This was a weird one, in which positions were reversed. Usually, it’s us rolling into a match having only days before played a mid-weeker against a tough opponent. This time it was Valencia wearing our shoes, coming to Fortress Nou without Ever Banega who, in the “We can’t make this shit up,” file, has a broken ankle after forgetting to set the parking brake on his car as he filled it up with gas.
Let’s pause for a moment for that one.
This match was meaningful for a number of reasons. We are still, make no mistake about it, fighting for La Liga. We had a 13-point deficit to the league leaders after they thumped yet another opponent that was reduced to 10 men. As usual, it was a luxury that we weren’t going to be able to expect.
But we also had some suspended players, so Guardiola rolled out with Valdes, Montoya, Puyol, Pique, Abidal, Iniesta, Busquets, Fabregas, Pedro, Messi and Sanchez. Though Xavi practiced as normal with the group, he didn’t get the match start, nor should he have.
Valencia, fresh off showing the world that in fact a cold, winter night in Stoke is a pretty easy thing to deal with for a Liga side, began with pressure and a packed midfield, which did two things (three, if you do math like a journalist):
–Clearly demonstrated that they were coming to play, without fear and with the knowledge that they might catch us thinking “Why bother, the Liga is done.”
–The midfield is where the magic happens, so shutting that area down should reduce the magical possibilities.
–Making our defense do what it doesn’t like to do and isn’t really good at, which is playing defense.
In my tennis player past, I always hated doubles, not only because I’m the solitary sort of prig who likes to fail on his own, but because there would always be, in every match, the ridiculous “After you, my dear Alphonse” moment that resulted in a ball sliding right in between two players, unsure of whose responsibility dealing with the damned thing was.
So it was when what should have been a harmless pass to a Valencia attacker sandwiched between Pique and Montoya, became a shock goal for them and a 0-1 lead. Busquets did everything right in applying the kind of desperate, controlling pressure that really left only one outlet for the attacker, a lobbed pass to a solo attacker that surely, Bean Pole was going to deal with. Valdes, realizing too late the ensuing comedy of errors, came off his line in a move that makes the intrepid evaluator wonder what might have happened had he stayed home.
Be that as it may it was still 0-1, and we had a little egg on our faces. Was this going to be another Osasuna, a fraught encounter with an empowered, resilient opponent and a fraught defense?
Nope. The midgets pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and began to turn on a display of footballing beauty that makes it abundantly clear that while they might not be leading the Liga, there can be no doubt about the best footballing side around. It was passing, running, attack after attack and Sanchez continuing his coming out party.
It should be noted that while Messi tallied four goals, Sanchez’ was, for me, a more impressive overall match. His dynamism and end-to-end pressure deserved a goal if not more. Some of it was his own clunkiness in front of goal, some just a keeper standing on his head today, as we should all bow down to the staggering Diego Alves, who kept his side from taking an even worse hiding than it did, in a match that was closer than the scoreline indicated, but not really that close at all, at the same time. A weird one, in other words.
But the scoreline was a shock, really, because the match began with Pique showing off the Masia roots with a spectacular move in traffic, and Tika-Taka was in fine form. Valencia was pressing the ball, but just couldn’t get it. Pique uncorked another excellent run to unleash Messi, Busquets fed Pedro for a cross to nowhere, but you could see the pressure building.
And then came the mess of a goal, that in effect was something easily shrugged off as a fluke, which was what our side did. Sanchez (again) delivered a remarkable ball for Pedro, that resulted in nothing when as usual this season, the latter thought too much and the opportunity was lost. But the connections were being made, and the sprites were drawing ever closer until just as suddenly as for the Valencia goal, it happened:
A truly great ball from Fabregas for Pedro resulted in P finally doing the right thing in taking the pass, not clunking it up and charging directly forward to apply pressure, before a bit of luck involved itself as a defender’s clearance attempt fell directly to Messi who made no mistake, sliding a deft curler into the far post for 1-1.
