, but he has to break out of whatever it is that he’s in. And I know we didn’t really have any options, but Krkic as striker just isn’t going to work.
Jonathan Dos Santos (for Keita): 5. Had long stretches without touching the ball, but kept moving and presenting himself for that facilitating pass. Too bad he entered when we were trying to kill the match off.
Abidal (for Assulin): 7. Shared in a bit of the team looseness with the ball at first, but quickly got it out of his system whereupon he had his world on lockdown. Strength and pace are hard to argue with if you’re a Segunda side.
Jonathan Soriano (for Jeffren): incomplete. He wasn’t really in the match long enough to have any effect, except to sky an open shot at goal.
So next up is Osasuna, a match that I expect a victory from, since most of the starting XI was rested for most or all of this match. This is the real value of a weaker opponent in the Copa: You don’t have to roll out the good guys to get a result. Henry will be back in the side for this weekend’s match, a return that I am looking forward to.
Until then ….