There is something funny in the reality that the two Liga giants both went into Saturday’s match day as a favorite, only to go down a goal, then rally for a narrow, one-goal victory. Could both colossi have had the same thing on the brain? Maybe, just maybe. And it must have been contagious, because the weekend’s opponent, Sevilla, also had Copa on the brain, as both us and them have decisive matches this week against sides from the capitol city.
And yet, there are differences, as Sevilla’s Copa hopes embody the only silver that it has a shot at. Barça, on the other hand, sincerely hopes that this year isn’t like the last, in which the Copa is its only silverware. Say what you want about the two teams, imbalance of Liga power, etc, but there was the weekend’s reality.
As a consequence, both teams decided to hold key players back, with the likes of Negredo watching from the bench for Sevilla, while Xavi and Puyol rested on the home side of the benches.
Further complicating things is that Barça is coming off of an armageddon of a match, a 0-2 Champions League loss to AC Milan, a match that had so many pundits, cules and assorted hangers-on predicting everything from a loss in the return leg to the return of the Plague.
So clearly, one team had quite a bit more to prove than the other, which leads to all sorts of questions, most notably ….
Where was the urgency that we were supposed to see? might be one of them, as the rotation focused lineup came out and engaged in a leisurely game of kickabout, as cules fretted and moaned, one foot on the ledge, one eye on the television screen. “Lord today, have they learned NOTHING from the Milan match?! MORE aimless possession?! Gaaah!”
The lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Montoya, Song, Thiago, Iniesta, Messi, Sanchez and Villa not only had rotation in mind, but promised a different approach to the match. So imagine everyone’s surprise at the same old same old: Villa standing off to the left on the touchline, trying to get the attention of that food vendor in the stands. On the other side, Sanchez got the ball and faked …. dribbled …. faked …. then passed it back to midfield, while Messi decided that yes, THIS was going to be the day that he would beat 4-5 defenders off the dribble. Because like that TV commercial of his, “impossible is nothing.” Or something.
“Static” was the word of the day. No runs, no motion, none of that fancy Barça stuff that used to make opponents quake in fear at the notion of coming into the Camp Nou. Instead, our sprites decided to entertain the visitors with some practice passing sessions, and Sevilla was impressed.
“Hey, looka them boys passing that ball around. The designs are like one of those Spirograph toys. So pretty. Whoops! Here comes a stray ball. Hang on a sec while I knock it away.”
And so on, until Sevilla decided “Boy, howdy, should we liven this party up by scoring a goal,” and so THEY did, off a set piece as Alberto “When You Were Mine” Botia leaped into the air, clearing three midgets in a single leap, and headed past a pretty much defenseless Victor Valdes, who seemed just a tad flummoxed by that which had transpired.
And meanwhile, the passing demonstration resumed, but with a little more urgency that led to the same result: entertained Sevilla defenders and a 0-1 deficit at the break. And here was the problem(s):
— An offense based on passing and movement needs plenty of the latter to be successful.
— With an out-of-position Montoya on the left and the isolated-as-usual Alves on the right, that meant penetration and danger had to come from wingers rather than the overlapping fullbacks, as tactical width got a rethink by everybody except our wingers.
And yet, the team didn’t look all that perturbed as Jordi Puffy Coat emoted on the sidelines, probably for a reason that in their distress, cules don’t take a moment to consider:
Maybe things aren’t all that bad as they seem, ya know?
Big lead over second and third place in the Liga, an advantage on the away goal in the Copa semi-final and two piddlin’ home goals to overcome against AC Milan in two weeks time. Hmph. Really? Really.
And during the halftime break, we were left to ponder yet another delight of an outing by Alex Song, who is really making a case for some more time. That’s two in a row for those keeping score.
Meanwhile, in Sprite Land, Prince Jordi was consulting with a hologram, saying “Help me Master Tito. You’re our only hope.” Then some little guy started messing up syntax and stuff, and suddenly, it all made sense.
When the teams came out for the second half, things were about to be different, as a return to the past was in order. Sanchez came off for Tello, and Villa moved to the center, in front of Messi.
