So. History was made today, and will continue to be made each and every time this club goes unbeaten in La Liga this season. In this, the 15th week of the Liga season, our beloved club is still undefeated and has only dropped two points, in a home draw to its most bitter rival. And as the club approaches the holiday break it is home to a potentially dangerous Atletico Madrid side, then away to Valladolid, a match that won’t be a walk in the park, either.
Today was circled on the calendar for me as a danger. This Betis side defeated RM, and they would be home to us, in a match fraught with danger, not only because of the opponent. After all, another kind of history was made today, as Lionel Messi broke the Gerd Muller calendar-year scoring record of 85 goals with his brace, both absolutely crucial goals in winning this match today.
But that history concerns me little. Even Messi downplayed it, saying what matters is that the club picked up the three points.
A team never, ever wins a match on sheer talent and quality alone. There is invariably a stroke of good fortune, luck in a baser term, something present in short supply last season. This season, however, it’s verging on absurd. Benfica players shoot balls wide of a gaping target, then today not only does Betis, noses wide open for a match they could positively taste a result from, hit the post. A header slams into the far post and caroms directly into the waiting arms of Victor Valdes, who fell on the ball as if it were a live grenade, and he was saving his mates from certain destruction. Mostly because he was.
But in addition to riding his luck, Valdes made two extraordinary saves in a match of two very clearly defined halves, a match as frustrating as it was delightful to watch, reminding me of a party held during the break between exams. Students return to the classroom all buzzed and well-fed, and the subsequent work suffers. So it was with Barca today, in a first half that was a master class of possession and attacking intent. Messi lashed his two goals home, both placed in the same corner and almost the same spot, and there was much rejoicing. Even Tito Vilanova got into the joyful celebration.
The match started with Valdes, Adriano, Pique, Puyol, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Messi and Pedro. But things had hardly gotten started before Fabregas was sitting on the pitch with a glum look on his face, before being substituted for Alexis Sanchez, which turned out to be a pretty good deal for a while.
The club’s first goal was a thing of beauty, as Messi latched onto a pass and, accompanied by a quartet of Betis defenders who pretty much knew what he was going to do, outran them all and spanked his shot home across the face of goal, taking advantage of a brilliant Alexis Sanchez run that cleared space for Messi to slide into.
More importantly, this goal came about 15 minutes into a match that was always, always going to be difficult, a match in which playing from behind might have meant sullying the club’s undefeated string. And everyone expected Betis, playing at home, to come out and fight for its honor, but it didn’t, playing as if the match was tied — nice and tight, retaining their shape.
The second goal was equally magical, as Adriano made a marauding, defense-shifting run before the ball was worked to Iniesta, who flicked the most flawless backheel to Messi, who spanked his second goal of the half home. It was 0-2 and now, surely Betis would come out to play, to chase a match their home fans were demanding that they win, but no …. the same discipline and shape was retained, a patient approach to things that took the long view, as Betis learned from history.
They have watched opponents come out great guns, pressing the crap out of us, clogging passing lanes, diving in front of shots, making last-ditch tackles and being all magical, until running out of steam. Then the knife goes in. This Betis squad was smart, sitting tight and playing for the counter, happy to take a goal if one came their way, but otherwise content to wait until the second half to raise hell. Suddenly, things were like this:
And like those sated party guests, we played right into their hands with the (these days) inevitable moment of defensive stupidity, that also required some excellence on the part of an opponent. But first, the stupidity:
–Jordi Alba, occupied by a Betis attacker, completely forgot about the offside trap.
–Nobody closed down the space on a Betis attacker, who was allowed to make a perfect pass.
–Adriano and Pique looked at the runner, said “After you, my dear Alphonse,” as a Betis player smoked a fine finish past a helpless Valdes.
Yes, the pass and strike were beautiful, and examples of why it is so difficult, despite what people insist about the porousness of our defense, to score against Barca: things have to be perfect. Now, the odds of perfection occurring more than once or twice in a match is worth considering, as well as the odds of perfection occurring enough, or combining with luck, to defeat this club. In other words, not likely.
