Goalkeepers are like kickers in American football. The other players do their thing all day long, battling like gladiators. Then, when they are done, or have done all that they can, a little guy comes out, not even wearing a full set of pads, to decide the match. Or, a guy who doesn’t run, doesn’t do much of anything until it is time for him to do something, decides a match.
Today, Victor Valdes was staggering. Those of us who have watched this club over the years, know how amazing it is to say that now. Because even when Valdes was learning his craft, coming up and making plays, he was also making errors. “Brilliant but dodgy” is one phrase used to describe him. Even when he nabbed another Zamora trophy as best keeper in the Liga, there was the nagging doubt, the belief that in the realm of lies, damned lies and statistics, Iker Casillas is the best keeper in La Liga.
In a week in which a legend-turned-stupid bellowed a staggering bit of idiocy, it was Valdes who allowed his team to live to fight another day, depending upon whether you believe coach Pep Guardiola, who has said that the Liga is lost. Diego Maradumber said:
“Barcelona are such a great team, even a bad goalkeeper seems good. It’s true. Valdes is bad! But with all the players he has in front of him even he looks good.”
And then came today’s match, when even the dumbest observer of the game will have to admit that FC Barcelona have a pretty good guy between the sticks. As Man of the Match, Valdes is, for me, a no-brainer, with the ref coming a very close second (kidding! kidding!). When his team needed him most, when his defenders saw fit to undo a pair of genius goals from the offense, Valdes said “No worries. I got this.”
Is this a match that wins championships? Again, depends on what you believe. What we do know is that we rolled into a cauldron of a Calderon, boasting funkyclunky away form, facing off against a resurgent Atletico, a squad that since its new coach assumed the reins, has lost only once, and concedes goals about as often as people can say a RFEF bigwig made a good decision. In other words, not a good time.
It was, nevertheless, a match that we had to win, even as we intermittently lost and regained control in ways that were at times excusable, at other times unforgivable.
Things started out beautifully as barely two minutes into the match, Xavi pushed a shot wide. Our applied possession and pressure as we set up shop in the Atletico end, were making Guardiola’s lineup of Guardiola starting Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Sanchez, Messi look a genius move. Never mind that they were pretty much the best XI available, never mind that you could see chinks in the armor as the match progressed. Those were glitches, not harbingers, we thought at the time.
Even Valdes had to work his way into the match, spilling a grab after making the right play, a pressing Atletico showing that they weren’t going to be the whipping boys they have been the past few seasons for us, even as they have been stronger against us at home. There was a sudden application of spine. The fast yellow that quelled Valencia’s tactical fouling made Atletico look over and say “Okay, your turn.” 172 fouls and 33 yellow cards since Simeone took over, is what that’s about.
Atletico was content to play off the counter while not being at all defensive. It was intelligent, straight-up defending of spaces and players, rather than a parked bus. It was also aggressive and physical, a defense that in tandem with an on-form keeper, was going to take some magic to defeat. You could see this as Sanchez got the ball and was immediately surrounded every time. If they couldn’t dissuade him, they just put him on his butt. Off-the-ball movement was rather sucktastic for us, and the one time that it was from open play, a goal was the result. A learning experience? Apparently not, as more than a few crosses slid through the box, just waiting for one of our players to tap it home. But nope.
And still, a second chance came early when Sanchez ran down a ball, owned about 14 ATM players then fed Messi, who bundled it into goal. But the goal was annulled, and Messi got busted for a handball, earning a yellow card that will keep him out of the next match. But that Sanchez/Messi move was the kind of genius high-wire act that was going to be necessary today, to buoy a side in which not everybody showed up to put in a full day’s work.
Atletico, showing that it wasn’t coached by a dummy, was shifting its defense to the wings with the ball, applying physicality, quickness and aggression to the cause. The conscious decision was “If Abidal beats us, that’s the luck of the draw, but Fabregas or Sanchez won’t. And Messi sure as hell won’t.”
They chose to cede some possession to keep things under control, bending but not breaking. And it was working until reality reared its nasty, sometimes irresponsible head as a team that doesn’t have an official Plan B when things aren’t going according to plan, can often rely on genius.
The description of the goal can be as simple as Messi to Fabregas to Alves for the tap-in. The reality is that a brilliant player slashed at the Atletico defense and, off the dead run, slid a flawless pass to another brilliant player, who, again off the run, popped another flawless pass to another brilliant player. It was a team goal of the highest quality, Messi’s run completely destabilizing a defense determined not to let him add No. 15 to the goal tally. Dynamic attacking was the reason for that goal, combined with having players of the quality to convert. 99% of teams on the attack don’t score that goal. But this time, today, it was a trio that combined for a bit of magic.