Now, you people who were keeping track of the debate might have remembered some of us saying how cool it would be to harken back to the Treble days of yesteryear, and have Messi mating up with a fast winger who can turn play quickly, getting out ahead of the break on long passes, and a finisher prowling the box to take advantage of space created by Messi as well as making space FOR Messi. And wouldn’t ya know it, that is just what started happening, and it didn’t take long for the new thinking to bear fruit, for many things happened as a result of this reapportionment of forces:
— The left side of the attack was in business, and Montoya didn’t have to do anything except defend.
— Because Sevilla suddenly had to worry about the left side and that danger, the right side, in the person of Dani Alves, got room to frolic, like back in the day.
— Messi got a little more working room, because it ain’t as though David Villa is just some mope, strolling around on the left side of the pitch. Now he’s danger.
So when it came to pass that, in a lovely bit of elegant football artistry, Alves had the space to pick a pass, and deposited said effort right on the noggin of Villa, who headed home for a 1-1 draw. And there was much rejoicing.
And suddenly, as if by magic, there was possession, passing, movement and danger. Because instead of a static attack based on a nonexistent threatx2, a situation that was always leaving a passel of defenders free and easy to vex the life out Messi, as Villa ran around in the box, defenders had to worry about him, just like they used to have to worry about Samuel Eto’o. And the midfielders would then just slide the ball out to the left, where Tello outran everybody to get to it, then ran toward the box.
Suddenly, stuff was feeling a little less fraught as the new attitude worked so well, the team decided that a second goal was probably going to be a lovely thing. So once again, Tello outran everybody and their mamas, and in the space that he suddenly had, saw Messi, running in behind Villa, who was worrying those Sevilla defenders. He put the pass right on Messi’s foot, which unerringly slammed home for the 2-1 lead. And there was more rejoicing.
The official site is calling the comeback win a “Dosi de confiança.” Others are calling it a narrow win. Still others are calling it a worrying sign, and list the host of things that could potentially haunt this club in the two competitions in which it isn’t facing a yawning advantage:
— Lack of team speed, which makes breaks extra dangerous.
— Lack of an effective press, which gives opponents more time on the ball with which to get at our defense, which suddenly has to be a traditional defense.
— An attack that is going to leak goals.
— A tired-looking Messi.
Etc, etc. What I saw was a team that did what it was supposed to do, which is score enough goals to win the football match. This it did. Was it pretty? Nope. Dominant? Nope. Effective? Not all the time, but certainly enough of the time to resolve matters. A sign of anything? Yes and no. No if you seek doom, yes if you seek the kind of on-the-fly adaptability that is the sign of a good football team. Halftime adjustments, and today’s was a doozy because it changes the potential template for future matches in a very interesting way.
I rather imagine that the Tello bandwagon is popping streamers and groaning under the weight of all the passengers, but let’s not be so hasty. It is doubtful in the extreme that Tello will start either of the two matches coming up, for the simple reason that fresher defenders deal with him better than tired ones, because he really isn’t all that versatile. He gets the ball, and runs like the wind. Sharper defenders early in a match can more effectively capitalize on his dodgy first touch and limited inventiveness, where after halftime, when defenders have been chasing wee ones for a while, it becomes much more obviously Tello Time.
What excited me more was the man playing in front of Messi, something a great many have been calling for. Nice to see that it worked. Like a charm.
The other really interesting development was the match-closing midfield of Xavi/Busquets/Song. Busquets thrived with a partner in crime, as he did when teamed with Seydou Keita. Xavi found life easier, because he always had that reset button as he did with Keita, as he played the ball off of either Busquets or Song, to re-sync the possession game.
Whether these are real glimpses of the future, or one-off reactions to a match situation, remains to be seen. In the meantime, know that despite all the worry, all the blame, all of the gnashing of teeth, our beloved football club has a big, giant lead in La Liga. It also had a mid-week date with its most bitter rival, for a shiny trinket that both clubs crave, just probably not at much as rubbing the rival’s face in it in the aftermath of the elimination of one of the two colossi.
We can worry about that bridge when we come to it. For now, it’s worth noting that Barça beat a quality opponent, and barely got out of second gear. I can’t wait to see the machine at full throttle. The end of Hlebruary is nigh.