This can be a cruel game, and I type this even as I am nursing a sore knee from having fallen off a barstool, thanks to Adriano.
Atletico de Madrid came out with a perfect game plan that they executed flawlessly. If we were to sum it up, it would be the same as all of our other opponents this season:
Don’t let that little guy kill you
Worry about other players when you have to
Get a early lead
Play on the counter, to take advantage of their slow back line
Check, check, check, and check.
To boot, Atletico received the added gift of Barça’s best player sleepwalking through the match, one wide forward continuing to wallow in mediocrity while the other alternated between delightful and vexing. They even got the first goal.
Perfect. So what the hell happened?
All of the talk going in was about Messi vs Falcao, two scorers tearing up world football, grabbing headlines and inspiring sonnets of superlatives. But this match was always going to come down to the 20 other guys who work in tandem with those two. And in that realm, Barça’s other 10 guys were dramatically better than Atletico’s other 10 guys. Simple, yet deeper than that.
You also had two clubs set up to stop the other guy from doing his thing, but only one of those clubs had to alter its game plan to do it. Again, advantage, Barça as it just had to do what it does: pass, move, pass, move, probe, score. As long as that kept happening, Falcao wouldn’t see the ball, and all would be well. Atletico, on the other hand, had to blanket Messi with a cadre of defenders, a tactic that as legs got heavy, was bound to create an imbalance somewhere else on the pitch.
Even as this recipe for victory seems so easy, let’s be frank here, and admit that this club has won nothing. Its play makes us giddy, it is still unbeaten in La Liga, extending its stretch of excellence with every win. But it still has won nothing. Yes, FC Barcelona sits 9 points ahead of its second-place rival, and 13 ahead of its bitterest rival, in third place. But Xavi says it best:
“We’re not stupid, this is looking very good. But we have to be careful, this isn’t over at all. We can’t make mistakes.”
This was yet another Statement Match, in a season in which there have been many. Each and every week, Tito Vilanova’s side has faced the talks of “Well, they beat so and so, but this new opponent has all the tools to do Barça damage. This will be a difficult test.” And some of them have been, even as the club has sailed through every one. Atletico was the next one, a team on exceptional form, a team showing signs that it isn’t going to collapse like the other Atletico sides that flattered to deceive, a side possessed of the best striker in the game right now on form, surrounded by a cadre of quality. They are brilliant on the counter, disciplined defensively and do everything that it takes to beat a club like ours.
The early signs came when Falcao snapped a glancing header that, remarkably, smacked the inside of the post and caromed out. Then he had another great scoring chance that Valdes, making himself big, forced him to push wide. And then it happened, the thing that convinced me that we were going to win this match:
In the 20th minute, their game plan reached its apogee when pressure forced a turnover from Messi, which sprung Falcao loose on the break. He took an absolutely divine touch, outran everybody and their mamas and scooped an absolute peach of a shot over a helpless Valdes. Cules everywhere said “Uh, oh,” but I kinda relaxed, and here’s why:
They have one player who, in a moment of individual brilliance, can change a match. We had, on the pitch, nine such players. And with all of the possession they were allowing, it was only a matter of time before one of them did what they do.
Last season, you could give Guardiola’s Barça the ball, like a plaything with which to amuse a child. They would pass it around, make wondrous things with it, but you would mostly be okay as long as you retained your shape and didn’t do anything silly. Give Vilanova’s Barça the ball, and it will kill you, because it is impatient. It shoots from distance, it rushes the box, it eschews the magic of tika-taka for one dude saying to the others, “Watch this!” And the longer Vilanova’s Barça has the ball, the more likely it will kill you with a moment of magic.
Falcao had to score a perfect goal to beat our defense and our keeper, off a turnover from our best player. How often is that going to happen during a match? So he scored, and I sat back in my chair and waited. I expected to have to tarry a bit longer in anticipation of what was to come, but I guess that Adriano is twitchy. He took a pass, made a run toward the center that nobody on the defense appeared to mind very much, because it’s that other right back, you know, the one who is usually a left back, and a substitute left back at that.
And that run created enough space to make Adriano think, “Hey, I bet I could …. ” and KA-BOOM! Just like that, it was 1-1, thanks to a howitzer of a golazo that, rather than smacking the crossbar and bounding out as Falcao’s did, struck the crossbar with such velocity that it caromed down and into the goal. And that was how Kxevin fell off his barstool. It was also how the match completely changed.
At 1-1, that Atletico game plan was still looking pretty good, and they were playing their hearts out, like a side that was still in the match. They were still dangerous on the counter, things were still in their favor, except for that old demon, fatigue. You could see Iniesta getting farther and farther into the box, corners coming fast and furious, near-misses and saves by their gangly villain of a keeper becoming commonplace rather than rare. And then, it happened again:
A goal-mouth scramble off of a corner, of all things, the set pieces at which the sprites are supposed to be ineffectual, found the ball falling directly to the feet of Busquets. My Man of the Match by a country mile waited …. and waited …. and waited for what seemed to be an eternity, a time span sufficient to allow every cule voice in the known universe to erupt in simultaneous shriek, “Shooooottttt!” But Busquets knew what he was doing.
“Goal? I saw players coming, knew they’d throw themselves, so controlled the ball and waited for them to pass by. Worked out fine”
It was 2-1 at the half, a half in which Atletico played about as well as they could in a fine match of football. No real errors, no real breakdowns of the tactical plan. But like the Mutant in the finale of Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy, aberrations can mess up equations.
The second half began and it was more of the same, only it wasn’t. Atletico’s confidence appeared a bit shaken. Suddenly, they weren’t at all dangerous as Barça simply played its game. Pass and move, pass and move, steal the ball back, pass and move, as, in this case on this day, a preparation for more individual brilliance. Alexis Sanchez made a wonderful, space-clearing run that apparently got him so excited, 99% lived up to his name by spanking a stinker of a pass over to Messi. Because the defense was shifted and a little tired, Messi got enough space to control the ball (somehow), dart to his left and smoke a low, hard shot past a diving Courtois.
Two moments of unfathomable brilliance, one of luck and its 3-1. It was particularly cruel because Athletico did everything right, did everything according to their plan and it didn’t matter. It’s why even as I say that this club hasn’t won anything, I feel like a dunderhead for predicting that it wouldn’t. Because it is too damned good not to. The statistics say that no team with at least a 9-point lead in December has ever lost La Liga. “But it could happen,” say cules, because that is what we do.
But this club, as it stands, is the best club in the world. Atletico is a hell of a footballing side, that was made to look ordinary. They got the ball, we took it back. They got it again, strung a few passes together, we took it back, pressing, probing, looking to put the knife into a team that looked shell-shocked after that second goal, and Vilanova’s charges knew it. So the match was effectively over because there is no answer for individual quality, combined with luck and hard work. Again, the game is cruel.
How hard? In the 80th minute, up 3-1, Puyol runs like a man possessed to keep a stray pass from going out for a throw. Yes, it was 3-1, but Puyol would have said, like any good cule, “You never know, though! Pay attention!”
But also, Atletico had no answer for our Plan B, which is simply to do what we do even better. The passes became even more difficult for them to complete, counterattacks rarer because we didn’t concede possession and essentially, the only thing left to wonder was whether Messi would continue his streak of scoring in multiples.
We got the answer in the 88th minute as he slid neatly between two Atletico defenders who dallied too long with the ball, took it and chipped the keeper in a sequence of movements so rapid that it almost seemed like one motion, as lovely as it was cruel. And it was 4-1. Game. Set. Match. You want to know how hungry this club is? It’s best player was pressing in the 90th minute of a 3-1 home match. The Atletico defenders aren’t thinking about this, because it doesn’t happen.
Atletico will say that they played better than that scoreline, and they will be right. They will say they didn’t deserve that scoreline, and Vilanova might cop a line used by Clint Eastwood’s character William Munny in “Unforgiven,” before he dispatched the evil sheriff: “Deserves got nuthin’ to do with it,”
Atletico will watch the match video, and they will see that Pedro was worthless, Sanchez was undecided and mostly ineffectual, Messi never did catch that bus he was waiting for, so he decided to score a couple of goals. They will see that Barça has two of the slowest center backs a great team has ever had. They will see all of this.
But they will also see an on-form Pique, a leonine Puyol, an omnipresent Busquets, a rampaging Adriano whose performance this season might have hung a “for sale” sign on Dani Alves, a scampering Alba, a defense that does what it does best: keep the play in front of it, and always be between its keeper and the attacker so if it gets past that damned octopus in midfield it can do its work, which is to require an opponent to be perfect to score a goal.
And Vilanova’s Barça rolls on. I, in my role of half-assed “authority” get asked by people if I am worried that Messi scores so many of the team’s goals, and I always struggle with the answer to that question, until today, until now.
No. Because his goals aren’t coming as a consequence of him demanding the ball, of people feeding him first, of his play being so dominant that it forces the club to play in a different manner. Except for his two goals, the club didn’t really have Messi, even as it had his defense-shifting presence. Messi’s goals come as a consequence of how the club plays, and his roving role in that talented Hydra that is FC Barcelona.
Then I got to wondering why this club, which is essentially the same, is better. Seemingly, so much better. Well, some of it is that its major competitors have fallen off a tad. RM, Chelsea, United, aren’t the sides they were last season, even as Barça has gotten a little bit better for a couple of reasons:
–Ruthlessness. It’s been noted before, and is worth noting again. This club is hungry, and wants to eat you alive.
–True width. Now that the left side of the pitch is open for business in the person of Jordi Alba, it’s impossible to know from where a marauding sprite will appear.
Mental attitude, and tactics. It seems so simple to describe, yet as you watch yet another quality opponent fall prey to this club, you realize that it is simple. Player/pass/run/goal/win. But just as form follows function, Vilanova’s Barça might not be the aesthete’s bon-bon that Guardiola’s Barça was, but it is no less beautiful.