Great galloping Jesus, what a match. Pedro! sums up how I think we all feel here, in the wake of a gritty victory that found us not even approaching our dazzling, sparkling best, a victory that defines this club in a way that few others have, and that left me weeping right along with Pep Guardiola.
6 trophies, 6 competitions, less than 12 months. Pause for a second, to let that one sink in, then we’ll continue.
Is this club the greatest of all time? Valid question, and one that I will leave for others to debate. For me, it is a magical club that is in full consideration as one of the greatest ever. It won playing champagne football, it won gutting out matches against parked buses, it won against the best clubs in the world, it just won. It won when playing bad, it won when everyone was razor-sharp.
And at the end of it all, 6 trophies in 6 competitions in 8 months. They had to overcome a dogged, intense (and frankly, lucky) Estudiantes side who went ahead 1-0 in the 35th minute on a pretty astounding header, a side that was some 4 minutes or so away from upsetting our championship apple cart. Only problem was that history didn’t want it to be so. Which explains why (yet another) crappy Xavi pass found the head of an Estudiantes defender who headed it away, only to have it fall to Pique, who lofted a pillow-soft header that Pedro! could then head over the keeper.
It was suddenly, impossibly (the way we were playing) 1-1 and Estudiantes had to change approach from a bunker mentality to a footballing one. And this match came within a whisker of going to PKs, thanks to a pillow-soft foul against The Yaya, and an Estudiantes header that went went wide. That it went wide was typical of this club’s star-kissed life span under Pep Guardiola. Shots that are supposed to go in, don’t. Shots that aren’t supposed to go in, do. And we keep on winning.
Spare a moment, please, for the quality of that Pedro! header. If it’s lower, the keeper, who was having a sensational match, parries it away. But too high, and it goes over the net, instead of in it. It was an amazing, well-taken goal by a player who, despite the contention of many that he should start, belongs exactly where he often is, as the late-match hell raiser. And things were headed for extra time, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Guardiola rolled out an eyebrow-raising lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Keita, Busquets, Xavi, Messi, Henry and Ibrahimovic. And if someone had said to you that said lineup wouldn’t put a shot on frame in 45 minutes, you’d laugh and smack them upside the head for their impertinence, right?
But that’s what happened, due to a number of things:
–Xavi was awful.
–No Iniesta, to create the options and migrating triangles.
–Henry wasn’t moving properly or sometimes, at all
–Ibrahimovic was also off, in part because he was easily controlled due to our having no other options
Estudiantes also came out with an excellent game plan, of physical play, high pressure and waiting for the break. It’s one thing to try it, it’s another to pull it off, as Veron had a man-sized match for them, and was the best defender on the pitch today, and we played right into their hands by rolling out with Xavi, who was off song and Busquets, who wasn’t as effective because Keita was running around taking care of business. So rather than the reliability of The Yaya backing him up, he was on his own. The difference was apparent in our midfield control, or lack thereof, as almost every ball was contested by them. On offense, they bypassed our ball-hawking back line with long passes that would seek to put our vulnerable back line in danger.
Still, we should have been 1-0 ahead about 8 minutes in when Alves pops a great ball to Ibra, who flicks a little pass for Xavi, who inexplicably chose to attempt a cross, rather than shooting, even though he was 1-on-1 against the keeper. It was almost as if we were nervous or something, as if the weight of what we were trying to accomplish was slowing our feet, making passes go awry and generally gumming up our works. The feeling built that they were going to score first and then, it happened, a goal that like many, was a group effort:
–Busquets was either confused or lazy, but didn’t shut down the man with the ball.
–Puyol plays the attacker on side, then instead of moving to the ball to head it harmlessly away, he tries a leaping interception that failed.
–Abidal let the attacker cross in front of him (admittedly with a bit of a pushoff from the attacker)
–Dude hits a queen hell mother of a header that goes past Valdes as if shot from a cannon
And the FSE announcer almost wet himself with ecstasy, and I was worried. Because even though we promptly proceeded to lay siege to their goal as they hunkered down to defend that 1-0 lead, the reality that this wasn’t Atlante was seeping in. Veron was everywhere, as we kept shooting ourselves in the foot with balls that just didn’t do the right thing.
Time was dragging, and we just didn’t really look like scoring, until the odd sequence of events that demonstrated why Pedro! is the man, and we tied the match in the 87th minute. The glee was genuine, for it was a goal off of a broken play that was our last, best chance to even the match. The FSE announcer cracked me up, because instead of his over-the-top exclamations, it was more an almost sotto voce declaration.
