You know better, but you stare anyway, unable to resist. Your breath is ragged, your legs jelly beneath you, the bitter taste of acid in your mouth, your sweat suddenly cold even as you know you’re overheating. It’s hard to imagine a worse fate that watching your enemy take pleasure in your miserable end, but here you are, riveted, unable to run, unable to scream for help.
You are the hunted, they are the hunters–it’s like the footballing equivalent of “The Most Dangerous Game“. That, to me, is what it must have been like to be an Inter midfielder during yesterday’s match, awed by the sheer skills and silkiness of our midfield panthers assassins, Andres Iniesta and Xavi. Despite our lineup being a 4-3-3 by design, we played almost a 4-4-2 that allowed Iniesta free reign through the middle, playing that sunken striker role that we’ve seen Messi working on for the last few weeks.
Sometimes you feel like a fool because you deployed a meaningless set of midfielders in a tactical formation that would hardly give (cough Mourinho cough) and sometimes you fail to realize how good the entire squad of your favorite team is and guess they’re going to draw 1-1 in a crucial match at home (cough er, no one! who would do such a thing? cough). Without Ibra, Messi, and The Yaya, what chance did we have against a side feature the likes of…wait, who do they have again? Because I can’t remember a single one of their players making any sort of a contribution, unless you count kicking the legs of blaugrana-clad players a contribution. In which case Lucio, Chivu, and Thiago Motta all played. And Diego Milito almost lost his life by bumping Puyol. Does he not know that he can kill people with his hair via judo-esque moves? It’s true!
Okay, so Inter had 11 players on the field, but only one made a truly positive contribution: Julio Cesar. Because of him, they didn’t lose four or five to zero. They had no shots on goal worth the name and so little effective possession that I’m surprised we even bothered putting Valdes back onto the field for the second half. Technically they had 34% of possession, but how much of that was in our half? A tenth?
Let’s cover this first, though: did Inter simply not show up to play or did we truly outplay them? Some commenters have posted that they feel others are disparaging Barça’s performance in a way that makes it sound like Inter is some podunk team from, er, let’s say the Europa League. Which would mean they’re from, say–and let’s just pick a city completely at random that could possibly have such a team–Liverpool. Oh, but wait, didn’t Liverpool fail to qualify behind Fiorentina? Who, as luck would have it (remember, this was a completely random selection), are, in their domestic league, eleven points behind, hmm, who is that I see at the top of the Serie A leaderboard? Football Club Internazionale Milano? Can’t be. They’re not good enough! They don’t show up for matches!
What I do think happened was what the British press appears to think impossible: Mourinho was tactically bamboozled. No Messi? No Ibra? Ha! We’ll show those Catalan fools how to play some real football now! We’ll put some midfield players here, a defender there, and–wait, where are you going, Don Andres? No, you’re supposed to be on the right wing! No, no, no, you’re in the middle now! What are you…but that’s a supporting role…hey now…
And then kapow we scored from, and get this cause it’s pretty funny, a set piece! We’re the team that gushes around the middle of the field in fancy spirals and curlicues, but certainly we don’t know how to score from set pieces like a proper team! A near post cross from a corner meets Thierry Henry’s head and is flicked on to the back post where, despite Thiago Motta’s best efforts to remove his shirt, Gerard Pique–Gerard Pique–side footed home.
I was pretty much sufficiently recovered from that goal, getting into the groove of us dominating the proceedings, and then: magic. Not like Harry Potter wave-a-wand magic, but more like straight up fairy dust on your feet superhero magic. Cal Naughton, Jr.-style magic man shit: now you see him, now you don’t. The ball was won back by Abidal, who passes to Pedro!, who passes to Busi in the center circle, who passes to Keita in the center circle, who one touches it back to Busi, who, in turn, one-touches it to Xavi, also in the center circle, who turns, passes to Keita, who one-touches the ball to Busi. From the center circle, Busi passes along the ground to Iniesta, who is wide open in the middle of their half, as he turns he as Xavi directly level with him on his left and Alves making a bombing run down the right hand side, only a couple of steps behind him. Iniesta squares for Xavi when he runs into two defenders and Xavi one touches it diagonally through the defense to the wide-open Alves, who runs onto the ball and one-touch lobs the ball over the defense to the left side where Pedro! is rushing in unmarked because Henry has made a central run to distract Maicon and Walter Samuel while Xavi has continued on after making his pass, distracting everyone else in the box. Pedro side-foots the ball into the ground and it hops into the net. All of that took place in just 25 seconds, from 24:45 until 25:10 when the ball bounced into the net. Of course, don’t let me point out how awesome it is to have Pedro! continuing his absurd scoring run: let this do it!