As with Valdes, Valencia’s Alves was left helpless by his defense, and the match was in the balance. How would Valencia respond? How would we respond? What was about to happen here?
It was at this point that it became abundantly clear why this is a championship side, irrespective of what happens in the biggest competitions this season. And after our goal, you can see concern and doubt in the the Valencia faces, wondering if they had another wonder goal in them, another moment of defensive frailty from us to get them more shots, was the luck still there? Because Pedro’s cross was once again, really to nowhere, but luck, always luck. As importantly, the goal came from the cognizance that width was, today as always, the answer against a side willing to sow rock salt in the fertile ground in which Tika-Taka grows.
Refereeing conspiracy theorists then gained more ammunition as Fabregas appeared to be rather clearly fouled in the box, but the official was having none of it. For me, it was difficult to see how it wasn’t a penalty, but hey, I’m not a Liga official. Perhaps he thought that Fabregas went down a little too easily? Good question, one that we answered with more pressure and aggression in keeping Valencia on the back foot with fairy dust, magical powder left in the wake of glittering, vibrant football of the likes we haven’t seen from this club in some time.
Messi had a remarkable run that at any moment could have resulted in a goal for Sanchez rather than a goal kick for Valencia, had he just made a simple pass. Not that it mattered, because the midgets were rampant as Fabregas slid a lovely ball to Busquets while being fouled, and Busquets fed Ineista, who rolled an inch-perfect ball for Abidal, who topped that with another inch-perfect cross from Abidal for Messi, who was right on the doorstep. The first shot was stopped (and spilled) by Alves, but the follow-up was spanked home.
Just like that it was 2-1, via a pair of goals that both took advantage of the width that Valencia decided to cede to a side that was thriving on it.
And if you have the match on a recording device, gaze in wonderment at that Iniesta pass to Abidal again. So much of what a player can do with a ball is dictated by the pace and placement of the pass. The best passes leave the player with precious little to do except keep running as the ball magically appears at his feet. Iniesta’s ball to Abidal was one such moment. Abidal looked so natural taking the pass and continuing because it was so flawless. Indeed, it would have been indescribably churlish of him to not return the favor with a ball of the quality of the cross that he sang in for Messi.
Valencia looked to be in dire, dire trouble as that second goal, like gourmands at an all-you-can-eater at a 4-star Michelin joint, opened our eyes and made us hungryhungryhungrier. Another staggering pass from Fabregas to Sanchez resulted in feck all, as our spendy Chilean clearly needs to work on his finishing. He was 1-v-1 vs Alves, who did all the right things as Sanchez opted for power rather than guile. At another moment, Fabregas broke loose in the box but Alves stopped him, too. What could have been 4-1 against a lesser keeper was still 2-1 as Valencia dangled, somehow withstanding our pressing for a third, insurance, match-changing goal.
And we were treated to even more amazing passing sequences, give and gos, runs and rushes including a Messi/Iniesta sequence that unfolded like one of those high-wire acts that makes you slap your head in wonderment. It was so remarkable that you could, as Messi shot, see Fabregas starting to celebrate, perhaps because the quality of the play was such that it truly did deserve to result in a goal. Hmph. Fate wasn’t being so generous today. We were going to have to earn this one, to beat a keeper that was playing out of his mind, suddenly under siege. Shot after shot, run after run. the match win. There were many moments of joy in a match played on a pitch that seemed tilted toward the Valencia goal:
–A delightful bit of defense from Pedro sprung the side on the attack.
–Guardiola stood on the sideline, urging club to play faster, get moving, throw the ball in.
–Sanchez, again unleashed, takes an ill-advised shot, when he should have waited, even as the message was clear: I’m not waiting around, boys. I came here for greatness, now let’s get busy.
–In an opportunity to play a ball out, Valdes just put a rather emphatic boot into a clearance, after another mini cock-up by his defense. Perhaps a message?
–There was Iniesta (again) with a “wait what was that” pass for Fabregas, who somehow hit the crossbar. Our pressure and aggression returned the defense returns to its proper role of not really being a defense, but rather a group of players who deal with long, leaked balls and stray attackers, a very different task for which it is perfectly suited. And somehow, it got to the half still 2-1.
