It’s been a while since there’s been a match that, for this nerd, has been worth writing about, that has sparked a degree of passion that makes fingers home in on keys because you have to say something, even if you don’t quite know what. The win against Zaragoza was that kind of match.
And let’s be clear. As I write this, the gap to the Evil Empire is 3 points, but it could return to 6 points if they do the expected, dispatching a temporarily revived in Europe but stanky in the Liga Valencia. And then what? In the matches left, the two extreme possibilities are that the defeat of Zaragoza became the spark that ignited, defined what became a glorious treble season ….
Or it could be an empty gesture in a season where cules try to convince themselves that three tertiary trophies are still gold and not silver, baubles that console in the same way the Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull” crowed at the celebrating Sugar Ray Robinson, “You never got me down, Ray. You never got me down.”
Right now, all that we know is that we beat Zaragoza in their house, one in which an unmanicured lawn, the impediment du jour, didn’t matter. Nor did a ref who was determined to “let them play,” a choice that almost invariably benefits our opponents. Nor did an opponent who didn’t give a toss about our reputation, our anointing as the best club in the world, who came out and came at us with fire, vigor and pressure, who developed early chances and even took the lead, only to have those hopes dashed against the rocks not by going a man down, but by a series of plays by a team filled with excellence, a side that just knows how to make the plays that it has to in order to win Matches That Count.
And at this point, every match counts. In the Champions League, it’s potentially three matches for the grand prize. In the Liga, there is a zero margin for error in a situation that, even if we run the table and win every remaining match might still find us losing the league, thanks to lapses in previous months, taking the macro view. In the micro view, it’s two goals: Messi’s penalty vs Sevilla and the missed chip at Villarreal. If those shots are made, we’re 4 points better which means a 2-point gap heading into our house for the next Clasic, and we’re feeling reasonably good about things.
But that’s life, and that’s football, a game that can make fans weep with joy or sadness. Today’s match was huge, because Zaragoza is fighting for its Liga life, and that makes them very dangerous. What that club failed to realize, however, is that we are, as well, just in a very different way. The struggle made for immensely entertaining viewing, and a match that was a lot closer than its scoreline indicated, embodied in the stories of four players, who I will deal with one at a time.
This season, our defense has leaked goals. Victor Valdes has been one of the best keepers in the world for some time now, but we have pretty much been the only ones who have known that. Commentators such as Phil Schoen would always focus on the past, and say things such as were it not for the effectiveness of our press and stalwart back line, Valdes would be found out, dodgy past, etc, etc, reputation-tarnishing brickbats that can come to define a player.
This season, as holes have needed to be filled, Beanpoles have gone on psychic vacations and Cavemen haven’t been the men they once were, goals have come, opportunities have come and Valdes has laid his claim to excellence. Today, Zaragoza had early chances. A stop, a penalty stop and a stop that only a lucky bounce kept from being permanent, inspired all-caps shrieking in the various forms of social media.
But it wasn’t the stops, as much as what the stops represented. Zaragoza were waiting, ready to pounce on a team whose selection meant that there wasn’t going to be the iron-clad midfield control, which meant the opportunity-sapping possession wasn’t going to be there. This meant they had a chance but first, they needed goals. Valdes kept that from happening. As Schoen noted, people are going to forget about what Valdes did in the aftermath of this victory. 1-4 seems lopsided, like a can of whipass was opened up. That wasn’t the case at all. This match was balanced on a knife’s edge, and Valdes kept it from tipping in the wrong direction.
El nino maravilla crowed the hype for a player whose agent said, in effect, buy him and never lose another Clasic. The hype was there, but the performances weren’t. To be fair, ours is a very difficult system to fit into, as Cesc Fabregas is discovering. Throw in some injuries, one atop the other, and it would have been enough to derail Sanchez, but he kept at it, finding salvation in work rate. Even when he could do nothing else, he could run. And track back. And run for passes. And make sheer effort his calling card, until he found his place in this remarkable team of ours. His last two outings have made it very clear what we are in for next season, with full assimilation into the side. Because simply put, Sanchez was spectacular. Perfect? Nope. But decisive, with a pass and a remarkable move in the box that led to penalty, the catalyst in two desperately needed goals that allowed Pedro’s finale to be icing on the cake.
Those who say that we potentially have two Messis are misguided. There’s only one of those per lifetime. But what we do have is a Messiniesta hybrid, if you will, a player who uses quickness and guile to find space, who has the vision to make remarkable passes (which makes the one that he didn’t make so surprising) and the stamina to raise hell on defense, run to the other end and unsettle the offense. Scary thing is that Sanchez is going to get better, even as we realize that intelligence guides his game, for those foolish enough to think that mere effort is his calling card.
Against Zaragoza, his effect was terror and destabilization. For a defense keyed up to stop Messi, what wasn’t needed was a player who didn’t even need running space to get into the box, just the ball and some ingenuity. And once he got into the box, he became a threat, which meant that attention had to be diverted from the Principal Threat. And he made them pay, efforts augmented by the box-charging midgets, which gave Sanchez places to put the ball. A remarkable match from a remarkable player, who is coming to full flower at the exact right time.
Sergio Busquets has been called a great many things, by a great many people. But it’s a safe bet that “balm” was never going to be among those words, until now. Because there is no other way to describe the soothing, pallative effect that he had on the match, when he was inserted.
But you had to watch him carefully, because on the surface, what you saw was that suddenly, we had midfield control, and possession. Passes went to the right spots, Zaragoza could string nothing together and we grabbed the match by the throat. If you watched carefully, you were rewarded not only with the sight of a man who at times functioned as that perfect pivote, but who was also a flat-out pain in the ass, if you were Zaragoza. He was everywhere.
What made goal-fest Pedro remarkable was that he had this remarkable sense of knowing where the ball was going to be. Knowing where it is, after all, means you’re too late, and always chasing it. Busquets has that ability. Whether it is God-given or a Satanic artifact depends on whether you’re trying to make anything happen in the midfield with him around. He doesn’t seem to chase the ball. It reminds you of the old Pepe Le Pew cartoons, in which the cat runs, pell-mell, trying to escape Pepe, who just trots along, blithe smile on his face, to head the cat off at the pass.
This is Busquets, and it’s beautiful to watch as he describes a series of diagonal runs, watching, moving just a little bit so that he is in the way of the opponent, and always available for a pass from a teammate. That one player can have that effect is remarkable. His entry, too, came at the exact right time, as even with 10 men, Zaragoza wasn’t going quietly, fighting with fire, buttressed by their fans, who deserve immense plaudits as they never stopped singing and chanting, bellicose bellowing roaring along right through the final whistle, egging their side on even as Sergio Busquets was stealing its hope.
It seems absurd to say this, but there are benefits to Xavi not playing in a match. One of them is that Lionel Messi sees more of the ball. Rather than Xavi keeping things under control in the midfield, dishing out passes like a chocolatier passing out bon bons, Messi has to go get the ball. He is more involved in the offense and the generation of the offense, aggressive movement that makes him even more unpredictable. And when he is unpredictable, even more than usual, he does stupid stuff …. like that run/pass in which he faked four Zaragoza players out of their jocks, jerked them hither and yon like marionettes then got them to respond to a feint that left him just a sliver of a passing lane to take advantage of, and he did, with a perfect ball. The game is cruel because a goal didn’t result. So instead of that play, that run being on highlight shows for perpetuity, it’s just another almost-moment, that fans can add to their “remember when” files. As Ray Ray said, Messi can sell chewing gum to somebody with lockjaw.
He scored a goal, a flamethrower of a shot to the near side, perfectly placed and leaving the keeper helpless. He scored a penalty. He should have, by rights, had two assists thanks to silver-platter offerings spurned by teammates. He’s also unfair. The neutral, to be truly fair, would say that Zaragoza might have deserved more from this match. But that is what happens when you play a team of geniuses. They don’t have to play their absolute best to break your heart. Sometimes, it just takes a few players …. four of them, to be precise, to rip your guts out and make your battle against relegation, sore-throated fans notwithstanding, significantly more difficult.
Did Zaragoza feel hard done by? Dunno. But I suspect that, in their heart of hearts, after watching the play of the four abovementioned players, performances of the kind that make possible, facilitate then consolidate victories, they won’t feel all that bad. Because though the team was messy, four players were beautiful; joyously, heart-stoppingly beautiful. And it’s never okay to lose. Not for any fan. But to have beauty such as that be responsible for a little disappointment makes you feel just a little bit better somehow, like being conned by a supermodel.