Real Madrid 2, Barca 1 (4-4 agg.), aka “Moral victories are for losers”

We lost. Let’s be absolutely clear about this. For about 35 minutes, we went into their house and got our asses handed to us. And those 35 minutes were enough. That they scored two goals from errors of the sort that humans make should in no way ameliorate the fact that mistakes were made.

And the fans on the losing side always seek a scapegoat, because we win as a team, but lose as individuals. It was XXXX’s fault, dammit. If only XXXX hadn’t done YYYY, we’d be the victors.

But is it really that simple, all the time? No.

I discussed this after the weekend, warning of a team with so much to prove, with so much riding on this match, a team playing as if collective effort could somehow erase the 5-point Liga deficit, erase the memories of a draw to Valencia and a loss to Getafe. For 35 minutes, the team from the capitol city was Osasuna with talent, putting us to the sword in a way not seen since we gave them the now-legendary manita. And we could have had one of those hung on us ourselves, were it not for one man, my Man of the Match, Victor Valdes.

Collective success, individual blame. It was Valdes who made the error that surrendered the goal that meant a 4-4 aggregate scoreline, right? If he doesn’t surrender that goal, it’s 3-4 on aggregate, and we win. That Wrongaldo shot was stoppable, and he should have. Boo, Valdes!

Every match comes down to moments of individual and collective failure. Messi 1-v-1 with Casillas, chances for Alba and Montoya, Song puts Messi through for a great chance. Iniesta misses a gimme, choosing to shoot over a gaping net. The team came out in their house like lambs to the slaughter, a bruising, physical, airborne game that was designed to take advantage of our weaknesses, designed to expose the failure of a system that is based on possession.

No, it was, as it always is, collective failure.

My view of the Copa, season competition and SuperCopa, is well known. The former just distracts from the job at hand, the latter is of value only if you win everything else, and can coin some snappy phrase like “Year of the Six Cups,” and can have a real purty picture on club membership cards. In and of itself, it’s fool’s gold, irrespective of the opponent. So I don’t really care that we lost, as much as how we lost. And how we lost had two parts, the ugly and the heart-swelling. Let’s deal with the ugly first.

A wounded animal is dangerous

Some silly people are already saying that the season is done, that a 5-point lead after only two matches is insurmountable. They lost the first leg of the Copa 3-2 in our house. There was so much for them to prove, so much for them to show their fans and themselves, by dismantling the intricate system that for lo these many years, has methodically taken them apart. But to do so, they had to play as men possessed. We weren’t ready for that.

They got to every 50/50 ball, outran us, outhustled us, did everything better, keeping the match bottled up in our end, peppering our goal with shot after shot, shots that go in against lesser sides, just as we have a chance to play our way into a match against lesser sides. We are able to withstand the onslaught of an Osasuna in their house, but there is a talent gap, and we just plain and simply weren’t ready for what we got.

On the first goal, it was simple as can be, and Mascherano whiffed on a clearance kick. On the second goal, again a one-on-one situation with an attacker at speed, Pique was skinned and Valdes victimized.

In both situations the system broke down, as long balls found their way to players who could isolate on a defender, our collective strength exposed as individual frailty. And it was 2-0, just like that. Could have been more. On a different day, probably would have been more, but Valdes came up huge. Colossal.

And he came up that way when nobody else did, when the failure of the team, of the system was so complete as to beggar description. That, dear readers, is the fault of the collective. Did Tito Vilanova have them ready to play? Good question. You can talk to a side all you want, you can tell your charges to be ready, that they are going to come at you like crazed animals, so be ready. From that moment on, it’s up to the players, and they were, almost to a man, found wanting.

The nadir came when Adriano, the last man on yet another lightning, jailbreak counter, flicked a foot at the ball, just getting a touch to it that was insufficient to keep it from falling into the path of Wrongaldo. So he tried to undress him, and received a justly deserved red. Last man, clear goalscoring opportunity, and that was that.

The weak shall rise

It was after that moment, after a little more battering, that our players rose up as a unit, and said “Enough.” Messi shook the sleep from his eyes, Iniesta started darting and dashing, Alba suddenly wasn’t overwhelmed, possession made the life of the back line easier, pushed them back into their half as we began an assault on their goal. The ball, the men were moving faster, the ineffectual passes over the top gone in favor of intricacy and artifice … and aggression.

And so it was that a slashing, dashing run earned a free kick, that Messi dispatched with the fire and brimstone of a player fully aroused, ready to lead his team back from the brink.

Yes, we still lost, but the manner in which we lost allows me to say that I am proud of this club. I have no idea what Vilanova said to them at halftime, but any questions about his motivational skills can be put to rest, because we owned the second half. Some will say that they played conservatively. I say they didn’t have a choice. Our players had the murder eyes to a man. Yes, they had chances. But Valdes was having none of it. And yes, we had chances in a gripping second half in which one goal would have told the story: one for them putting it away, one for us grabbing an improbable draw, and victory in the tie.

The system becan to work, and you could be forgiven for thinking that they were down a man, not us. The way that we lost makes me proud, even as claims of a “moral victory” nauseate me. I don’t believe in such things. We lost. Own it. Recognize it for what it is. No, they didn’t get a real goal from open play, instead capitalizing on two defensive errors today. But you know what? Those count as well, and we came up short after two excellent chances at the death, one from Tello and one that from Messi that was just wide.

They celebrated as if they won the Liga, but they weren’t celebrating the SuperCopa, but rather an exorcism. It will be easy for them to remember that they won, just as it will be easy for them to forget that for most of the match, they were on the back foot. The way that our club fought back, fought for its pride, spirit and champion’s heart should make every last damn Cule as proud as can be. It is the fight that makes me proud.

“We showed them.” No, we didn’t. But we learned something from this match. We learned how to fight, to claw, to be numerically inferior and still play our game. Quality will out.

Are there problems?

To mine and Euler’s eyes, yes. The offense, the system has become too intricate. I have said in the past that the reason keepers always have magical matches against us isn’t because those net minders are so brilliant, but rather that out system of attack is so lovely and logical, that the ball will usually end up in one place. A smart keeper will figure out that place.

To score goals, we are building an edifice, but if someone yanks one straw out, the whole thing fails. A physical, aggressive team can disrupt that buildup, be it with fouls, playing passing lanes and getting a leg in, or disrupting runs with hips and shoulders. It is at this point that our plan b becomes individual brilliance — a free kick, a stabbed home slow roller of a goal, some “Glory be!” moment of wonder.

You can’t build a house on that. We have become very specialized, little, technically gifted players who can work wonders with the ball, working with speed, passing and movement to unhinge defenses. But Chelsea showed it, That Other Spanish Team showed it, Osasuna showed it. Aggressive, physical play can disrupt the clock mechanism, and then what? A Plan B? No. Lumping the ball to a traditional forward isn’t going to work any more than our current system. It’s even easier to defend, to my view. No, speed is the key … speed and agression.

More bright spots

Montoya subbed in for Alexis Sanchez, and should have. He was a wonder, a young right back tossed into the cauldron against the second best attacking player in the world, and he did alright. Even had a very good scoring chance that went begging. It happens.

Alex Song made his debut, and played very, very well, even slotting Messi through for an excellent scoring chance that on another day, he probably converts. Good touch, nice movement, physically strong and deft in close quarters. I can’t wait to see more of him.

So NOW what?

Be proud of your damned team, that’s what. They fought like lions, coming back from the brink when they could have rolled over and taken a hiding. We aren’t going to win them all, and for matches like these (I think) you look for lessons more than victories, and boy, did we learn lessons today. Will those lessons serve us well? We won’t have long to find out, as we face Valencia on the weekend, probably without Vilanova on the bench.

And do not blame. This isn’t the time for that. Or if you blame, excoriate the collective. Whine, moan, rail against the unfairness of it all, and then get it out of your system. Because I, for one, am so proud of this club for what it accomplished even in its failure: our sprites became men, spit in the eye of a physically superior opponent and showed that even with 10 men, we’re the best team in the world. And that isn’t a moral victory, it’s learning from making a mistake, and hoping that the lessons learned will help fry some much bigger fish this season.

Don’t focus on the plays that weren’t made. Those will happen. Focus on the resilience. Mascherano could have tucked his tail and gone into hiding. Instead he manned up and played as he always does, with key interventions including one that probably saved a goal. This is our team, all the time, not when it’s winning, just as these are our players all the time, not just when they are playing perfect football, dropping manitas on people. As a fan, as a Cule, you signed up for better AND worse. This is worse, but it got better pretty quickly. “Almost” is for horseshoes, curling and hand grenades.

The real question is what did we learn from this match? I think it was a lot, and I think we will see it on the weekend, and for the rest of this season.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

99 Comments

  1. simple_barcafan
    August 30, 2012

    Just wanted to say..I am proud of the team. And also proud of fans here, who after the loss, stood behind the team instead of whining and trash talk blaming X, Y or Z player…Gracias to Barca and its true followers..

  2. simple_barcafan
    August 30, 2012

    Don Andres!!! yes!!!!!!!!

    Group G
    FC Barcelona (ESP).
    Benfica(POR)
    Spartak MoskvaSpartak (RUS).
    Celtic(SCO)

    RM well..have fun 🙂

  3. andres ito
    August 30, 2012

    ok..i am far from trying to commit blasphemy here–i’m just posing the question–was andres iniesta the best playe out of these 3 over the last year?

    personally, iniesta is my favorite player..ive always identified with him as the player i wanted to be like when i was back in the playing days,,i was more like a xavi though, haha..—but i thought messi had an insane year last year..and tb was great too..so the outcome just seems surprising to me..

    • Ryan
      August 30, 2012

      Does it include play in the Euros? If so, then I’d say Iniesta had a better year than TB.

    • elacule
      August 30, 2012

      don’t you think it’s because he was great AND won best player in the Euro, and was on the Euro-winning side, which Leo wasn’t?

      my sense, given the voting, is that some folks who would have “normally” voted for Messi voted for Iniesta because of the Euro – so in a way Andres and Messi split the votes. Sure glad there weren’t enough for TB that it was a surprise upset, even that he would have more than Leo. In fact, i would rather Leo had 2nd to himself, by at least a couple of votes. But, thrilled for Don Andres!

      • _Lily
        August 31, 2012

        This is my take on it, too. Was he better than Leo on Barca? Well, no, not really, but he *was* great, and then he led the Spanish National Team to a historic victory and was named the best player of the tournament. I can see why some journalists would have voted for him.

        I think that it says something that they apparently thought that Leo was so good for Barca compared to Ronaldo for Madrid that it canceled out the fact that Portugal got to the SFs of the Euro. Ouch. That hurts.

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