Short and sweet:
The mood after what was a good result in the first leg of the
NIT Copa del Reig strikes me as rather odd, and a bit difficult to comprehend for many reasons, but let’s start with why it was a GOOD result:
–In their house, we came away from a two-legged tie with a scoring draw. This means that we have to do less to advance than they do. But let’s look deeper than that, shall we?
The team played kinda stanky (not very deep, I know), and still came away with a draw and an away goal. Xavi was messy, Messi was abysmal, Iniesta flailed, Alba now understands what it’s like to face RM, etc, etc, etc, etc. And still, an away draw. I’ll take that.
Have we really become so complacent, so expectant that we have forgotten the years in which Barça NEVER won a match against RM? Yes, it was years, folks. And now salad days have conditioned many to expect excellent play and a manita every time out. That is the second-best team in the world, it should be noted. Depleted? When you can roll out a back line of Essien, Varane, Carvalho and Arbeloa, in what way are you depleted? A good coach will alter his tactics to account for his available personnel, and Mourinho is a damned good coach. Not sure why anyone is surprised that a good coach got the most out of his very talented lineup. It isn’t like the absence of Sergio Ramos, etc, means that they were calling up players from their Castilla. When world-class professional players are absent, a good coach with a deep squad has plenty of other world-class professional players to call upon. And so it happens.
Look at their starting XI: Lopez, Essien, Varane, Carvalho, Arbeloa, Alonso, Khedira, Callejon, Ozil, Benzema, Ronaldo. Someone in the previous post somehow intimated that was a poor side. Compared to what? And further that somehow, we failed by not putting that weakened side to the sword. So after a result that many interpret as bad, there is the need for blame: Pinto, the ref, the ball, the pitch, sunspots, a stray chicken, the price of grain and how it affects diets at the training table (as if sprites don’t live on apples and fairy dust). But usually, the opponent has the biggest effect on a match result, and it was no less true yesterday.
Cules perceive an evenly called match as going against Barça, because we don’t play an aggressive, physical style. So any time a ref “lets them play,” so to speak, rare is the time that we will benefit. That doesn’t mean the ref was biased, or bad. It means that the opponent had a style that was better suited to the match that was being called. That match was fairly refereed. Were errors made? Yep. Errors are always made. In every match. Some benefit Barça, some benefit the opponent.
Some are blaming tactics, assaulting the notion of the false 9 with vigor, or suggesting that Vilanova’s more direct style of play, that has resulted in a record points haul so far in the Liga, big leads over 2nd and 3rd place teams, topping the Champions League group and coming out of the enemy’s lair with a scoring draw in the Copa, is somehow flawed.
In what way?
Let’s be clear about what happened yesterday: A big, strong, fit, exceptionally talented team got in our faces, and we flinched. It’s that simple. Opponents have done it before, and we have flinched those other times, as well. It’s just that when an opponent of a quality that matches ours does it, the flinching seems much more acute. But make no mistake, much of the reason we didn’t have a good match was because the opponent had a good match. Had they been able to finish worth a damn, their tactics would have worked, rather than the match being in the balance until they began to tire a bit and we could then exert the force of our game on the proceedings, which is what happened in the second half. And our best player was crap, unlike their best player. Heavily marked? You bet. But Messi is always heavily marked. When he is on, that marking doesn’t matter. When he is off, he can be marked out of a match but usually, he marks himself out of a match, by tilting at windmills, walking around and not being as involved as he can be. That happened yesterday. Nobody’s fault. Everybody has a bad day, and it wasn’t just Messi.
–Pedro missed a chance you can usually count on him converting.
–Fabregas missed a staggering opportunity.
–Xavi puffballed a shot at an open net, not suspecting that a young, fast, giant of a CB wouldn’t give up on the play.
–The defense didn’t man up, keep a body between the attacker and the goal on the equalizer.
3-3 would have been as fair a result as 1-1, as both sides had some ridiculous misses from players who are usually more reliable. It happens. But we shouldn’t sell them short. When Serena and Venus Williams took the womens’ tennis game by storm, opponents knew what they had to do to have a chance against them. On a deeper level, their presence actually mitigated against a certain kind of player. Our dominance and quality has made the world game better, and RM in specific. Teams are fitter, faster, stronger, all in an effort to enable themselves to play the kind of match against us that they know they have to play in order to get any kind of a result, even to be close enough to get some luck in there, and then get a result.
Assuming any kinds of failings without also taking into account the opponent’s quality, particularly in the case of RM, does us and our opponents a disservice. Xavi seemed slow because the game was moving so fast. He is used to a more deliberate, controlled pace to the proceedings. Ronaldo was contributing to their press today, which meant that their fastest, most physically gifted player also committed to the task of destabilizing his team’s opponent. Rock on.
Despite all of that, a young center back having the match of his life and our players being off song even when not being pressed by white-clad demons, the team left their house with a favorable result.
I watched the match yesterday with curiosity about a few things in terms of how the team would approach it. I mostly wondered about what a serious press by a fierce counterattacking team would do, and how they would handle it. The answer was, destabilize like crazy, and not well. My guess is that they will watch the match video and learn, as will RM, and the return leg will be interesting in very different ways. So I bet you that if Xavi gets another open net as he did yesterday, he tries to punch a hole in the back of it. Because if he had crushed that shot, Varane wouldn’t have been able to get there in time. They will learn the value of one-touch football, even against the hounds of hell, learn to have the confidence in the game that has created so much magic, and taken them so far. Most of all, they will have learned the value of doubt, which is a beautiful thing.
This season has, before the draw and (shudder!) loss, been a succession of salad days and rose petal-strewn promenades. Doubt, properly applied and absorbed, hones a person. You want to silence the doubters, you want to silence yourself but most of all, you want to eliminate doubt. So you elevate.
I have said it before and I will say it again: Barça is the best club in the world. If it plays its game as it can (not even to the best of its ability, it must be added), the team will beat any opponent in the world. When it doesn’t play that game as it can, it will usually still get a result, as it did yesterday. And that’s that. It’s nobody’s fault, the gods aren’t looking down in anger, it isn’t a referee or a coach. It is, as it always is, the players on the pitch, ours and theirs. Neutrals watched that match and thought, “Holy crap, now that’s a football match!” In a strange way, my Copa apathy allowed me to watch that match in the same way and you know what, it was. It was two great teams knocking heads like fiends, at times playing jaw-dropping football, and at times playing stunning football, as in “How the hell could they screw THAT up?” It was fun. And we got a good result.
Now it’s on to Valencia.