The second half picked up where the first left off, as poor Sanchez can’t buy one after a dynamite pass from Fabregas over the top, but Alves did it again. We pressed and pressed for that needed third goal needed for insurance, breathing room from a Valencia side that can score, and was unafraid. The match was, for me, on pins and needles.
Fabregas made a fragile, shuffling, shambling solo run into box, resulting in yet another stop from Alves. Messi steals the ball and makes a run, demonstrating little more than that he and Sanchez not quite on same wavelength yet. Then another Messi run too far.
The fearsome urgency of this side was clear in a moment during which Sanchez was fouled. As he lay there rubbing his ankle, doing the “Poor me” face, his teammates took the free kick, clearly saying “Get up, dude, you’re fine. We have work to do,” and restarted play.
Sanchez was gifted with yet another opportunity that cried out for a one-time volley, even as he earned a corner. Two players were shining like diamonds here, Alves for them in stopping everything that came near him and Sanchez, who was showing off his field-stretching skills as he forced yet another save from Alves, who was keeping his club around, dangling, for a late goal or bit of magic. We knew that and kept pressing as Valencia kept getting a leg, a foot, a desperate lunge in.
And still it was 2-1 as Messi went suddenly quiet, and Sanchez got very loud. Then Montoya, who had been gradually finding his feet in this match, never resembled Alves today as much as he did with a staggering pass for Messi, who clanged his header off the crossbar, as Alves got help that he didn’t need, and this match was positively killing me.
Fabregas scuffs another wide-open scoring chance, somehow, after busting Valencia open with another perfect ball for Sanchez who pressed, and the rebound fell directly to a wide-open Fabregas who proceeded to say “You, in the tenth row. Here’s a souvenir.” And Valencia was still hanging around, still with that evil 2-1 scoreline, as the typical Cule could be forgiven for beginning to think that Fate was setting us up for heartbreak. For what other explanation could there be for the witchcraft that kept that third goal from coming.
Messi pops a perfect ball to Pedro who screws the pooch on the cross for Sanchez, leaving Messi to make a face that said “NOW you see why I take the damn shots all the time!”
Then suddenly, it was nightmare time, as Pique committed the cardinal sin of heading a ball into the sky, resulting in a powerful volley from Valencia that forced a remarkable save from Valdes, followed by more danger off the corner. Then everything changed in three words: Tello for Pedro. I leave it to you to suss out whether the cheer of the crowd was salutary or anticipatory.
What got me geeked was that suddenly, we had a pair of greyhounds in the traps. Valencia’s coach Unai Emery seemed to sense this, understanding that heroism from a keeper only gets you so far, as he, too, clamored for his side to get busy, make plays such as the one that forced Valdes to rush from his line to stop a play as yet another ball over the top from ceded possession in the midfield led directly to danger from Valencia, even as Pique got away with one as he held back a Valencia attacker.
Still 2-1. Still.
And then it was Tello, who had been raising hell with pressure, pace and more pressure, taking a pass from Messi and charging directly at Valencia with pace. Not thinking, not seeking perfection, not doing anything except running directly at the defense and taking a shot that forced a spilled reflex save from Alves that is rammed home my Messi. And suddenly, insurance came from the sparkplug. Then Tello follows that up with a remarkable move that finds him alone in the box, running at Alves …. only to trip over ball. Dude faked himSELF out. At 3-1, you can laugh at that one, as Guardiola did.
The Tello Show continued as he created more chaos with a steal, attack and pass that led to a missed shot from Thiago. Then Messi steals the ball and feeds a wide-open Tello, who like Sanchez needs to work on his shooting at the next practice session.
