“Whether or not Messi plays is not our problem”
So we rolled out on Saturday with a team full of superstars minus one and crushed our opponents with our little hand, four fingers of which we had wrapped tightly around their throat before half time. Cesc scored a hat-trick as a false nine¹ and got an assist to boot. Our defense hardly broke a sweat.
Ooooh how complete we look when every forward gets in on the attack.
Ooooh how dynamic we are when we don’t stand around watching him dribble.
Ooooh how vertical is our offense when we don’t have to play the ball at his feet.
Ooooh how not worried we are for our upcoming Champion’s League quarter final.
Yes, uhmmm, there might be a hitch.
Mallorca, bottom of the Liga. Estimated market value of the squad: €8,300,000.
Paris Saint-Germain, leaders of the Ligue. Estimated market value: €254,900,000
Not exactly a pauper himself, typhoon Tito took out his platinum-coated smart phone and dialed the following numbers: 1-Victor Valdes 2- Dani Alves 3- Gerard Pique 21-Adriano Correia 18-Jordi Alba 16-Sergio Busquets 6-Xavi Hernandez 8-Andrés Iniesta 17-Pedro Rodriguez 4-Cesc Fàbregas and 7-David Villa. Of course he kept emergency number 10 nearby, just in case.
The game starts well enough. Although the French kick off, we get the ball and Fàbregas provokes a foul almost immediately. Had Xavi aimed his free-kick 12 inches to the right we would have led the game from the get-go. On the other side we almost get caught out by Paris Saint-Germain, but luckily Lavezzi shoots the ball straight at Victor. Signs of an entertaining match to come. The next ten minutes inspire confidence where if we don’t get close to scoring we certainly do get close to creating excellent scoring opportunities.
PSG seem sloppy and give the ball away a lot. A couple of our attempts get blocked. Cesc fails to get power on a shot and somehow feels he earns a penalty for falling over. Ghostface tries from a good forty-five yards out. I think I’m gonna enjoy this. Little do I know the tables are about to be turned.
Lucas Moura canons a shot at Valdes, who channels Kung Fu Panda-like inner strength to keep hold of the ball. The Brazilian tries again, this time from even further out, but the ball sails over. Ibrahimovic does likewise. Alba breaks the speed limit to prevent Zlatan from latching on to a pass that would have put him alone with the keeper. Relief proves only temporary – the Swede skillfully sets up Lavezzi (in some quarters also known as the Argentinian Alexis Sanchez² who proceeds to make a mess of the biggest chance in the match so far.
Slowly but surely PSG is taking control of the match. Well, control being a flexible concept, of course. The way to control the match when you play Barcelona is by letting Barcelona “control” the match. While more than 60% possession and mouth-watering Iniestanian technique fail to result in any clear scoring opportunities for the blaugrana, we are leaving space behind our defensive line for the nouveau riche to cash in on. Even with a limited offensive role for Jordi Alba we cannot prevent the visitors from being the more dangerous side.
Valdes saves us yet again when Moura towers over the Squirrel to head the ball towards the top corner of the goal. And again when he pushes away Alex’s header from the resulting corner. Dani Alves spends 2 minutes on the sidelines to change his shoes in order to stop slipping on the wet pitch. When the referee finally lets him back on, he slips. Javier Pastore, who has served as a constant attacking outlet for the Parisians, almost finds Lucas Moura for the opening blow. Alex gets his head on another corner but does not make enough contact with the ball. And boy I can’t wait for the first half to end. Neither can a certain left-footed miracle worker who keeps getting up and sitting down in the dugout, anxiously rubbing his leg as if to warm it up for the warm up.
