What started, even before the whistle, as a death trap for Guardiola, a no-win situation of fielding Busi and Iniesta while leaving The Yaya and Henry on the bench became an utter nightmare as Valdes couldn’t keep out a first minute in-swinging freekick after just 60 seconds. Pique left his boot out too long and toppled Andriy Iarmolenko after the ball bounced awkwardly away from a Dani Alves tackle. Up stepped Sheva and sent a scorcher into the box where their captain, Artim Milevskiy beat Puyol to the back post and got the smallest of touches on the ball. That touch put Valdes off balance, though he still should have had it covered.
And suddenly we’re looking at a shocker, a European pesadilla that won’t be forgotten over the next few months by the Madrid-based rags and will blot out the whole of the Champions League with a bitter taste in the mouth because the blaugrana are out–out!–or perhaps merely in second place, but still! And I haven’t even gotten the lineup out yet!
Guardiola trotted out the surprises, once again, opting for passing rather than vertical attacking: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Busi, Xavi, Keita, Iniesta, Ibra, Messi. The ideas from Guardiola seem fairly clear: dominate the ball and worry about width later. With Henry you get vertical ball movement rather than Iniesta’s midfield prowess. The Busi-over-Yaya questions lurks unanswered, of course, but that’s been handled enough, so I’ll let it go with my theory: The Yaya just returned from Intergalatic War with the inhabitants the Evil Planet Gork and was a tad jetlagged from such lengthy travel.
So then, after they scored, we took the game and, essentially, we never gave it back. It was what Guardiola was hoping for, no doubt: our ball, all of the time. The final possession stats read like a keep-away training session: 80% to 20%. Was it really any wonder that we ended up scoring? Say what you will about Henry, but I’ll give credit to the team for getting the ball and not letting go of it. If you have the game handy, pull it up and tune to 31:51. Busi is intercepting a rotten pass. Watch the sequence that comes after that, over the next 50 seconds: Busi, Keita, Ibra, Keita, Ibra, Iniesta, Xavi, Iniesta, Dani, Busi, Iniesta, Messi, Busi, Iniesta, Xavi, Messi, Iniesta, Ibra, Messi, Abidal, Xavi, goal. 21 passes by 8 players and a fine finish by a sliding Xavi after a wonderful on-the-ground cross by Abidal. Guardiola’s reaction was one of absolute relief, which was understandable. They were a long ways from getting two more goals on us and we were there, knocking constantly on their doorstep.
The point was total football, to run around with it and kill off 90 minutes while looking for the killer goal. 12 shots to 4, 8 on target to 1. The stats were on Barça’s side and so was everything else. When Messi sliced in that free kick in the 86th, it felt more like a “finally” than a great goal, but it was that too. Sublime touch worthy of the myriad replays we’ll see of it on YouTube. Guardiola’s reaction to the goal–surprise–was great and made him look like a little kid watching some amazing players. What’s irksome, of course, is the ever-increasing number of sitters we’re missing, of one-on-ones that are going begging, going awry, finding excuses for not going in. Messi can dribble through 18 defenders, but can’t get a ball by the one player who can use his hands? Not sure I get that.
A fairly absurd moment was right as Messi got injured, finally succumbing to hard fouls being laid on him ruthlessly by Dynamo’s back line, who were, in effect, punishing him for staying on his feet instead of falling like so many others would in his position. The absurd moment, of course, came from Ibra’s resulting, well I don’t want to call it a free kick because it certainly cost Shovkovskiy a few braincells, which was struck so hard that it wet between Shovkovskiy’s hands and smacked him in the face. Dude can kick a freakin’ ball really hard.
It’s too bad Ibra didn’t get to score that one, though, because it would have cemented the “Don’t mess with my little friend” look on his face and confirmed that there’s nothing wrong whatsoever between the two stars. Oh and it would have meant 1-3, ensuring that I got the exact scoreline right from my preview, including the goal scorers. Argh!
In the end we finished first in our group, two points ahead of Inter Milan, who beat Rubin Kazan at home 2-0 with goals by Eto’o and Balotelli. I’ll admit I’m sad that Rubin didn’t make it in at Inter’s expense, if only for underdog reasons. What this means is that we’ll face a second-placed team in the Round of 16, the draw for which will be on December 18, a week from Friday. We can face anyone who isn’t Inter because the three Spanish teams that qualified for the knockout stages did so in first place in their respective groups. I’ll cover more of it tomorrow in separate post, but rest assured that we don’t want another trip to Russia, so pray/hope/make human sacrifices in order that we don’t draw CSKA Moscow. Obviously we’ll get Lyon, though.
And that, folks, is it for the group stage. Good riddance.