Ah, notions. Is the Doom Watch over? Because I’m running out of canned food and bottled water, so I sure hope that it is.
Many people were nervous yesterday, some even picked Malaga to advance. “Two away goals! We’re all gon’ die!”
As I tracked the match yesterday, I noted something akin to “If the players don’t start moving and moving the ball, they are going to be watching the Copa on TV.” They did, so they will be witnessing it in person, instead of on the telly. It’s as simple as that.
In the non-preview, I made things sound really simple mostly because they are: This is the best club in the world. If it plays at anything near its potential, it can’t lose.
It sounds simple. It sounds arrogant. It sounds like I am dismissing every single opponent we have faced, and have yet to face. I understand. But none of that changes the reality. This is the best club in the world. If it plays at anything near its potential, it can’t lose.
Going into the match against Malaga, the aggregate scoreline was 2-2, thanks to an unfortunate bit of Adriano poor traction, coupled with some defensive shenanigans. So all that Malaga had to do was, really, what they do at home: Don’t concede. I sincerely hope that nobody entertained, even for an instant, the notion that such a thing was possible. We were going to score. And it took less than 10 minutes to happen, as some remarkable football ensued, particularly Xavi getting the handle on the ball and sliding it to Alves just in time to find our resurgent right back onside. Alves then flicked a beauty of a ball to Pedro, and that was that. 1-0. Game on.
Scoring first was the best possible thing not only for the team, but for this match, as Malaga had to play …. and play they did. Their trainer, Pellegrini, came out with an excellent match plan predicated in the notion that our talented sprites don’t like people in their face. So he attacked. His side played football, and pressed, and tackled, and fouled, and tried to grab the match by the scruff of the neck with physicality and energy. Brilliant.
And it didn’t take them long to equalize, as a Busquets lunge for a ball knocked it directly to a Malaga attacker for a full-speed, springboard attack that resulted in Joaquin lashing a ground-skimmer past Pinto to draw the match at 1-1. It was a goal that was too easy, but also inevitable once possession turned, because rare is the attacking team that can stop a full-speed counterattack from a side of the quality of Malaga. And that’s us.
The Pellegrini attack plan has its roots in the misguided notion held by many that Barça would fail in the Premiership, because “them midgets don’t like it innem,” that Barça can be beaten through dint of effort, physicality and pressure. And you know what? They’re partly right. Our sprites don’t like it innem. No team does. Duh. The difference, however, is in the equipment that teams bring to the table. We respond to pressure with faster ball and player movement, trusting in the task of chasing shadows to wear down an opponent, which creates more possession and more danger until suddenly, the defenders are a step too late.
After a first half that saw Malaga executing their match plan to perfection, they started getting tired. But here’s something else that the “don’t like it innem” crowd is forgetting: This club has extraordinary players. Malaga was set up to control Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets. But on a club where attackers are defenders and the reverse, Alves was freed up to become the player he used to be, and Pique became a lanky forward. To have a defender who can take a pass like he did, control the ball perfectly and almost in the same motion lash it home for a 1-2 lead is absurd. And that is the difference. Whether it is Adriano blasting something in from the wing, Alba squirreling through a rabbit hole or Piquenbauer doing what he does, you don’t know where an attack is going to come from.
So while you’re busy getting all up in that, somebody else is waiting to hurt you, because you can’t control everyone, and everyone can hurt you. It must make drawing up a match plan an exercise in hair-pulling frustration.
And then, just like that, Malaga equalized again, but the signs were there: possession was beginning to climb, Xavi was finding more space to work, Iniesta wasn’t getting harassed as much on his runs and suddenly, there was free space for Messi. The human body is a remarkable thing, in that it can exceed its limits as capably as it finds them. Malaga was positively flying in that first half. It was a work rate that was unsustainable, because the body gets tired. You can work past that fatigue for a while, freshened by the halftime break, but eventually, it happens: the head droops a little bit and you’re a step slower. But when you’re playing Barça, the ball is moving at the same speed — only it seems faster because you’re tired. Dog tired. And you look up and there’s still a half-hour to go in the match and that damned Messi is still running around, and why won’t that Pedro stand still. If we could get the ball back we could show the …. dammit!
But there was something more. As I also noted in the non-preview, an angry sprite is not to be trusted, and this side had something to prove. A draw with Malaga and a loss to Real Sociedad and suddenly, there was doubt. Why I don’t know, but there was doubt. The club wanted this match, as ajudged by the lineup: Pinto, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro, Fabregas. This was the first-choice lineup (Puyol arguments notwithstanding) that showed things were Serious. So did the players’ faces.
The best player on the planet wasn’t even the best player wearing Blaugrana yesterday, and that’s another part of the problem. This might be, despite his gaudy statistics, the least Messidependent side I have seen in recent memory. It is a side in which there is always someone else. Pedro has scored 4 goals in the last 5 matches, seeming to have shaken off his slump to once again find he and the ball magnetized. Alves is showing signs of a desire to be the best attacking right back in the world again. Everything is happening in a team that isn’t even peaking yet, but just keeps playing its game, doing its thing, waiting …. and waiting …. because 90 minutes is a long, long time to chase shadows.
The last two goals were scored because not only is this the best team in the world, but it’s also one of the fittest, one that has worked on ball control and passing until they become reflex. People marvel at the things that Iniesta, Xavi, etc do, but muscle memory is a remarkable thing. They have done those things so many times that the control, the movement, the passing become reflex — like breathing. It’s automatic, a response to a stimulus. And they do it again and again and again and again, and when an opponent tires, blammo. That’s that.
Yes, it’s true. The sprites don’t like it innem. Further, there will come a rare opponent possessed of incredible fitness, and luck, who catches the side on a down day and pulls out a win. It happened this past weekend and even then, that match could easily have been over in the first half. Potential, realized and unrealized, all in the same match. I just don’t see such a confluence of events happening with sufficient regularity to keep this club from major silver of some kind this season. Why? Because this is the best team in the world.