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So many of us have done it. You break up with someone on good terms, and you decide to have a meal in the aftermath of the event, because how bad could it be, right? And it’s brilliant. You laugh, you joke, you remember the good times, you remember everything about the relationship except the parts that made you want to set the bed on fire, with that charming, wonderful person sitting across from you, in it. Then you remember, and you wish you could be someplace, anyplace else.
And so it was today, in a demolition of a brave, plucky, misguided Rayo side that conceded early, then opened the floodgates. But the cameras before the match were all following Pep Guardiola, the now lame-duck coach of FC Barcelona, a man who spent the entire match looking as if he wanted to be anywhere except there. The team scored, he looked glum. They scored again, he looked even more glum, as did the newly announced coach, Tito Vilanova. The reasons for that, only they know. But for me, it was a fascinating match for so many reasons, that I will just throw up in bullet points, since my ability to string coherent sentences together has been disarmed by the weirdness.
I stayed clear of BFB and social media, because I wanted to watch this match fresh, without picking up any notions or impressions about how things might or might not have been. And even in its fundamentally meaningless state, there are a great many interesting things about today’s match:
Goals were in the house again
And it was more than the quality of the opponent. It was off-the-ball movement, aggression, dynamic play that was at times vertical. It was all of those things, that we used to see regularly and wondered why, for two desperate, crucial matches, we didn’t.
The pressure was off
There is a common misconception that Barca doesn’t feel pressure. EVERY team feels pressure, but that pressure manifests itself in different ways. Yes, we had injuries, yes, we had a great many complexities coupled with two key missing players. But we also had pressure, by the ton, pressure that makes legs kick not as freely, that makes players hesitate when they shouldn’t. Some of it is the pressure of fatigue, of having played pretty much non-stop for the last 4 years. Some of it is the pressure release that many of us feel at the end of a long run or bicycle ride. You’re hammered, but knowing that you’re in that home stretch makes you perk up and suddenly, you’re feeling pretty darned good. Fatigue, and relief from that fatigue, can be as mental as it is physical.
Someone tell me the last time they saw Lionel Messi smile during a match, as he did today a few times, smiles that he tried to hide, but they leaked out. When has Pedro run as freely, worked as much magic as he did today? Having said that, let’s be clear about the fact that I in no way, shape or form think that the team buckled under pressure. But I do think that they felt that pressure, in ways that I can’t begin to imagine.
And it’s okay to feel pressure. Our gladiators wouldn’t be human if they didn’t feel it. Today, however, was the result of that presure being released. And it was spectacular.
Messi was back, in full effect
Part of the grand design or not, it was so great to see Messi playing the entire pitch again, running at defenders, working balls loose, dashing about outside of our box and generally raising hell. I haven’t seen him play a match in as unfettered a style as he played today, in a very long time. Same defensive pressure, same phalanx of defenders saying “No, not in our house,” and he still knocked in two goals himself, and contributed spectacular passes, including an absurd nutmeg to set up Keita, on countless occasions.
The game was fun again
Today, the club played like it had nothing to lose. Yes, as a consequence, defense was a little loose at the back, but it was a match that felt much more like a scrimmage against a talented opponent. Even more, that first goal, which looked inevitable, seemed to loosen up the side even more. Our players were romping, and not just on the scoreline.
Keita served notice
Of all the players that might be sold this season, he is one of the most likely. And he gave us a taste of what will be missing, with a display of classic Keita, with flair and style added. Spins, slick ball control, incessant running and omnipresence were a few of the reasons this was a Keitastic match, and one that showed him off in a way that should, if there’s any justice, quiet his detractors, at least for a spell.
Afellay is back
In his first match appearance in a very, very long time, 3M took to the pitch, and the look down at his chest was funny, almost as if he was thinking “Man! I still can’t believe I’m playing for this club.” Was he himself? No. Which is to be expected. But it was good to have the squad move toward being whole again, in the vibrant presence of Afellay.
Um, about that Alves thing
Martin Montoya started at right back, and had an excellent match. He was calm, assured and present on defense, a very different kind of match from the marauding Alves, who entered as a sub in the second half. And when Rayo Vallecano unleashed an attack that took advantage of the space created with Alves up the pitch as usual, you could, when the camera cut to Guardiola and Vilanova nattering and gesturing, exasperated, at the pitch, almost imagine them saying “See? See!?”
They weren’t for everyone knew exactly what kind of player Alves was when he came, what kind of player he still is, and that he is one of the best right backs in the world. But interesting questions will be raised in the off-season, questions that I don’t think any of us are prepared to deal with right now. So we won’t.
Puyol will be missed
Thiago bopped in a headed goal off of an excellent pass from Alves. After the goal, the two creators started dancing, a choreographed little move. Puyol charged up, broke up the party, and sent them back down to their end of the pitch, to prepare for the kickoff. Man, I liked that. We were killing Rayo Vallecano. Why rub it in like that? Celebrate briefly with your teammates, and return to the task at hand. He was all business, even as he knows that we are just playing out the string. His committment and complete dedication to the cause is inspirational.
Pedro was windmilling away
Is Pedro officially back? Good question. I rather imagine he will get more starts for the remaining matches, and if he plays as he did today, we might have to give him his exclamation point back. He was everywhere, and being a constant danger as the activity levels of Messi and Sanchez freed him up to be Pedro. That is, he isn’t the guy who beats somebody off the dribble. He’s the guy who runs into space, tucks under an excellent pass and does his thing. But more than that he tracks back, and runs constantly. Good to see that player back today.
Sanchez and Messi
Next season is going to be loooooooonnnngggg for our opponents as Sanchez and Messi continue to develop the fluidity and sense for where each other will be. Sanchez was a dynamo, wreaking havoc with intelligent movement, ball skills and constant danger. As for Messi, the more space that he can have, the more dangerous that he is. All that Sanchez will need to is start reliably converting the chances that he gets, and look for either a lot of goals from him next season, or more space for Messi. Either way, the result is a lovely thing to consider.
I know that Guardiola doesn’t want to ….
But he might want to consider handing over the reins to Vilanova earlier, rather than later. Part of his pained expression, I think, was him trying to mentally divorce himself from this club, from realizing that he isn’t going to be the man in charge of beautiful displays such as these any longer. But I also think that he just plain doesn’t like being the main source of attention, rather than his players. Finally, I think he’s sad, in the ways that we all are when we make decision that are for our own good, about something or someone that we don’t want to leave.
I reckon that from every match on out, cameras are going to be everywhere, and the scrutiny will continue. Guardiola is the kind of man who wants all of the focus on his players and how they play, which is as it should be. It will be interesting to see if his demeanor is as dour for the next league match(es), and Copa final.
And yes, it’s a pretty safe bet that the reins have already been handed over. I would guess that Vilanova has even more input into squad and tactical decisions as this season moves to a close, as he takes a look at every player on the squad, even a squad that he almost certainly knows so well.
Next up is a pair of matches that will tell us a lot about this club, as they come against more formidable opponents than Rayo Vallecano, in Malaga and the always-difficult derby vs Espanyol. Until then ….