The larger concern about the goal was that it came in the 39th minute, which gave them something to scream about at the half, while also allowing them to implement a game plan that was clearly in place all along. This is why in the second half, they came out and essentially punched us in the mouth. And like those revelers being rousted by the police, we gazed, bleary-eyed at a match that was falling apart before our very eyes as Betis reared its head and got in our faces.
Vilanova even seemed flummoxed, waiting until very, very late to sub for a disaster named Pedro, who essentially had us playing with 10 players until Thiago was subbed in, without much time left in the proceedings. Weird, but the intensity of Betis’ having clapped the lid on a cauldron positively roiling with hostility, can have a strange effect on folks.
Fans screamed as every pass was contested, every receiver of a pass was harassed, errors were forced, fouls were made, aggression was paramount from a team that said, essentially, pressing for a full 90 minutes is impossible. But for 45 minutes, effort and fire can be concentrated, and let’s see what happens. So holding the ball too long, as certain of our attackers (such as Sanchez) were wont to do, because Betis almost invariably forced it loose and went charging at our goal like demons. They were faster, moved more quickly to balls and wanted the match more, even as luck and ultimate quality conspired to keep them at bay. Betis played a hell of match against us, better to these eyes than the one they played to grab a 0-1 victory over RM. But RM didn’t have Messi, a player whose first goal came just after I Tweeted that he didn’t look 100 percent — until suddenly, he did.
This most fraught, perilous bit of precariousness was a match of three distinct phases. Our dominance, which was as much Betis lying in wait as anything else, the pressing, in which we came undone in the face of a vigorous, concerted effort on behalf of an opponent, then the regaining of control, late in the second half as players who were struggling, suddenly got it right. Ball control was regained and we put them on their heels, even as glorious scoring chances were spurned by finishing that was anything but clinical. Pedro right at the keeper, Alba somehow over the net after Messi blasted a PlayStation shot at the Betis keeper, Iniesta was saved, Thiago screwed up a chance. Betis closed down, kicked, grabbed and fought, to a surprisingly unsurprising effect.
Suddenly, Barca was a distracted, confused club, hanging on for dear life and looking surprised that Betis wasn’t doing what they were supposed to do, which was realize that a 0-2 lead against the mighty FC Barcelona was a sign to throw in the towel. Would we have lost this match last season? Who knows. Yes, there was grit aplenty displayed, but the luck was immense on three separate occasions, every one of which denied Betis a goal, including a crazy Valdes save in which he blocked a shot that caromed off the underside of the crossbar, and was covered up.
Neutrals will say that Betis deserved something from this match for the spectacular display that for much of the second half, had them looking like the team that was sitting top of the table, reducing Barca to individual moments of excellence rather than the collective magic that so defines this club in the eyes of so many. But that collective magic is what makes people forget that sometimes, on a crappy day or against an opponent who just plain wants it more than you do, great players do great things. And quite often, that is enough.
Hell, Betis can even feel hard done by at the hands of Fate, who clearly didn’t want anybody messing up Messi’s party, not even some churl in Chicago who really doesn’t care that much for individual records. Yes, cules can puff out their chests and say that the most prolific scorer of all time plays for FC Barcelona, their beloved club. But the thing that makes me puff our my chest is saying that, almost halfway into the season, my beloved club is undefeated, with the chance at home to extend its lead over second place to 9 points.
Sure, Messi is the top scorer. Which gets the club nothing. Ask him if he would trade his pichichi from last season for Liga or Champions League, and see what answer you get. You can’t diminish the accomplishment. It is absolutely staggering to consider. 86 (85) goals in a calendar year. But for me, individual awards on a club that thrives on team play, that has set a new standard for team play as it relates to sporting excellence, are go-withs.
And even as people talk about taking it one match at a time, some are daring to think, if not utter aloud, the unfathomable possibility that this club might be able to go undefeated this season as it faces challenge after challenge and emerges victorious. It has all the talent in the world, the most expensive roster in world football that is, to boot, almost all home-grown (10 Masia alums started today). It has the best player in the world who is now the all-time calendar year scoring king. In addition to all of that, it has luck.
And that just ain’t right, unless you’re a cule.