It was the fourth goal that for me, makes MOTM a toss-up between Messi and Sanchez. The latter demonstrated his absurd work rate as he watched play develop, figured out where the ball was going to be then ran, like a man possessed, very late into a match that was already in hand, to make the interception. You can see him already reading the play, and running to where he knows the ball is going to be. Sure enough, blammo. He picks off the pass and feeds Busquets before taking off full-speed for the other end of the pitch. But Busquets does the right thing in feeding a bust-out Messi, who beautifully chips Alves. That’s FOUR goals for Messi in a match that wasn’t his best by a damn sight.
It was well and truly over, and Alves was done in by Fate, who clearly had things in mind other than breaking the hearts of Cules everywhere. And as lovely icing on the cake, Xavi tallies No. 5 off the aftermath of a seemingly impossible Messi little run/dribble, yielding a desperately cleared ball that fell right to Xavi, for another deft lob. Side of his outside foot.
“Fiesta del futbol,” indeed, as one of the ESPN Deportes commentators noted at the conclusion of this match, whose scoreline will tell a different story than the event itself. It’s back to a 10-point lead, as we look up the table in hope, buoyed by a delight of a display.
Team: 8. Team football was on full display, with very few moments of selfishness and tendencies to go it alone. It was midfield pressure, defense in depth and passing suitable to make a Spirograph dizzy.
Guardiola: 9. The right starting XI, the right substitutions. We’ll leave his moment with Fabregas for the ages, and just laud him for inserting Tello.
Valdes: 7. I thought he should have stayed home and taken his chances on the Piatti goal. Other than that and a funky clearance or two, another brilliant match. He is so sure and confident in his ball handling that it has to assure his defenders.
Montoya: 5. Seemed out of his depth for much of this match before finding his way in, but definitely one for the future.
Pique: 7. Now this is more like it. Was it the seat that he was forced to take against Bayer? Good question. But today’s match was his best in some time, on both ends of the pitch.
Puyol: 7. Powerhouse display. Done for pace a couple of times, which goes with the aging gladiator territory. And you wonder where he was during the Montoya/Pique pooch-screwing.
Abidal: 6. I don’t like his recent tendency to dither on the ball. Not one bit. It cost us a couple of times in situations that could have come to real danger, even as he worked his butt off to make up for them. And what a cross for Messi.
Busquets: 9. What an absolute gem of a match for our lanky DM. Without Xavi in the engine room his role changed to more box-to-box, and he handled it with grace and style. Remarkable play that often went under the radar.
Iniesta: 7. After a slow early start, became a dangerous wonder with ball after ball after amazing, remarkable ball. Then he would drift out again. Shone brightly in the Xavi role.
Fabregas: 7. Danger. All the time, with his ability to place a long pass in the exact right spot for an attacker like Sanchez. Needs to work on his finishing, however. Guardiola is right. He should have had two goals today.
Pedro: 5. He tries and tries, but a little something is missing. Good plays on offense and defense, but it’s almost like he’s thinking too much. A couple of bad first touches also cost us at what could have been key times.
Sanchez: 8. He continues to work his way into our remarkable side. His finishing needs work, but he changes the pitch from end to end in a way that we have sorely missed with the departures of Henry and Eto’o. He still plays around with the ball at bit too much, but he’s fearless, strong and confident.
Messi: 7. Yes, a 7, even as he grabs MOTM in a close-run vote from Sanchez. Being in the right place is an underestimated quality of a great player. He was in the perfect spot way too many times in this match for it to be happenstance. Had some giveaways, and a little laconic in his overall work rate, but a stellar match.
Tello (for Pedro). Not enough time for a full rating, but rather than a number, I will just say “WOW!” Sheer pace is so hard to argue with. Couple it with ball skills and you have real danger. Work on that finishing and his future is so, so bright.
Thiago (for Fabregas). Again, not enough time for a full rating, but notice how he stayed in the engine room when Xavi subbed on. I like that. Nice passing and movement, should have done better with his shot at goal.
Xavi (for Iniesta). Just a few minutes to loosen the old calf up, and he scored a lovely goal. Why not?
Next up for us is Atletico, in the cauldron of their home stadium. Let’s see if we can carry over this wonderfulness into a convincing road display. For now, a guy who says that everything is his: