We have an assistant at work. Her name is Rosemary. And like that same type of person in roughly the same support position in so many offices, she is indispensable. She has all the answers, even for things that she isn’t supposed to have the answers for. She does so much, and is always there. You have a thought, and she’s thought of it already. The humor is always good, and you wonder sometimes about value.
The prima donna writers and self-important editors whip around, preen and demand and Rosemary just makes it all happen, stoic, good-natured and invaluable. Nobody ever says “We can’t get it done without her.” Ever. Even as it’s true, day in and day out, because it’s often true that the more important people are overlooked.
Like Seydou Keita.
He’s going to be sold this summer, and our club is going to be the poorer for it. But for right now, let’s celebrate his, as Ray Ray would say, majestical, essential, Man of the Match performance in the way that it deserves:
Everybody, right now, adopt a quizzical “Huh? What?” expression for 10 seconds.
Remember this post, and how much I said I hated matches after international friendlies? This is why. This is precisely why.
I’ve been offloading my DVR this weekend, making DVD recordings of matches. I had just finished the Real Sociedad draw, and said to myself “That match was the turning point of the season.” Recall that it came after we hung a manita on Villarreal, with energy, fire, movement and beautiful, beautiful football. It looked like it was going to be another season off to the races. Then came Sociedad, and we were up 2 goals in about 15 minutes, again playing like dervishes in a match that looked to be over even before it got going good.
Then the wheels came off and on the road, they stayed off. Draw after draw, a couple losses thrown in and suddenly it was a 10-point lead to an Evil Empire that, like us the previous years, wasn’t making mistakes, gritting it out to win matches that they really shouldn’t have, prompting “Villarato!” conspiracy cries as people wondered about refereeing, fair or unfair.
Kinda sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
And writers like me questioned this club’s desire, match in and match out, the longing for constant, incessant victory that drove this club as if it was being chased by the hounds of hell, the desire that made it look so easy, even if it wasn’t. That desire has been intermittent this season but today, it was on staggering display. Never before in the Guardiola era has the side faced such a situation in consecutive matches, that in each instance called for brilliance and desire, for that indefinable something called want.
It would be churlish of me right now to chide them for not having the spine they had today, for wondering where it has been all season. For as I have noted before, they are humans. And it’s damned hard to be brilliant, to be at your absolute best match after match, week after week, sometimes twice per week. Can’t be done. So rather than calling them out for it, as has been noted before, we should understand, even as we acknowledge their humanity.
Because it is that humanity that makes matches such as today’s so beautiful, so exhilarating, so dazzling. When people ask me why I love this club so much, I won’t point to the 6-2 or manita against EE. I will point to this match, when we played mostly crap, like a club that expected the gimme that everybody was calling for. People were taking shifts off. It’s Hee Hee Hon, second from bottom of the table, a side who concedes more road goals than a cadre of blind sloths. Dude. Come on! It’s freakin’ Hee Hon!
Valdes, Alves, Mascherano, Pique, Adriano, Keita, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Pedro and Cuenca strode onto the pitch, an XI that should have been sufficient, that should have worked, dammit. But Gijon was having none of it. They bunkered down, protected each other, battled, fouled, picked up cards and played with that extra mojo, that want that does amazing things. When a cyclist, however accidentally, gets the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, he rides with the strength of 10 men. It’s the shirt. Seeing blaugrana stripes has the same effect on our opponents, more this season than any other, and they say to us, “It will take your best to beat us today.”
Gijon demanded still more as they fought, clawed and battled. And for minute after minute, we didn’t have an answer until, like a rocket lighting up the night sky, a brilliant, perfectly timed run by Adriano was met by a perfect pass from (guess who) Keita. Adriano slotted to Iniesta who tapped the ball home and suddenly, Gijon was outdone by another one of those moments of brilliance. You work and work and work and then, you let up for a few seconds, and your keeper is picking the ball out of his net.
Not that Gijon was battling just us. They were battling the people saying “You don’t have a chance.” “You have sucked at the Camp Nou for eons, last beating this club in their house when there was a 1 in front of the year. No. Way.”
A lot of teams would have hung their heads after that goal, and said “That’s it, boys.” Because the playing of defense, the bunker mentality was over. They had to score. And so they did that, aided by a monstrous bit of stupidity from a player, Gerard Pique, who might have reached his nadir. Outrun by a streaking Gijon player, he brought him down. Then argued about the deserved straight red. As he stomped off the pitch, pleading his case, you could see a staff member say, with a gesture, “Shut up and get out. You hurt your club, you idiot.” Did the player sell it? Yep. But he didn’t really have to all that hard. In a different situation, maybe that’s just a yellow.
But players also need to play to the officials, not just the opponent. It was already clear that the official was incompetent and card-happy. Pique made his job easier.
Off the ensuing set piece Adriano got owned by his man who popped a cross into our box, a cross that Valdes usually charges and deals with, either clearing it or scooping it up. Today he stood there with his arms out, waiting for the ball to come to him and the attacker beat him to the pass, flicking it home.
And again, Gijon had something to play for, with a man advantage, and the match was dwindling. It was feeling like a home draw, another stinking, stupid, Liga-destroying draw and then, suddenly, came the two tide-turning substitutions, in Sanchez and Tello. These entries did a number of things, but most importantly it told the players that no, our coach hasn’t given up on the Liga. And they responded like champions, like lions who looked up and suddenly realized that something was being taken from them by a house cat.
Sanchez was everywhere, Tello was marauding, Iniesta awakened with a glory and style that made him far and away the best player on the pitch in the second half. Was it the absence of Messi that freed him from his shackles? Good question, one that we can natter about later, after we enjoy the wonder of a player who just seems to materialize with the ball in the exact right spot to help a teammate. His isn’t solo glory. It’s beauty at the service of the team, and it was at its fullest flower.
Despite all of that, you wondered where a goal was going to come from, as Gijon were deep in the bunker now, determined to take a point. And then it came, from an unlikely source — or a likely one, if you’d been watching the match closely. Because all match long, Keita had been playing his butt off, defending, passing, being where the ball was, forcing Gijon to take its attacking game to the wings, being so much more than a holding midfielder. And he took a flawless pass from Sanchez, measured, and spanked an unstoppable shot into the far corner, off the dead run. Cometh the moment, cometh the man. Because for this match to be fair, it couldn’t really have been any other player to score the go-ahead goal.
In past reviews, Keita has gotten a high rating and people would say things like “You jackass, he didn’t do anything.” I’d always reply “Go back and watch, and watch Keita.” Today was much the same. Yes, he came to light on the goal, but just watch him and his constant motion, his anticipation, his almost unerring sense of the right pass. Busquets is a more talented DM, who fits better into the system. I won’t argue with that for a second. I will, however, contend that there are matches that call for Seydou Keita, and today was one of them. Busquets doesn’t score that goal. Probably the only player on the pitch who could have scored that goal, scored that goal. And it was a stunner, for its timing, audacity and absolute quality.
It was also a goal that the team absolutely needed, like Messi’s delight of a free kick in the last Liga encounter, a moment of unquestionable genius that undoes work rate and best-laid plans. Without a perfect pass from Sanchez, maybe the goal doesn’t happen as a hard-working Gijon defender rushes over. But all Keita had to do was measure and strike.
Simple, right? Sport probably won’t do a graphic of that goal, as the media outlet did with Messi’s free kick last week. Because Messi is Messi, and Keita is …. well …. Keita. That reality makes his goal no less astonishing, even as likely/unlikely as it was.
The score was 2-1 and Gijon had no answers. Not any longer. From the attacking, the passing, the movement, it seemed as though it was in fact we who were up a man. Physically, fighting a draw has to feel different, late in a match, than wresting for an equalizer against a club that is suddenly fearless and energetic. They fought and fouled, we controlled, and cule hearts were in throats for all it took was a lapse. Playing 11 on 10, there should always be an open man, if they could find him. They never could, never did because we played like the best and hungriest club in the world. I don’t really care why, even as it’s my job, sort of, to try to sit here and parse what happened. But I just love the fact that it happened. Tomorrow is the time for ruing the absence of that effort in Pamplona or other spots. Today is the time to say “I love this club, for the fire and audacity that it showed.”
And yes, I expected a third goal, because Gijon were pressing in their own futile way for the equalizer, which means that our magicians were going to have an increasing amount of space in which to pull rabbits from unexpected places. So sure enough, it was a glorious trio of rainbows that concluded this match, that sealed it once and for all. Sanchez (again) ran, leaped and almost in mid-air, flipped a side footed ball to Iniesta, who flipped a deft little lobbed ball to Xavi, who flipped a lovely arc of a golazo over a hard-charging keeper, a ball that seemed to take for-freakin-EVER to nestle home, even as you knew that it had to. So much brilliance in such a confined space just has to be.
It was 3-1, the team had fire in its eyes and Gijon was Hee Hon once again, but with a lot more respect than it had going in, because that candy-striped band of demons, whose coach rolled out with young’uns who had fire, who wanted to bleed for the colors, brought out the absolute best in the best club in the world. Moral victory? If such things exist, absolutely. Probably in a fairer world, we would get 3 points and they would get 1. But in this one, to the victor goes the spoils. And whatever happens in the Liga this season, this match was one for the ages, kids. Yep. Hell, even with 9 men we controlled the last minutes of that match, as those 9 men played the 94th minute like it the first. And that, my friends, is want.
Team: 6. This match should have been over in the first half. Too many players took too much time off, or were ineffectual. Gaudy possession stats do not a victory make. But wowsers, what a second half.
Guardiola: 10. He did everything right, even the psychological move of starting Pedro. The subs were the exact right subs, even as he didn’t want to, shouldn’t have had to use Sanchez. Even the yellow for dissent was well-timed. “The Mister is fighting for us. Let’s go!”
Valdes: 5. He didn’t have a lot to do today, and screwed himself with uncharacteristic reticence on the allowed goal, particularly at the near post, a sin for a keeper of his quality.
Alves: 7. A very good match, at times in the first half seemingly the only player truly interested in attacking. Even late in the match, he could fire up the jets to become a difference maker.
Mascherano: 7. I just don’t see any reason, any longer, why he isn’t a regular starter. He is always around the ball, and usually (couple of bad giveaways) knows exactly what to do with it.
Pique: 2. He hurt his club with his actions. And if a defender is injured during the Champions League match, his suspension becomes even more stupid. And he wasn’t playing all that well before he got stupid.
Adriano: 6. Fine attacking moves, with some excellent runs. But Mendy got behind him too often and too easily on that goal, even as he stiffened after that.
Keita: 9. A spectacular match for a man who we didn’t really realize we missed until he wasn’t there. Constant work rate, great passing and a wonder goal. Was involved in 2 of our 3 goals, something that is easy to forget.
Xavi: 6. Invisible for too many stretches, with a number of misplaced, badly weighted balls. Then, like everyone else, he came to vibrant, stunning life. Which was good.
Iniesta: 6. Perhaps he took the first half off, conserving himself for the second, which was as remarkable as I have ever seen Iniesta. Were this a score of two halves rather than an aggregate, it would be 1st half 2, second half 10.
Fabregas: 3. It was almost like he seemed surprised that Gijon was going to fight as hard as they did. And laying on the pitch, appealing for a foul after you lose the ball is ridiculous. Get the hell up and help your teammates. He’s still learning what his role is, but he needs to be a lot better than he was today.
Cuenca: 4. For yet another match, he was physically overmatched on too many occasions. Whether this is because defenses have figured him out or the pressure is getting to him, I can’t say. But he isn’t getting the corner on defenders any more. Not even close. Which means no real width.
Pedro: 5 Misplaced passes, too much weight on other passes and an intermittent cloak of invisibility made for not a great night. Look at the difference that taking him off made in the attack. No, he isn’t Sanchez. But he should be Tello.
Tello (for Pedro): 7. A difference maker. More pace than Cuenca, more strength and more fearlessness makes an extraordinary combination. I can’t wait to see him after a full preseason with the club. He gets the corner, and destabilizes defenses.
Sanchez (for Fabregas): 8. Off comes an ineffective player, on comes an effective one. Work rate galore, probably to his detriment, as he is out for about two weeks with a groin tear. Such a dynamic player who seems to always be around the ball, even when it isn’t meant for him. The pass for Keita was as flawless as the flick to Iniesta was audacious. He ran, he defended. So Blaugrana, so early.
Puyol (for Cuenca): incomplete. He was the grownup brought on to stabilize the back line, and help the club see out the final stretch.
Kill the umpire!
Keita: Many complaints about the referee. You noticed it on the pitch too? We did, but we shouldnt talk about it.
Masch: I’ll repeat what Ive been saying for a long time now. I don’t talk about referees. We have to overcome all that.
The refereeing was shambolic. Was it biased? No. He sucked for both sides. It only seemed that we got the worst of it because for so much of the match they were hunkered down, absorbing pressure. But lord, was it bad. And card-happy. When Iniesta complains? Dayum!
And yet, we overcame it. Which, as Mascherano says, is exactly what we are supposed to do.
Interesting question this one, because not only was Messi not in the lineup, but said lineup played kinda stanky. When they did play, you couldn’t help but notice more ball movement and less focus, in a good way. Without those internationals, I would have loved to have seen Sanchez in that Messi role, and a better overall performance. There were times that I really liked what I saw in terms of movement and aggression on a side where too often, the ball goes to No. 10, then everyone stands around and watches.
What you miss with the absence of Messi is that dose of mercury, that potential for something great, even when he’s sleepwalking through a match. What you gain with the absence of Messi should be a group of players who learn to play the game on their own terms, without a wee genius to bail them out. What we got today was something approaching that last ideal, once Iniesta and the gang woke up.
Next up is a Champions League home leg against Bayer Leverkusen, who today defeated Bayern Munich 2-0. We are up 3 huge away goals, and pretty much have to not implode to advance to the next round. It should make for an easier, less-fraught match. And I don’t even want to know what Messi is going to be like for that match.
Finally, LET’S GO, ESPANYOL!