Okay. Is it just me, or was that about the most boring dismantling of a side that I have witnessed in the semi-finals of a not-particularly-major competition?
I mean don’t get me wrong, the win is nice, as our beloved club goes for its 6th trophy in just barely over 6 months. But Mexican side Atlante, once they scraped out a wonder goal, never really looked like doing anything more than scrimmaging with us, particularly Guardiola walked over to Cabinet No. 10, the one marked “in case of trouble, break glass.”
I was watching the match, and when we conceded an early goal, within the first 5 minutes of the match, I just didn’t have the same feeling of unease that I had against an opponent of real danger. I mean sure, Atlante scurried around, and had a few dangerous-looking breaks, but if you give us 80/20 possession stats, it’s only a matter of time. Why? Because you have to chase the ball the entire match, and if you’re doing that, you had better be big and physical, like Rubin Kazan, or world-class and able to slug toe-to-toe with us, like Valencia.
Otherwise, you are going to run and run, and get a little tired, and suddenly you won’t have that fraction of a step that you had when fresh. And just as suddenly, those little dagger balls that you were intercepting will get through, and that will be that. Because here’s what I love about our game:
It isn’t just relentless physical pressure that we put on you. It’s also the mental pressure. We come at you with Alves, Xavi, Iniesta, Ibrahimovic, The Yaya, Busquets, even Abidal. And any one of them can make the play that will kill you. And that’s when Messi and Henry aren’t on the pitch. Eventually, it becomes impossible to deal with. Then we score, and the match becomes completely different, only you can’t shake that defensive mentality, but you’re tired. So in goes yet another goal, and that’s that.
That’s why the 1-0 didn’t really worry me. What, however, does worry me is that we’re so good, that we don’t seem to quite know what do with lesser sides. It’s sort of like when I took my dog into a city for a day of activities, and he decided that he wanted to hump a horse’s leg. The horse, looking back at the 70 pounds of husky/akita mix that was going to town on its leg, looked around as if to say, “What about this shit here?”
That’s us. “Look at the plucky lads. Cute.” And we are sloppy and too relaxed, often conceding early. Sometimes, we get burnt. Usually, we wake up and take care of business. But it’s a trend that needs addressing, and I don’t mean tomorrow.
Now. If you’re a team from the lovely, sun-kissed shores of Cancun, what your early goal will do is vex the shit out of us, wake us up, and make your loss even more inevitable. Could we have done it without Messi? Almost certainly. Was it nice to see him come onto the pitch and, with his very first touch, round the keeper and convert the precise kind of one-on-one opportunity that he’d been missing of late? Absolutely. But the plan and attack was working, particularly once we started playing Abidal into the mix, with his overlapping runs from the left.
And to boot, Messi looked on fire in this match, moving with an alacrity and verve that brought to mind the magic man of last season. Could he finally be shaking the psychological effects of abuse at the hands of Maradumber? Possibly. Or maybe he, like our beloved club, is just rounding into form. Because once Alves realized that he, like Marquez and Puyol, were responsible for that goal and had to get it back, it got kinda ugly.
Guardiola rolled out a “should have been enough” linup of Valdes, Alves, Marquez, Puyol, Abidal, The Yaya, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro! and Ibrahimovic. But it was also a lineup that needed to not concede early, since Ibrahimovic was Gulliver in the land of Lilliput as he stood in the Atlante box like a giant, an easy target for the villagers to harass with their little shoulders and pitchforks. Not conceding in the first 10 minutes would have made life a lot easier.
As for the goal, a long clearance from the Atlante keeper found a lucky situation. Without even realizing it, Marquez played both Atlante attackers on side. Alves let his man get inside of him, and I think that Puyol must have gone for a pair of souvenir flip-flops. The long ball bounced just right, and one sombrero (a very nice one) and a side-foot later, it was 1-0, even as the joy on the Atlante sideline was short-lived, replaced by what must have been foreboding. Because we seemed to wake up, and then it was on.
Busquets justmissed, as their keeper made an astounding reflex save off his header.
Ibrahimovic and Xavi were orchestrating, passes were justmissing as the storm clouds built. Our attack moved, as inexorably as it does, closer and closer to their box. And then, in the 36th minute, the heavens opened. Xavi lofted a perfect corner onto the head of The Yaya, who snapped his header to the far post, where Busquets was waiting to smoke it past the keeper. Suddenly the match was 1-1, and Busquets had entered the pantheon of Regrettable Goal Celebrations, with that tongue/pregnant/goofy face thing. Damn, dude.
But it was a typical, beautiful Barcelona goal that this season, is more and more coming from set pieces. It was 1-1 and a very different match. We stayed on the front foot, attacking every time Atlante got the ball, maintaining our absurd possession stats. Critics say that we spend too much time playing meaningless tika-taka. I dunno ’bout that one. Don’t forget that we still have the ball. As long as we have the ball, they don’t. Which means that even as we’re stroking the ball around like a training ground exercise. time is going away, they are getting tired, and you just know something is going to happen.
Even more staggering is that the complete goal is one-touch, from Xavi’s boot to The Yaya’s noggin to Busquets’ foot. Beauty.