It was 0-1, and Atletico just kept pressing and playing defense, not panicking, applying pressure whenever possible as they worked their way into the match. Their reward was an equalizing goal not long into the second half as, off a set piece, an unfortunate clearance from Busquets knocked the ball almost like a pass to the dangerous Falcao, who slipped the shackles of Puyol to knock it home.
It was a silly goal to concede, one that left Valdes hung out to dry and disgusted as we began to fall apart as Atletico took advantage of the opportunity to press, harass and go for the win in their house. Usually when a side goes for the win, playing aggressive, attacking football, we kill them. Not today. Today, it was long clearances that fell to Atletico players, and the assault began anew as our defense was forced to be an actual defense, something at which it just isn’t all that good.
A long pass fell to Falcao, who burst from between Mascherano and Abidal, our two best defenders on the day, forcing Valdes to make a brilliant, body-sprawling reflex save to keep us in the match, to keep the chance of winning the day and having a shout at the Liga, something approaching a reality.
To say it was looking dire doesn’t begin to explain matters as we%approached the 70th minute then still later, in a match that was feeling much like a draw was in the offing. We faced a skilled opponent that had all the answers, thanks in part to our reluctance to rush the box, to take advantage of spaces. The agony continued until the 81st minute, when Pedro drew a foul that made you think, “Oh, joy. Another godforsaken, ineffectual set pi …. WHAT!”
On the attendant free kick, Messi pulled off an astonishing bit of skill, taking advantage of an Atletico defense that was still getting set. You get the feeling however that even had the wall been perfectly set, that bullet of a curler into the far top corner, on the off side for a lefty, would have beaten anyone, anytime, anywhere. As Ray Hudson said, it’s “Where the insane becomes the routine. He is nothing less than a ball whisperer.”
Xavi was stunned, Messi looked stunned, an entire stadium was stunned. I sat there for a few moments as suddenly, in the most unlikely of ways, it was 1-2. Atletico gathered its wits and began to press. And it was hero time. Valdes saves. Valdes punches away. Valdes parries a howitzer of a volley that fell directly to an Atletico player, who ripped a textbook volley at our goal, a rocket that Valdes gets his body in front of. Yes, he spilled the rebound, but it’s impossible to imagine a keeper who wouldn’t. Most importantly, he kept the ball out of the net as a determined opponent battered at the gates.
It was a trio of heroes who ultimately decided this match, for in addition to Messi and Valdes, Mascherano was omnipresent, almost always with the right play. When Pique was sitting on the bench and Mascherano played, you wondered what would happen with two firemen on the pitch at the same time. What happened was the Mascherano Show. Everything, everywhere was his terrain as he was always in the right spot, always where the ball was posing the most threat. From direct steals to influencing play by positioning, he was every bit as amazing as Messi and Valdes.
As time ran down to the end of a gripping, often messy affair, the feeling that we’d been lucky was inescapable. And in many ways, we had.
Kill the umpire …. uh, wait a minute
The refs are costing us La Liga, goeth the refrain. But today they were an immense help to the cause, with a couple of offside calls in particular, that weren’t even that close. In one instance it would have found Falcao in on Valdes, 1-v-1, with the ball at pace.
Cesc Fabregas should have been sent off for his foul from behind on Juanfran, but wasn’t. In replay, it didn’t look at horrid as it did in regular time but clearly, it was retaliatory, an impetuous gesture that Fabregas got away with. Him getting the ball doesn’t excuse it. Ask yourselves what if Pepe or Ramos makes that tackle on Messi or Iniesta.
Then came that ridiculous Busquets handball late in the match. People will say he was jumping and his arms just happened to be up. People will say that he was knocked into the ball by the Atletico players, or that another angle showed a glancing header rather than the ball striking his hand. Immaterial. You keep your damn arms down in the box. Like the Pinto handling of the ball outside the box that was spurned, we got away with one.
Because for me his hand was the highest point on the pitch, affecting the flight of a ball that he wouldn’t have had a play on without raising his hand. Deliberate or not, ball playing hand or not, at that point an illegal thing has directly influenced the outcome of a play. That call has to be made. Would Valdes have stopped the penalty? We’ll never know. But “refs hate us” conspiracy theorists will have to put their notions on hold for another week, as we got luckyluckyluckylucky. We’ll take it, and the sheepishness of the grin will depend on your view of matters official.
