I wasn’t expecting this one. We all laid out predictions of a tight scoreline from a club content to just get the job done, and move on to the next round. But the kids weren’t going to allow that to happen. They wanted blood, and blood they received. Yes, Messi and Xavi scored, but this was about the groundwork done by the young’uns, who ran and capered about, colt-like, peppering the Cultural goal with chance after chance, parried by their hard-working keeper, until suddenly, the finger popped out of the dike, and thus began the great flood.
It was beautiful.
This match can be summed up in a sentence, really. We had all the possession, all the chances and all the goals as the side turned back the clock to last year, when the game was fun, and beautiful, and all about one-touch passing, elegant little triangles and movement. You can’t kick what you can’t catch, and there was an alacrity of movement that I haven’t seen in a very long time from the big boys side.
Certainly Cultural helped with their pylon-like complicity, but much of that complicity was fear. That their fears came to pass was inevitable, really, because I’m sure they were wondering just how in the hell they got into the locker room 0-0.
So was I.
We were bombarding their keeper, moving, and defending tenaciously whenever they got a sniff of the ball. I know that people quail at making comparos to last year, but we played like that magical club yesterday. We also delivered a display of how you play the Copa against lesser sides: Crush them, and leave the bleeding carcass on a pike outside the citadel gates.
Spare a thought for Cultural, who played as bravely as they had to, as bravely as they could in light of the reality that they had to chase the match, being down two away goals. You have to come out and believe that you are going to get those goals back.
Hell, they watched us play as if we weren’t all that interested, laying eggs against lesser sides, including Rubin Kazan.
But who knew that an infusion would be just what the doctor ordered? Guardiola rolled out with Pinto, Alves, Marquez, Puyol, Maxwell, Busquets, Dos Santos, Iniesta, Jeffren, Pedro!, and Krkic. This lineup was an excellent balance of youth and experience, with some delightful benefits:
–The somewhat jaded vets got some life and energy, and remembered what it was like to play with people who sprint … everywhere. Did you all see the way that Jeffren and JDS were running? Jeffren ran down one Leonesa player to track back, coming in from behind like a rocket.
–The somewhat jaded vets were reminded of what it’s like to play for the joy of playing. Pass and move is a fundamental of our tika-taka system. That’s pass and move, not pass, receive, dribble, screw around, then pass. If you pass and move, it makes it more difficult to a defense to play you.
Look at that first goal, which was bred of constant motion. Jeffren charged up the left wing to throw in a cross that the Leonesa defense dealt with, but because our attackers were running around like particles in a supercollider, it didn’t matter. The ball pinged around and came back to Jeffren, who looked up and there was Krkic, holding himself beautifully on side. He broke right as Jeffren laced in the cross, and it was a nice, easy tap-in. Lovely, and the kind of goal that we saw so much last season, because of our incessant movement and pressure. Note that the killer ball to Jeffren was a perfect little stab/lunge from Pedro!.
After the goal, you can see the keeper instructing his defender, but what could he tell them, really? “Make them play like they were against Rubin Kazan, dammit! Get them to stop moving so much!” There weren’t any other viable options for his beleagured charges.
The second goal was again based in movement, and Busquets playing the way he played last year, passing and immediately dive-bombing the box. As the most dangerous attacker, the defense shut him down (and how) with a shoulder-to-shoulder poleax, but the ball moved through to Krkic, who dove toward the end line to round the keeper, whereupon he knocked in the finish from an acute angle. Very nice team goal, and a good finish from Krkic.
Now at this point, it’s 4-0 on aggregate, and done for. But there was more, because we had been transformed into a side suffused with the sheer delight of playing the game. So we banged a ball loose from a Leonesa attacker, fed Messi and it was off to the races, on a jailbreak. Can anyone remember the last time we had a jailbreak this season, where pressure won the ball in their half of the pitch and we capitalized so quickly?
Messi pushed the pace like crazy, as he is wont to do, slotting a lovely diagonal ball to Iniesta, who just side-footed to a wide-open Pedro!. Iniesta strolled away from the scene of the crime almost as if he were ashamed of the destruction that we were wreaking on a side that didn’t really anger us, that didn’t do anything more than get in the way of the train …. sort of like kicking a puppy.