And when the whistle blows I can’t wait for the second half to start. I have come to hate half time. At least in Holland I watched TV-analysts break down some key moments or developments of the game. As my motherland is blessed with sixteen million head coaches, the analysts were always good (with the exception of Ruud Gullit, he’s useless). They would always be ex-football players, and usually ex-internationals. Sometimes their names would be Johan Cruijff, or Louis Van Gaal (eat that, Tommy Smith). Guus Hiddink and Willem Van Hanegem know a thing or two, as well. But on DirectTV in South America there is no half time analysis. Just some quick highlights, and a lot of commercials.
Right before they come back on to the pitch, the camera lingers on our players standing in the tunnel. A quick scan confirms that all three of Fàbregas, Villa and Pedro are still amongst them. No Messi. We haven’t managed a decent shot on goal yet. The half chances we lit up went out with a sizzle. Cesc started well but has faded as the first half went on. Villa tried, I guess. Pedro has been industrious throughout, the only keeper of the bunch. Xavi? Hmmm… Busi? Mweh… Iniesta was aces, though.
Our starting line-up is basically the Spanish national team plus two Brazilian internationals (minus Ramos and Alonso). You would think they can cope, right? We don’t need Leo yet.
Ok, now we do.
Ibrahimovic splits the defense with a lovely ball for Javier Pastore to run onto. Try as he might Dani Alves can’t catch up and the Argentine, who has been excellent so far, dinks the ball over Victor Valdes’ outstretched legs. We are down one nil and left staring elimination in the face. The Flea starts warming up on the sidelines.
Cue a nervous ten minutes for our beloved team. Valdes, who has been excellent so far with his hands and his feet, gives the ball away needlessly, but danger is avoided. Javier Pastore gets provided yet another opportunity by a certain big-nosed tae kwan do specialist but skews a potential second goal wide. Lucas tries from outside the box but his attempt is saved easily. On the side of the pitch on which we do like to see things happening Dani Alves receives our biggest opportunity of the game and blasts it over.
With half an hour left to play Messi enters the pitch to boisterous cheers. I’m wondering, “but he’s hurt,” and I’m thinking, “we have been here before with a fit Flea,” but I am hoping, and I am pouting my lips and nodding my head at the clock in defiance. Believe!
I don’t know if it is good or bad for F.C. Barcelona, but Messi changed the game completely. He gave the team confidence. He gave the crowd confidence. And he took a lot of the confidence away from Paris Saint-Germain. Almost immediately after he came on Villa and Iniesta combined for Andrés to unleash a dangerous shot at Sirigu. And a little bit later Leo wriggled his way past two defenders and passed the ball to el Guaje, who in turn laid it off to Pedrito who absolutely hammered it into the goal.
The most amazing thing? Messi was clearly not fit. While only ten minutes earlier I was upset with Fàbregas for pressing half-heartedly, our number 10 hardly even walked. On defense or offense. He watched nine out-of-their-mind teammates celebrate Pedro’s goal from a distance, pacing himself to not further aggravate his hamstring injury. But when we passed him the ball he made the difference.
So I don’t know if that is a good or a bad thing. I mean, it is obviously a good thing to have the best player of the world, hell, in my opinion the best player in the history of the game on your team. We are incredibly lucky. What is less good is that what should be one heck of a talented team³ was losing the game before he came on. A heck of a talented team was getting toasted by the French. In fact, we should be grateful to Wolfgang Stark for gifting our opponents an offside goal in Paris last week. Had they been forced to press us for a second we might have never recovered.
I left the game not quite knowing how to feel. Of course I was happy that we advanced to the semis, but to what end? Out of four clásicos and the same number of Champion’s League knock-out games this season, we have only managed one win – albeit a brilliant one. Three games away from a Champion’s League medal, our team needs to step up. Culé hearts are at stake, after all..
” He changed everything”
¹ It was the first hat-trick by a Barcelona player other than Messi since October 2009, the month of the Keiteee. Wanna guess how many hat-tricks la Pulga scored in between those two?
² I mean that as a compliment
³ On paper, I think only Real M*drid have comparable talent. Not even Bayern Munich do, although they might prove to be the better team this year.