So look, I don’t care who you are, yesterday we would have killed any team in Europe. Period. Their strikers had no service and were reduced to playing 40 yards from goal versus multiple defenders. The ineffectiveness of Mourinho’s tactics is hard to overstate, but it should suffice to say that they were played off the park, thanks in part to Barça’s talent and in part Guardiola’s tactical genius. They started on the park, of course, but it was very quickly clear that they did not have the quality to stay with us last night.
Ratings (I start at 5 and work my way up or down–making this a different ranking system than Kevin’s):
Team: 9 – We smoked ’em. I mean, seriously, that was some brilliant ball. A clean sheet and making an Italian title-contender look like they were a Segunda B team? (Oh, sorry, RM, didn’t see you there) I’ll take that any day. Now we’re in first place 2 points clear of Inter and Rubin Kazan and 3 points ahead of our next opponents, Dynamo Kiev. There’s still work to do, folks, but it’s a lot easier now.
Guardiola: 7 – Yes, he was a tactical genius, but I will not accept such late substitutions as the smart thing to do. Sorry. Don’t care about any justification of it, because it’s stupid. So there you have it. Sub earlier, period. If you don’t trust your bench, get a different bench.
Valdes: 3 – With no actual keeping to be done, he simply failed at controlling that little spherical thing at his feet and almost gave up a couple of goals because of it.
Alves: 8 – Fantastic wing play all night and solid-to-great crosses as well as, you know, defending. You see him rip the ball off Eto’o and then juke him almost out of his shorts? Sick.
Pique: 9 – Our goal-scoring forward was at it again tonight–wait, he’s a defender!? Holy balls.
Puyol: 7 – Solid as usual on defense, but gave up a silly yellow, but at least he didn’t kill Milito for his schoolkid style chest-to-back bump. Get that shit the hell out of here, Diego, you’re only going to get your team beat 2-0 for stuff like that. Also, bad tackle by El Capitan.
Abidal: 10 -For real? I don’t give out 10s very often, but sonofanut that was a great defensive game. Maicon who? I’ll take a dose of that “I just tore my leg muscle and got The Swine” if that’s how you play coming off of it.
Busi: 9 – one point off for diving like a little chump too often, but this was probably his best match in the blaugrana. He was everywhere, with those coltish legs flicking out and winning tackles all over the place. Nice to see him getting over his early season jitters, but does anyone else think that he’s only good in huge matches? What’s the deal with that?
Keita: 8 – Ah the enigma. How do you rate a guy you never noticed because he was too busy locking down an entire city? If you tried to rob someone in Barcelona last night I’m sure Keita kicked you to the ground before you got away with even a euro cent. Dude is good, but dammit, he’s hard to rate. So he gets an 8, I guess.
Xaviniesta: 10 – The Twin Hounds of Hell of the title are, simply put, ferocious beyond comprehension. You do not comprehend the ferocity. You also do not get to touch the ball. Remember that mental tether that they had going on last year during our most glorious runs of form, where they moved in tandem, as if they were part of the greatest foosball table ever? Well that was back on display and it made Dali look like a talentless-hack the way they made art.
Pedro!: 8 – Pedro is so good I cannot stop thinking about how good Pedro is and how happy I am that I put an exclamation point after his name. A star in the making? How about a star in the made. And no, I didn’t forget a question mark.
Henry: 7 – It’s hard to give a bad rating to a player on such an awesome night, but it seemed that Henry was disjointed, as if he didn’t have his touch. He was making the right runs and he was making the right moves, but he never effectively controlled the ball and never did anything dangerous, really. He effectively created the space for Pedro’s goal with his diagonal run, but wasn’t really effective, per se. He’ll be effective against RM, though, I know it.
Bojan (for Pedro!, 85′): incomplete – yeah, uh, great, 5 minutes. Whoopee. Do you think Bojan hates Pedro! for stealing his minutes or does he think about how good he was in his first season and then how little he’s played since? Let’s hope it’s neither and that he’s merely developing well in practice.
Maxwell (for Abidal, 89′): incomplete – sorry I ever doubted your ability to lock down the left side of defense. You had that shit on lock!
JDS (for Iniesta 93′): 10 – Brilliant control, brilliant movement, and great defense. What a superb all-around game from the youngster, Cultural never had a chance! What are you looking at me like that for?
And one parting look at the Legend That Is Samu. You were pure class before and after the match and I wish you the best of luck from here on out. Thank you for your years of service to the club, you deserve our love. I too hope that we meet you in the Bernabeu in May.