And Estudiantes had a problem, because we were getting closer and closer. Guardiola was yelling for us to get Henry involved, and Estudiantes were heading away everything that came into the box, including a series of pretty crap corners from Xavi. But we were getting closer and closer, closing the distance necessary for us to cover for something good to happen.
Guardiola made three match-changing moves:
–Pedro! for Keita meant that Busquets drifted back on the pitch, to make space for a legitimate attacking threat. It began working almost immediately, as P! had some very good chances at goal.
–The Yaya came on for Busquets, which made Xavi’s life easier and got us midfield control, while also shifting the pitch forward, because that’s how The Yaya plays.
–Jeffren came on for Henry, subbing in a pure winger with gobs of pace, rather than a converted striker.
Then the match really opened up, and I thought we would get the second goal in regulation because we suddenly, we had left-sided play! Jeffren starting beating his man like a gong, but with the way that Estudiantes were playing defense, it was going to take something truly special to keep this one from going to penalty kicks.
And that’s where Messi and Alves come in. First, Messi just misses what would have been a brilliant free kick goal. And then, from a play that wasn’t much, really, suddenly things opened up in the Estudiantes box, and Alves laid on a pass that should be bronzed, because it was amazing. More remarkable still was the finish from Messi, who didn’t have time to do anything except chest it past the helpless keeper. So that’s what he did, in a move henceforth known as The Submarine. It was 2-1, and match over, right?
Wrong. On the last play of the match, Estudiantes were awarded a free kick from a challenge by The Yaya, who erred by stabbing for (and getting) the ball, rather than just closing the man down by erecting the Great Wall of Yaya in front of him. The snap header went wide, and that was that.
The immensity of what our beloved club has accomplished is only just beginning to sink in. And frankly, I feel rather churlish for having to do the points duty here, but here goes:
Team: 5. Rather a sub-par display that played right into Estudiantes’ hands.
Guardiola: 8. Made the right substitutions at the right times, but should have had us more ready to play.
Valdes: 8. The one shot got past him, that he really couldn’t do much of anything about. But he had a number of other crucial plays, including an amazing reflex save of the type that he isn’t supposed to be very good at.
Alves: 7. Strong, strong defense, without getting caught out of position as much as he often does. His passes were on target, including the one to Messi for the go-ahead goal, which was inspired.
Pique: 6. Still funky. Some solid play, but overall, still below average these days. Hell of an assist, though. Wow!
Puyol: 6. Should have played that goal-scoring long pass better, and way to get in Valdes’ way as he was trying to clear a ball, dude!
Abidal: 6. Not one of his best matches, and he shares some culpability for the goal.
Keita: 6. Curiously ineffective. All of his movement around the pitch was just what our midfield didn’t need.
Busquets: 6. Do not ever head the ball. Ever. And stop kicking it to the other team’s guys. Okay, I’m done.
Xavi: 5. Very ordinary, and you have to shoot that one when you’re on the doorstep, no two ways about it.
Messi: 7. What a goal, but also had a whole lot of ordinary during this match.
Henry: 4. Should have been daisy-fresh and raising hell. Made a few good plays, but generally ineffective.
Ibrahimovic: 5. What was up with your touch in the first half? And I like the playmaking sir. You’re very effective at it. But you have to bury those chances, and don’t wait so long to pass to Messi for what would have been the 3rd goal. The end.
Pedro (for Keita): 7. Turn all of your chances, not just the ones that matter most, because then the ones that matter most, won’t. Or something like that. His live-wire energy and drive unsettled the Estudiantes defenders.
The Yaya (for Busquets): 7. I’m sure that Guardiola watched his play and said “Damn, should have started dude, yo!” Does the wrong thing with the ball almost as infrequently as Xavi, and his forward runs destabilize the defense, and move the field closer to their goal.
Jeffren (for Henry): 7. Excellent pace and aggression from our pure winger. He just came up short at the end of his efforts, with balls that were easily intercepted or never reached their target. Good to see him on the pitch.
Are we all aware of how astounding this is, yet? Guardiola was crying like a baby, despite the efforts of most of the first team and then some, to console him. He was overcome with the magnitude of what his club has done, and I don’t blame him. Naysayers will say that Estudiantes deserved to win. Why, I don’t know, since we basically had almost all of the attacking play after their goal.
Was the use of Jeffren when the match was on the line instead of Krkic a signal? Henry too, for that matter.
Who knows, who cares. We have won six titles! No matter how happy you are, this guy is more happy:
Finally, as if we didn’t have enough joy, let’s relive a bit of it.