Leg 1, of what is a trophy that wouldn’t make anyone that giddy were it not for the opponent — handy when you’re ginning up phrases such as “Year of the Six Cups,” but in reality it’s a matchup that always, always comes too soon to see anyone playing anything approximating their best football.
And yet, here we are, on a piping hot day at the Camp Nou that saw the match kick off in temperatures of 32C/90F, against an opponent that is of value predominantly as a barometer, though not really, because we didn’t really play like we would have played, because we have a match on the weekend that points toward the bigger fish that we want to fry. Mou Mou said he’d trade the SuperCopa for the Liga, and even if Vilanova didn’t say it, you know he feels the same way.
So. Rather than the new, aggressive, vertical FCB with all sides of the pitch open, we saw a shadow of the past — good in many ways — that turned what should have been a comfortable win into something a bit more fraught. Because that’s life, and that’s football during a match in which Osatuna and Getafe had as much say in how the proceedings went as anything else, a match which, last time I checked, we won. There is more handwringing over this win, than the Gamper loss. That was also for silver, need anyone be reminded of that. And silver named after the founding father of FC Barcelona. Jeez ….
And let’s begin at the beginning, with the crux of the matter:
Everybody screws up. It is, frankly, a wonder that goal keepers, like field goal kickers, don’t just sit in the corner, drooling and gibbering about imaginary beings, when they aren’t doing what they do. Because rare is the profession in which mistakes are magnified. A striker can have a bad match, and life can go on. If a kicker or keeper screws the pooch, it could mean the end of the season, a loss or in this case, a win that wasn’t as comfortable as it should have been.
Again, dung occurreth. An easy pass back to Valdes resulted in our keeper deciding “Hey, I’m going to be all fancy, and play this out with my feet.” A too-heavy touch allowed the ball to fall to the feet of a lightly pressing, opportunistic Dive Maria, who pounced, outdueling Valdes to generate a second, and immensely valuable, away goal for them. 3-1 is a lot different than 3-2, make no mistake about it.
But when Vilanova rolled out with a lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Adriano, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Messi, Pedro and Sanchez, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I liked the aggressiveness of the attack, but I found myself already assuming that the left side was going to be closed for business, which it was. Adriano is a very different kind of left back than Alba, less integrative and more fond of the slashing solo runs, rather than the knit-together kind of play that Alba brings. So we became a center/right focused team, which allowed them to do what they do, which in our house, is to allow nothing to happen, and foul anybody who dares enter the 18-yard box with malign intent.
We made that task infinitely more simple by displaying precious little movement off the ball, attacking flair or anything that created real danger. Sanchez was last seen on a milk carton, Messi was sashaying about, occasionally venturing forward on a run that played directly into the hands of their defense and from time to time we’d turn the ball over in midfield, which resulted in a counter for them that more often than it should have, resulted in a set piece.
So as everybody gets all aggro on Valdes, it’s worth noting that when a team doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of beating you in open play, set pieces should be something to which a defense is preternaturally alert. And yet we kept giving them up, so when desultory marking resulted in a Wrongaldo header that left Valdes not a chance to do anything except pick it out of the back of the net, who was surprised, really? It was classic smash-and-grab footy of the type that saw us fall to Chelsea last season. Yes, we “won” the possession battle, and controlled play, and created semi-would-have-been-chances-against-Gijon. And it was all so pointless, because that cutting edge was absent, for so many reasons, but more importantly:
–It’s still effectively pre-season
–A Sunday trip to Pamplona awaits, a place in which, last year, we got our butts handed to us
But boy, was that action-packed second half surprising for those of us (pretty much everyone, I’d reckon) who expected more of the same. Their goal came off the aforementioned set piece. And less than a minute later, a jaw-dropping long pass from Mascherano found Pedro in stride. He took, controlled and fluidly rounded Coentrao to slash it past Casillas. Suddenly, two goals in the span of a minute, and there was more to come as we seemed to wake up. More importantly, Iniesta donned his cloak of visibility, and went hog wild, earning a penalty with an otherworldly move that suckered Ramos into a clumsy challenge, then he danced through their defense to slot a flawless ball to Xavi, that he slammed home for a 3-1 lead. All over but the shouting, until Valdes decided that he wanted to make things interesting in that second leg. Which happens.
We didn’t see their best, just as they didn’t see our best, which is one reason why I believe that El Clasic should be reserved for Liga encounters, rather than these pre-season things, or Champions League thing. To call every encounter, even when the two teams pass each other on the Metro El Clasic, diminishes the import of the name. Humorously, I suggested calling these early-season times something such as …. Jerome. Or maybe just the SuperCopa, which is what it in fact is. Imagine that.