But that cute little guy was still in trouble. Their keeper, on what should have been a simple goal kick, banged the ball directly to a waiting Alves, who fed Messi, a player who was in the match for therapy reasons. “Get out there and have some fun, Leo, before you get back in the clutches of Maradumber and get all screwed up.”
And so he did, making a high-speed run perpindicular to goal, just waiting for the opening, before smoking a shot into the upper corner. Now, the Leonesa defenders were sore perturbed by this one but really, Messi has done it before, to Liga sides. He’s done it to Champions League sides. There’s no shame in being smoked by the Best Player Alive Right Now. None at all.
But it kept coming. It was another jailbreak that came from ball pressure, movement and sheer effort, and the result was simple enough, as Pedro! popped up a nice little cross for Xavi to head home. Question: When was the last time anybody saw Xavi smile like that? I mean a great, big ol’ full-face grin? Yes, we were destroying a lesser side, but what I think that Xavi was responding to was the feeling, the “Man, this game is fun again” sensation that came to me, even via satellite link. There was lots of smiling last year, and precious little this year. We’ve seen that in our play.
To our credit from the third goal on, the celebrations were very low-key, because really, we didn’t need to score any more, and it wasn’t our fault that we kept playing our game and the ball kept going in. But we looked a little ashamed. Because who wants to kick a puppy?
For me, this result wasn’t expected. I expected us to advance, but I didn’t expect a destruction. It was beautiful, and something that I hope is infectious, because the main side needs some life, some of that verve that the kids somehow spread, like that parrot in the movie “What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?” And it rocked.
Team: 10. Excellent overall play and support. No one-on-one nonsense, just passing, movement and pressure. And look at the result.
Guardiola: 9. Don’t know what he said to the lads, but it worked. I still question bringing Messi in, even as I know why he did it. Xavi I don’t question at all. His grin made me smile.
Pinto: incomplete. He didn’t do anything. Sorry, but he didn’t. He wasn’t really called upon to do anything, as Leonesa rarely got into our end of the pitch.
Alves: 7. He was much better today with his movement and crossing. He was also moving to the ball better than I have seen him in a while.
Marquez: 7. Nice, nice play from him, particularly in controlling the back and attack starting with long balls, when necessary.
Puyol: 8. Our captain was in full form again, charging forward when necessary, intercepting balls and just raising hell everywhere on the pitch.
Maxwell: 5. He makes me nervous whenever he plays. He didn’t today, because we were in such control, but he just isn’t impressing. I remain hopeful, but this was his chance to shine.
Busquets: 9. Wow, what a match. This was the Busi of last season, with his simple, direct play that was based in movement and simple passes. He didn’t dwell on the ball too long or go foul hunting. You almost wonder if the kids made him decide to give them something to look up to. Whatever it was, he was magnificent.
Dos Santos: 6. Some good, and some okay. You can see the staggering talent and passing ability in this kid, who did nothing to make me not think that he’s going to be bigger for the side than the more touted Gai Assulin. Once he learns to be more aggressive with his passes, look out. He also tracks back on defense like a madman.
Iniesta: 8. Hey, Mini Vampire was excellent as the Xavi surrogate, with control and distribution that captivated. He still runs around a little too much in that instigator role, but he looked as good as I’ve seen him in a very long time.
Jeffren: 8. Loved me some Final Fantasy. Cross after cross, tracking back on defense, aggressively attacking the Leonesa defense were all of his shining attributes. Why isn’t he playing more again? Just asking.
Pedro!: 9. Fast and aggressive is how I like to see P!, who was another one playing like he was living up to an example that he needed to demonstrate. His confidence is sky-high right now, and he is a much better player for it.
Krkic: 5. I figure this one is going to be controversial. He was worthless in the first half, and not all that exceptional except for the two goals in the second half. And of the goals, one was a tap-in and the other an empty netter. I know, I know …. “You HATE our little Bojan!” No, I don’t. But he can’t just pop up, knock in a couple of goals and think that he had a good match. I like that he scored, and I hope that it helps his confidence, because we need him.
Xavi: 6. This isn’t a rating based in any lack of excellence as much as his not really playing into the match, except for banging in that header and laying out an exceptionally infectious grin.
Messi: 7. Best all-around run I’ve seen him play in a while. Had two goals on his boots, but went a dribble too far …. again. Recall that he did against Rubin Kazan, as well.
Fontas: 6. Again, he was just playing his way in, but made some strong plays and worked some balls loose. I like this kid a LOT.