And despite the taint of the unfair this, for me, was an extraordinary match on a day filled with extraordinary football. We weren’t anything approaching our best, yet genius carried the day because sometimes, that’s the problem with playing a club such as ours — you can do everything and come up with the best game plan, and a few moments of magic can still undo it all.
Team: 6. This one should have been in the bag, then they began making potentially calamitous errors, time after time, that led to danger for Atletico. There were a great many headed clearances, balls that were headed right to opponents.
Guardiola: 6. This seemed to be one of those matches in which he didn’t have the answer. He was outcoached, but bailed out by magic.
Valdes: 8. Astounding. He didn’t have a ton to do, and had a couple of errors. But for almost every time he was called upon, he was brilliant.
Alves: 7. Not his usual marauding self, but the ATM pressure has a bit to do with that, as well as generally lackluster ball movement.
Puyol: 6. Like most of his defensive mates, he lost the fire in the second half and suddenly, we were dicing with danger. Oh, and put a body on a man. Especially that man.
Mascherano: 9. This was his kind of match. Fast, aggressive and unerring. Very bad on losing contain on Falcao in tandem with Abidal, but hard to think of much else he did wrong.
Abidal: 6. Beast early, then got the stupids. Bad contain, screwed up the offside trap a couple of times and what the hell was with that header, late in the match? When you head a ball into the air, it is impossible to know where it’s going to go. And he had time to volley it clear.
Busquets: 6. Again, some early excellence, then he lost the plot. The more he has to actually defend, the more he can’t actually defend. Could have cost the club dearly. Not sure what he was thinking on that set piece, but it didn’t work. He should also work on learning to jump with his arms down.
Iniesta: 5. Every time I was about to put him on a milk carton, he would pop up with a play that made it clear why we needed so much more from him. Tentative, almost fearful play, which is very much unlike him.
Xavi: 6. More misplaced passes in this match than you usually see from him in months. Again, disappeared for stretches. Made some excellent defensive plays, and was a hairsbreadth away from getting on the scoresheet.
Fabregas: 5. Still waiting for a convincing reason other than “we paid 50m for him” as to why he’s taking playing time from Thiago. And yes, he is. Dude’s like molasses in winter. Is getting better at playing within the system, and that was an excellent assist for the Alves goal, it must also be noted. I like his all-pitch game, but he has to show me a lot more.
Sanchez: 6. Nowhere near as decisive as he was against Valencia, and he has to keep the ball moving. Yes, some of it is the fact that he was too often the only player in or near their box, it must also be noted.
Messi: 6. As with Sanchez, not as decisive as against Valencia. Subdued and muted. Whether this was due to the blanket of pressure Atletico brought to bear or something else is impossible to know. Had a hand in both goals, as well as a few other chances. But as with Iniesta, if he is more like himself, this match isn’t as fraught.
Cuenca (for Alves): 5. A few bright moments, but very average. He still doesn’t seem to have the plot against aggressive, physical opponents.
Pedro (for Fabregas): incomplete. Good energy, and nice work to earn what turned out to be the decisive set piece.
Pique (for Sanchez): incomplete. Part of the late-match messiness, mostly brought in to solidify the back line after the Alves substitution.
Is the Liga done?
Guardiola says it is.
“I don’t think we will win the league, but we will fight until the end.” I leave it to everyone to suss out whether this is a motivational tool, or a simple admission of reality. Maybe he’d looking at his own squad, how it’s playing and thinking “No way in hell are we going to get to the end of the season without dropping more points, even if they do as well.” Dunno.
What I do know is that this is a rare admission from a coach, who has been a bit testy of late, tired of discussing his renewal and making the occasional statement that sounds more like a valedictory than the words of a man planning to stay at a football club. Time will tell how this one plays out, but I’m curious to know how everyone views his statement.
Money, money, money
It’s way early for this, but our treasurer says that we have 50m to spend this summer, a sum that is, of course, exclusive of any sale proceeds, which would boost the transfer kitty. Not bad for a club that stopped making color copies as part of an austerity program. I am sure that RoSELL will say that selling our soul gave us the fiscal boost necessary. Whatevs. There will be plenty of time for discussing who stays and who goes, but I find this information interesting, coming in February.