There also wasn’t much to be gleaned from this one as regards tactics, because each team makes the other play differently. They turned turtle, we altered our usual style. Even their incessant fouling lacked a bit of verve, unsubtle rugby basics rather than the elevated art of thuggery in which they have been so fond. And even this last point was something of a regression, as last season saw them coming at us like something approaching equals, a rival to be played rather than a better team to be hampered.
What’s going to happen next week? Who knows, because both teams will be coming off weekend matches, with another weekend’s matches to look forward to. So it’s very doubtful that the mid-week encounter will be the all-out, enthralling affair that so many have come to expect from Big Two matchups. But we will watch, because that’s what we do, and we will gather here to discuss, in its aftermath, what it all means. But now as then, the answer will be nothing. Because hamstringing Liga chances, even this early in a season, would make the SuperCopa silver fool’s gold.
Which leaves us with the task of assessing how everyone did. Again, it’s pre-season, so it really is hard to tell, but you can look at this match as a micro-event, and make evaluations. So let’s go.
Valdes: A very good match, until The Howler. Strong in the box, seems more communicative this season. Still a little bit reckless on the charges and punch aways, but showed why he is a fine sweeper keeper, even as he evinced the kind of reckless stupidity that make people ride him like a rented Catalan mule.
Alves: Arguably the inclusion of Adriano freed up Alves to maraud, which shows how much respect we have for the attacking abilities of Coentrao. Very solid match, even if he seemed over-wound for this one. Caught out of position a few times, which is to be expected this early in the season.
Pique: Lord today, Piquenbauer is back, with a return to the excellent form that made him a no-brainer inclusion in the starting XI. Speed, aggression, stops, dude even played left winger for a bit. Not sure whether he will go on walkabout at some point, but I can’t recall a single match last season in which he played as well as he did today.
Mascherano: Stalwart, inevitable, and boy, howdy, did he warm my heart when he roared over and took out Coentrao after a series of ridiculous challenges from them. And That Pass. Shades of Rafa Marquez with that one. Smasch understands the game in ways that is rare for CBs, probably owing to his role farther up the pitch, as with Puyol. He knows where the ball is going to be, which is vastly more important than where it is, as Pique will learn.
Adriano: Now does everyone see why we bought Jordi Alba? It isn’t that Adriano isn’t a fine substitute. It’s that he isn’t a locked-down starter. He still roams, and isn’t quite sure where he wants to be, which means that his absences are often an impediment to our possession game. And he doesn’t really contribute on offense, except for those runs he makes, and the occasional shot from distance.
Busquets: Brilliant match, in creating and destroying. He was in more of a danger role as Xavi roamed more, and Busquets thrived, controlling, sliding forward and back, intercepting and making not only the possession pass but the attack starting pass. Invisible magic.
Xavi: Nice and solid, forced to hold the ball more than usual because of the static qualities of our attack. Worked some beautiful moves with Iniesta, and displayed instinctive movement for the goal off the pass from Iniesta. One selfish part of me hopes that he does retire from the Spanish NT. More for us.
Iniesta: Started out pretty awful, with loads of misplaced balls, badly weighted passes and general suckiness, before flipping the on switch in the second half with a display that makes many believe that HE is in fact the best player in the world, lacking only a mound of goals to make his argument. His footwork doesn’t seem real at times. He set Ramos up as perfectly as Xavi, with both plays resulting in goals.
Pedro: If he keeps playing as he has been, he’s going to get his exclamation point back. In this match and the RSO outing, he showed exactly why he is so deadly when he plays HIS game, rather than trying to play someone else’s (beating defenders off the dribble, etc.). Shoot, RoadRunner. Shoot! High energy, high effort, he is back to the “work quickly, but don’t rush” quality that makes him so brilliant.
Sanchez: You could be forgiven for thinking that we were owed change from last year’s gaudy purchase. Static and anonymous were his watchwords today. And whiny.
Messi: Kinda early in the season to be sleepwalking. Moments of danger? Sure. But far below his normal standard.
Tello (for Sanchez): Very strong, composed on the ball, aggressive when called for. My, how you’ve grown.
Fabregas (for Xavi): Came in, and promptly disappeared.
Alba (for Pedro): Too late to do much except get loose for the weekend.
And that’s that. Contrary to what you’re hearing in the “Lawd, lawd,” category, we didn’t lose. And a draw of any kind at their house means we win. Yay for us!