The second half came, and we picked up right where we left off. I think that Guardiola wanted to bring in Messi because he sensed that this was precisely the kind of match that would let our maestro get some confidence back. But who knew that the instant he came in, he would be greeted with an absurd ball from Ibrahimovic, who drifted toward midfield, dragging his defenders with him to create the necessary space to a) give Messi space to run into and b) create the passing angle. Then he whips a perfectly weighted ball that is placed so that all Messi has to is control it, and keep on running. Goal. All the highlight packages focus on the goal, but for me, it was the pass that made the day and the goal.
Which is to take nothing away from Messi’s otherworldly control as he sucked that thing in and was in on goal in a shot. Amazingly, their keeper still got a hand to it, to no avail.
And then came the third goal, the one that eliminated the possibility of another error from our outpaced back line. Iniesta passes a ball to Ibrahimovic, who is immediately surrounded by three Lilliputians. He flips a deft little ball to Iniesta, who is running through, and it’s off to the races for Ghostface, who did his shake-and-bake on two defenders before sliding the ball into the space between them to Pedro!, who made no mistake that time.
I say that time, because Pedro! still gets seized by cases of the yips, as if the talent of the people around him catches him out and he doesn’t know what to do. So when Ibra nutmegged his defender to place the ball right at the face of P!, he just kind of froze, like “How did this get here?” And the moment is gone. He has more than a few of those. That he makes up for it with the moments where he doesn’t freeze, is why he has scored in every competition except Dance of the Network Stars. Only because we haven’t entered that one yet.
From that point on, with a 3-1 scoreline, all we had to do was control the ball, which we did. Yes, they had a couple of moments, including a breakaway which prompted a magnificent reflex save from Valdes, who had been back there filing his nails and then “Whoa! Wait! What!” Atlante’s pace was extraordinary, as they once again caught our back line just off the shoulder, vulnerable to a killer through ball, and Abidal got owned by his man. Owned. But VV turned the trick, and that was that.
So now what?
Team: 7. Tip-top collective performance, even as individual performances weren’t up to par. They understood what they had to do, and took care of business. Fix the early lethargy, and it would have been perfect.
Guardiola: 9. The exact right substitutions at the exact right time. Who didn’t think “Messi for The Yaya? Huh? What?” In Pep We Trust. And he didn’t wait too long, for a change.
Valdes: 9. I know, he didn’t have a lot to do, but what he had to do was crucial, and he did it in great fashion. It takes a lot not to fall asleep as your team possesses the match to death.
Alves: 7. Pretty crappy early, then he came to life and owned the parts of the pitch that weren’t already under the ownership of Xavi and Ibrahimovic. I know that he gets knocked for his defense, but this is the second match in which he has pulled off exceptional, one-v-one defensive stop and steals.
Marquez: 5. Better than usual, still kinda crappy. The worst part is that he moves as if he’s in quicksand, and attackers run past him like he’s parked. It pains me to say this, but at this point, I don’t see any reason for him to be playing over Txignasty.
Puyol: 6. Some key interventions, but this was an unusually down match for our Captain who again, was done for by the pace of those scrambling Atlante BBs that were rolling about the pitch.
Abidal: 7. Was having a great match, then his brain shut off and he got smoked by an Atlante attacker who ran behind him to get in alone on Valdes who, luckily, had his game face on.
The Yaya: 8. Speaking of Gulliver. He is so intelligent with the ball, and his traditional spot in front of the defense means that he can enhance our command and control. He also makes Busquets a lot better.
Busquets: 8. Brilliant match from him. When he is freed to take full part in the offense, it’s never a bad thing. He had a header that was somehow stopped, then the excellent one-timer goal. Smart passes and good positioning, as well.
Xavi: 9. Good lord, what a match. Why would anyone in their right mind, in this day and age, not mark Xavi? He just destroyed everything that he came into contact with (from the Atlante worldview) with passes, crosses, corners, control, curlicues, even defense. Wow. Just. Wow.
Iniesta: 6. Played himself up from a positively awful early match, in which he tossed off three rotten balls in consecutive possessions. He doesn’t usually have that many in an entire match. As the Fox Soccer commentator astutely noted, the closer he is to Xavi, the better he is. But who isn’t that true of?
Pedro!: 6. Don’t let the goal seduce you. He’s had better matches. If his presence of mind and overall play can catch up to his pitchmates, the league will have to legislate a smaller goal mouth opening to try and control him.
Ibrahimovic: 8. He didn’t score, but his influence was immense. I do have nits to pick, such as his tendency to line up offside, and he should have passed to a breaking Messi rather than trying a shot from a crazy angle, late in the second half. But we should never, ever underestimate the value of having as astounding striker who is also one of the club’s best playmakers.
Messi (for The Yaya): 8. Immediate and lasting impact. Sweet-ass golazo, to boot. Maybe the key is to only play him for about 20 minutes per match, coming on when the other side is dog-tired from chasing us around.
Krkic (for Iniesta): 4. I know, I know. He had some nice passes to teammates, that deserved better. But he wasn’t much more effective than he usually is, and missing what was in effect an open net is pretty absurd.
Pique (for Marquez): 5. See Gerard, usually when you come on, you’re supposed to play significantly better than the person you replace. Just saying. A few nice plays, but he’s been a little funky of late.
And finally, another special word for Pedro!, who has scored in all six competitions that we have entered. It is a rare and special distinction that is great, because it gives me yet another opportunity to leave us all smiling.