Has anyone’s heart rate returned to normal yet? What. A. Match. If I was a neutral, I’d probably be, as many commenters are, raving about what a match it was. But I ain’t. What I am is somebody who spent way too much time on pins and needles, physically and psychologically trying to will this team on.
As if they needed my help.
A pigpile of things were conspiring against this club at the Riazor, including FIFA flu, a Deportivo side flush with confidence in their house, many injuries, players not being at their best and a gullible ref who, truth to tell didn’t have a BAD match, he just went kerflooey at a couple of key moments. And still, it was a victory. Say what you want, blame what or who you want, but it was a victory for a team that is still undefeated this Liga season. And like it or not, you can’t have a goat when you win.
The day started out pretty normal. Vilanova rolled out with Valdes, Montoya, Song, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Iniesta, Fabregas, Messi, Tello, Villa, in the striker’s first start since coming back from his horror injury last season. And the side played beautifully, banging in goals, moving the ball quickly, dynamically and accurately, substituting the iron-clad match control of the past with abundance. “We scored another one! Neener!” And suddenly, things went bonkers.
What made this match so crazy? Circumstances, and luck, good and bad for both sides. Is momentum something that you can reach out and grab? No, which makes it all the more startling that its shifting can be so tangible. We were up 0-3 and cruising, on three slash-and-burn goals that were more hallmarks of the Vilanova era, goals that should, once and for all, quell any sorts of bollocks about Guardiola vs Vilanova.
In the first, Alba took a flawless diamond of a pass from Fabregas, and slotted home. No tika taka build-up, but more the kind of goal that Fabregas used to facilitate while at Arsenal, with a willing accomplice in Alba, who capitalized on the fact that Deportivo was thinking “Villa and Messi. Noooo!”
In the second, Tello gets a ball from Messi, does a quick shimmy to get it onto his right foot, then smokes it past the keeper. It was, dare we suggest, an Eto’o-like goal in its speed and directness. No shilly-shallying about, no nothing. Ball. Foot. Net.
Then came the first of the three Messi goals, in which he took a pass from Fabregas (again), faked, baked and unleashed a rocket into the Depor net. Just like that it was 0-3, and looking to be a laugher.
And then came Riki. Let me be clear about the tone of my next statement: admiration. Frank admiration. Riki turned in the diving performance of a lifetime, with flops that earned a penalty, a free kick that resulted in a goal and a second yellow for Mascherano. Anything to win. Does it make diving right? That’s another discussion. But in a system, with a ref that rewards it, a player would be foolish not to try it. Recall Fabregas’ actions in getting Gary Medel red carded. It’s part of the game.
But in a broader sense, the penalty that Riki earned by essentially tripping himself over Mascherano’s outstretched legs, signified a larger trend that was happening — namely, sloppiness and loss of focus on another. Going even more macro, the biggest thing that made a difference in this match happened months ago: teams stopped being afraid of us. That fear was worth a goal or two, psychologically. It helped us, and paralyzed opponents. We’d roll our all-conquering selves into town, notch an early goal and watch an opponent become dispirited. “Here we go again, let’s at least keep a manita from happening,” went through their minds. But then, something else happened. From poor away form in the Liga to Chelsea holding us off to make the Champions League final, the fear factor went away, and people started thinking:
–Counters can work against their slow defenders.
–Press the midfield to work the ball loose, and attack Busquets.
–Long balls get directly at their sketchy back line, bypassing that terrier midfield.
–If we can just get a few set pieces ….
And all of those things caught us out as much as key injuries did. The Fear was gone, replacing a desire to try and keep from getting killed with the resolve to put in an honest day’s shift and let the chips fall where they may. And things begin to happen. A great team doesn’t just start losing, doesn’t wake up one day and say “Time to be vulnerable.” Human nature is, first and foremost, human. The edge dulls, and you don’t even realize it. An opponent decides to take a risk and suddenly, humanity has arrived. And when the world is watching, everybody sees it.
So Riki sashayed in, did his pratfall over Mascherano’s legs and suddenly it was 1-3. Still hopeless, or it would have been in the glory year, but this year is different. Depor thought “If we can get one …. look at them, playing as if the match is already over!” And they got in our faces. Last year, we lose that match. We know this because we did — time and again. This year, in the face of everything, we have responded when an opponent throws down a challenge in their house.
That is when you find out what a potentially great team is made of. It’s easy at home. But put the players in a jam-packed stadium, as hostile as a ground that isn’t Hell can ever be, and then see what happens. It’s funny …. we are undefeated this season and have, over the past four seasons, won 14 of 18 trophies competed for, or 15 of 19, or infinity times 47 or some such math business. This club has, for those past four years, won two Champions League titles, and been thisclose to progressing to the other two. It’s won Copas, Ligas, World Clubs this and Superthats. It’s a staggering group of individuals who have slogged their way through thick, thin, bad refereeing, injuries, afflictions and doubt to come out the other side, ready for business as usual with a new boss man.
