Quite frankly, I don’t know. This review isn’t going to be very long, because simply put, there isn’t a lot to say. Xavi came out after the match and said that we were the better team.
No, you weren’t. You know how I know? Because you didn’t win the match. Last time I checked they don’t give points for possession, or number of passes strung together to no avail.
Is it going to be one of those seasons? Those seasons where we play pretty, but don’t put the ball in the net? Because here’s the thing: We aren’t playing like men right now. Rubin Kazan came out and did exactly what they had to do, which was secure second place in the group. And with Inter going top with their win over Dynamo Kyiv, our chances of coming out of this group are looking suddenly rather iffy. Let me do some math for you:
We sit at 5 points, with 2 matches left to play in the group, against Inter at home and Dynamo Kyiv in an even colder part of the year. If we win both, which isn’t looking all that likely, we finish with 11 points.
Second-place Rubin Kazan have matches left against Dynamo Kyiv, which you can pretty much count as a win, and Inter.
Group leaders Inter Milan have matches left against us at the Camp Nou, and Rubin Kazan. If we win and draw, the win needs to be against Inter …. badly. 9 precarious points, the way that Rubin Kazan is playing, wouldn’t make me all that comfortable. Yes, we would get through, but I would prefer that we win the hell out and stuff this thing as we waltz into the knockout stages.
Now, what will most likely happen is that we will draw Inter at home then beat Dynamo, and we’re through. Whew!
Does everyone have a headache yet?
I expected a good match, but I didn’t expect a draw. Yet when Ibra snatched at his shot at a wide open net and hit the post, I almost stopped watching at that moment, because I knew that it was going to be a draw. Why? Because from that moment on, you could see Rubin stiffen as they realized “Hey, we only have to play half the pitch. Whoa!” So there were burgundy shirts everywhere, in every passing lane, sticking legs out, keeping the ball in front of them and working very dangerous counterattacks whenever our guard came down, or we stupidly gave the ball away. And we played right into their hands.
And a draw is what we deserved, though we are lucky not to have lost this one, too, because they had better chances than we did. I’m sad, and for the first time, discouraged at what I am seeing on the pitch, because we aren’t playing as a team. We started out that way, and good things were happening from the lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, The Yaya, Keita, Xavi, Messi, Iniesta and Ibrahimovic. And when we wrested possession away from them and Ibrahimovic broke the off side trap, I was thinking “This is it. We get the early goal that changes this match, and off we go.”
Then he hit the post.
People can hurl all of the invective they want at Ibrahimovic for missing that shot. And yes, we didn’t pay 60+m for a dude to miss a wide-open net. But he played his ass off to make up for that miss, until he effectively vanished without a trace, as the guys stopped making him part of the offense, and kept taking off on runs that were doomed to be stuffed by the massed ranks in front of the Rubin Kazan goal.
And before I go any further, they deserve full credit. They whipped our asses at the Camp Nou, then played as a team (the better team, Mr. Xavi, sir) to do what they had to do. Because Champions League group play is about strategy. Win the matches that you know you can, draw the ones that you don’t believe you can. And that’s what they did. So hats off to them.
Astute observers will say that this was like the Chelsea matches last season, and didn’t we buy that big ass Swede to prevent such things from happening? Yes, we did. But you have to play with him, and you have to create the space that allows him to do his thing. Lofting long balls at him, as he’s surrounded by 4 or 5 Rubin defenders, since our whole attack is sitting in the midfield watching, is not the way to use Ibrahimovic. He could have stayed at Inter for that shit. Yes, he should have hit the open net. But Iniesta shouldn’t have hesitated off that set play, Henry shouldn’t have blown two glorious chances, Messi shouldn’t have tried to dribble his way through the entire defense every goddamned time, Xavi shouldn’t have been so ordinary, etc, etc.
Teams win, just as teams lose, and teams draw. What I know is that we should be ashamed of the way that we played today, not because we drew, but because we didn’t play our best game as a team, to go for the win. We started out strong, with movement, passing and ball pressure, but as Rubin Kazan gained confidence and we started running out of ideas, it turned into a one-on-one fest. Iniesta shimmied and shook in the box, Messi made runs that were going nowhere, Ibrahimovic was starved of possession, and so it went. The best shot that we had to turn the match was left until too late. When Thierry Henry was inserted, we suddenly had the width that pressured their defense. But being ice-cold and coming in with less than 10 minutes of actual match time left, it was difficult to imagine that he would do anything other than shoot the one shot wide, and have another pass bounce off his feet as he was sitting on the goal mouth.
None of which excuses his inability to convert. Yes, Guardiola should have started him. He looked fresher and more involved than Alves did, and we will never know what would have happened had he started, then been subbed for Iniesta, who is more difficult for a tired side to play, with his motion, dribbling and elusive little runs.