And for my money, that team deserves a damn sight more than recriminations, and finger pointing. There was some crazy stuff going on in my Twitter timeline today, including folks calling Valdes poor. Someone else had the temerity to say he lets in more goals than he stops. This is true, because they give the Zamora to the league’s best sieve. Song was having a good match because our back line hadn’t really been tested today, Valdes looks good because it’s easy to play defense in front of Pique and Puyol, etc, etc, etc. There’s some crazy stuff going in this space.
But people haven’t adjusted their expectations to reality. This isn’t 2008-09, with Eto’o/Henry/Messi, a healthy Abidal, a three years younger Puyol and a fit, healthy Pique. This is a team riven by injuries, trying to integrate new faces into an attack that is adapting in the face of new threats. It’s a team with potential, that should be FUN to watch as it develops into something potentially extraordinary. It isn’t “Dammit, this didn’t go the way that it used to,” but rather “Boy, that was crazy! And they got it done! Yay for us!”
But people need to find a goat, someone to blame for when things don’t go …. wait a minute …. we won today! But you’d never know it from the mood in CuleLand, where the sky is always falling. So let’s look at the four Deportivo goals scored today, grab our hound and get to goat hunting.
Depor goal 1: It was a corner for us, so everybody was in the box at their end. The ball bounds around in the air, Messi has the best chance to stop the attack but can’t control the ball. A Depor attacker lifts it off his boot and feeds it to Riki who is off to the races, being chased by our slower players. It wasn’t that he sashayed through the midfield, it was that everyone was somewhere else. The first person in his way was Mascherano, and we all know what happened there. (So here we have lots of goats, or none. Depends. But if you take the “garbage in, garbage out” notion to its logical terminus, start with Messi, who shouldn’t have let the ball get taken off his boot, then stood there while the Depor player ran off. And everybody else, for not having the telepathic foresight to envision that Messi, our most dogged player in possession, would lose control of a ball and unleash a break. Could Mascherano have played Riki better? Maybe. Maybe if he stays up, Riki dances around him and scores. Who knows? But goat horns are pretty hard to place, eh?)
Depor goal 2: Deportivo have yet another corner, earned when Mascherano’s touch failed him and he gave up a corner kick. On the ensuing set piece, Busquets follows his man right into the path of Mascherano, hampering his headed clearance attempt. The now-weak effort falls directly to a Depor attacker, who strikes it hard past a screened Valdes, who saw it at the last instant.
Depor goal 3: A spectacular free kick. People are going to say that Valdes should have stopped that one. We can quibble about that until the cows come home, but that was a specTACular free kick, that if it came off the boot of Messi, people would be saying was perfect and unstoppable by any keeper known to mankind. But know that lesser beings can also create magic.
Depor goal 4: An aerial battle again works the ball loose but our defense is on the case. When the ball falls to Jordi Alba, he decides to play a soft little pass to his keeper, Valdes. Our defenders have done this a zillion times. But this time he misjudges it, hits the pass too hard, and scores his second goal — for Deportivo.
So there you have it, four goals all born of, for me, bad luck and collective failure. It’s so easy to say that X or Y player is inadequate, or was inadequate to the task. Analysis is one thing, recriminations yet another. But rarely is a goal the fault of a single player and an individual failing.
But we had a fight on our hands, one that was, despite the anxiety it produced in us folks watching it instead of playing it, very well handled. Vilanova made three key substitutions, all defensive: Adriano for Villa, Pedro for Tello and Xavi for Fabregas, all (shudder) before the 60th minute. And then, despite Alba trying to kill us all, the match was under control in a way that it wasn’t even when we had a three-goal lead. And from that dazzling start, even after going a man down via a Riki who had our number*, Messi kept scoring, knocking a resilient Deportivo side to the canvas time and again, key goals that kept the tide turned in our favor, leaving us, as always, with this:
This club isn’t as good as it is going to be, yet it is undefeated in the Liga AND Champions League. It is mentally strong and resilient, in spite of that baaaaad juju that somebody has placed on our back line. Alves isn’t anywhere near his best. Neither is Valdes, or pretty much anybody on the team. Form is temporary, class is permanent. There are many questions that are worth asking:
–Has Mascherano been heretofore overachieving, and is now finding his level as a CB?
–What’s the solution to teams bypassing our midfield pressure, a more traditional back line that doesn’t play Barca style and stays home in the box? (This would certainly stop the “out of position” stuff, since the way that this club plays defense means that at any given point in a match or run of play, EVERY CB is likely to be technically “out of position.” And what IS “position” anyway, on a side in which defenders attack and attackers defend?)
–Does Valdes really miss Busquets Sr. that much?
–Is the best side for Tello the right, and not the left, after all?
–Should Vilanova ever again wear a gangster suit on the sidelines? (Mr. Kxevwell says no.)
–Was Eric Abidal really that important to our defense, which has been mortal since he left, irrespective of who has been at CB?
This club also continues to make a liar out of me. In my season predictions post, I said no major silver this year. I didn’t count on a club that would continue to find a way to win matches. Last season, when our biggest rival won the Liga, they did so in the face of weaknesses, bad performances and determined opponents. We snarked and muttered and wondered how they were doing it. But they just kept winning. And you know what? That’s what we’re doing. And that, for me, is worth celebrating.
*Gratuitous Steely Dan reference