But what do I know, except that we drew but am I the only one for whom draws feel like losses? We’re a side that doesn’t have its mojo, and there really isn’t any kind of an available respite for us to find it. We are predictable, and predictable play is easy to defend. Right now, we don’t do very much. We were so effective last season because we never, ever let a club settle on the ball. Our players were like terriers, snarling and snapping to get the ball back. That kind of play led to turnovers in the opponent’s end of the pitch, and the goals came. This season, we’re happy with possession, but we don’t seem to particularly want to fight that hard for it when the other side has the ball. Yes, our defense stops 99% of stuff that comes at it. But last year, it didn’t have to. Just saying.
Team: 3. Play like men. I’ve said it before and I will say it again. I don’t care if you lose. Just play like men, because men play as a team, help each other out and make shit happen.
Guardiola: 2. See, here’s the thing. You can’t listen to people who tell you that Iniesta is better in the starting lineup than Henry. They’re wrong. You waited way too late to sub him in, but look what almost happened when you did. With more time to play into the match, good things would have happened. You also should have subbed Alves off. Period, full stop.
Valdes: 8. Excellent match. Fast off his line to stop a breakaway, controlling in all other phases. He is very good at sitting the whole match, then springing into action when called upon.
Alves: 3. If you are going to give balls away at one end, have some effect on the other. The best chance he had to make a difference, he didn’t put anything on the pass to Ibrahimovic, so it was easily intercepted by a Rubin Kazan player. And his giveaway should have resulted in a goal. Thankfully, their attacker choked in front of goal, after turning Puyol inside out.
Pique: 5. Got caught up the pitch on occasions. Being Piquenbauer means you’d better have the pace to get back when they break the other way. As the match opened up, his fatigue showed.
Puyol: 7. Strong match from the captain, including coming back for the key save when our net was gaping.
Abidal: 8. A wall. Some nice attacking play, as well.
The Yaya: 7. In full-on Destroyer mode, but I thought that we did better when he moved up into the attacking part of the pitch. Not sure why he didn’t do that more often.
Keita: 4. Hello? Paging Keeitee? Hello? His runs into the box were what was needed to unsettle the packed Rubin defense. He’s also getting wayward on his long shots again. Bad sign.
Xavi: 5. So loose with the ball, and seemed to not know what to do when confronted with two Rubin defenders. He’s off song, and has been since coming back from the Cup qualifiers.
Messi: 4. You have to play with your teammates. Your movement is what opens up the world for Ibrahimovic, but if you don’t pass him the ball, or try to beat a whole team with the dribble, what do you expect. And shoot faster. When Ibra’s great ball put you in the box with just the keeper to beat, last year you bury that shot. This year, you’re one dribble too far.
Iniesta: 4. Nice play, but to what end? You dribble and there are two defenders facing you in the box, then what? And please explain how you don’t score that beautiful set play off a free kick. Shoot! Just shoot! It isn’t about dribbling, it’s about shooting. Why make a pass that doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting through? Just asking. And we love you playing with Xavi, for sure. But you take away our width, leaving our left side a dead zone.
Ibrahimovic: 6. We feel your pain. You miss the open net, make a series of lovely plays and passes, two of which should have resulted in goals, then you get frozen out by an increasingly selfish attack in the second half. Life is hard. But what, you don’t think you have enough tenure to get in someone’s face and say “Get me the damned ball, then make your cuts. Let’s score some goals?” Don’t just lead with your paycheck.
Henry: 3. I like what you did when you came in, but you have to be ready to make it happen. You had the match on your feet. Twice. Both times you were found wanting.
So, there are questions:
–What do we do to get real width? Is Henry ready to start?
–Will Kxevin die of a heart attack at the suddenly very meaningful Inter match?
–What’s wrong with Messi?
–What’s wrong with Xavi?
Yes, we’re still the best club in the world. But, all of the luck we had last season, balls that bounced right to our feet off of deflections, runs that magically found balls and feet, aren’t happening this season. The reason is simple: Every club that we play thinks it’s a victory if they draw. That’s all anyone wants against us. Remember that, and don’t let it happen. We won’t get many chances against most sides, so we have to bury the ones that we get. We just have to.
Am I optimistic? Yes. Our Champions League group stage fate is still wholly in our hands. We lead the Liga, and should advance to the round of 16 in the Copa del Rey. So there you go. And we’re so close to breaking out. I’m not sure what the magical thing will be that opens the floodgates, but it is going to happen. Everyone is going to get healthy and focussed, and it’s going to happen. Bet.
One last thing. This is what a man looks like: