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So Barça advanced against PSG. It wasn’t luck, as some suggested in the aftermath, nor was PSG the better side. The better side won the tie, and it won the tie without playing at anything approaching its best over two legs.
As the semi-finals approach, with the draw being held later today, that level will have to rise, but people should be proud of their sprites, even as once that semi opponent is known, too many will spend time drawing out the ways that we are going to lose, instead how we are going to win. As with PSG.
“Defense is bad,” “Offense is bad,” everything is bad. But our team gutted it out against a serious opponent with quality. But that opponent just didn’t have the absolute quality that we did, and that was the difference. They have Maxwell, we have the starting LB for the Spanish NT. Position for position, we are a more talented squad, and we advanced to a staggering to contemplate SIXTH Champions League semi-final in a row. That is absurd. Magic times.
But there were some troubling things in yesterday’s match that are worth commenting on.
On the weekend, Barça laid a manita on Mallorca at home. No, PSG is not Mallorca, and not just because of the price tag difference. They are stronger, faster and more aggressive than us. The difference is that in the past that didn’t matter, as that was true of almost every opponent that we played. The difference was in confidence, in teammates and in the system. There seems to be a lot less of those qualities now, and it isn’t just me that is noticing this. Iniesta admitted to Messidependencia in the pre-match presser. But it has gone from charming, something that we could all josh about, to something significantly more troubling for this cule, who wants the absolute best for the club that he loves.
Excellent piece from Lee Roden on the match, and Bartra.
Finally, some very astute observations from Miguel Delaney.
These pieces all say essentially the same thing, even as they draw different conclusions from that thing: Messi has become psychologically essential for Barça.
Having the best player in the world is one thing. But for me, being fundamentally unable to play to your capabilities without that player against a quality opponent is something else altogether. There were many other glaring deficiencies in yesterday’s match, on an individual and team level. But the best players in the world don’t stop being the best players in the world without their No. 10 blanky. That they seem to be now is distressing, and an ongoing bit of the psychic laziness that crept in as that last Guardiola season wound to a close.
Does opponent quality have something to do with it? That is, is our quality is so high that nobody in La Liga is capable of preparing us to face a strong European side? Some say that. I don’t think so. That quality gap has always been there, and it hasn’t troubled us before. Time and injuries contribute. None of our players, save Messi, Iniesta and Busquets, are the players they were when this run of excellence started (restricting this evaluative to players who were with us at the time). But it’s more than that. Preparation of successors is a factor, specifically in the cases of Thiago and Bartra, but it’s still deeper than that, and even outside of the match analysis from yesterday, there are problems. Against PSG at home:
Villa spent too much time standing around like a disinterested has-been.
Xavi had a 100% passing percentage to precious little effect. He is clearly not 100%, but we have no option in that spot.
PSG very intelligently attacked us in a way that isolated Busquets. Same as at their house.
Lack of pressure meant that PSG could run at our defense, which infuriated Valdes, the man who saved the day for us. Look at their goal. If you pause it when Pastore gets the ball, he is already behind the two players with the best chance to stop him. Alves and Adriano are chasing back, but it’s already too late. A more traditional team probably doesn’t concede that goal, because its defenders are closer to the box, but Barça isn’t a traditional team. Always risk. Pedro’s stray pass caught the whole team out.
Iniesta became the New Messi as the PSG defense switched its emphasis to him.
Alves had a dull match overall, but was not helped by being unable to take advantage of the space he was given because Villa and Pedro were too easily controlled by the PSG defenders.
The whole team played as if scared of something, snatching at shots and misplaying passes, including Villa’s first-half miss.
The players seemed afraid to shoot, as if they didn’t want to take responsibility. I can only speculate that overall timidity contributed to poor technical form, which is why so many shots went into orbit.
Fabregas’ companion was having a kid. During the match. He should have been with her physically. His head was.
The more time that Bartra gets, the better he looks. His play yesterday was very significant in the final result. The defense looked more assured and in control, and Valdes’ stress factor went down.
Despite all the problems, the team advanced because that is what great teams do. PSG played an excellent match, and we didn’t. That we still advanced speaks to the quality that this club has. But the loss of confidence when Messi isn’t on the pitch is at some point going to bite this team in the butt. Maybe akin to imagining everyone in the audience naked, as an aid to get over public speaking difficulties, we should imagine all future opponents in Mallorca shirts.
Was the difference between PSG and Mallorca as simple as saying that Sanchez should have started? Some say. I do think there would have been more movement to trouble the PSG defense with Sanchez as part of the XI. But that still doesn’t address the overall issue for me.
We seem like a bully who has a bigger bully waiting in the wings, when Messi isn’t playing. We can whomp on Mallorca just fine, and play the system and all. But when a bigger kid comes to the schoolyard, it becomes “Oh yeah? Just you wait until Leo comes in! We’ll fix your wagon.”
It is also absolutely true that while I am pointing out the dark side of Messidependencia, there is also the “Uh, oh ….” side that works on opponents, who have reverted to the psychological “The witch is dead” mode, who must now make the mental change. PSG didn’t, and the combo of Messi up front and Bartra at the back made a big difference.
It must also be said that Messidependencia isn’t Messi’s fault. He’s just doing what he does. It’s everyone else that is getting used to having him around, so much so that, as he becomes a more significant part of the team’s overall approach, seems to leave a Messi-less mess. This isn’t how the system is supposed to work.
To be sure, the system works better with a complicit opponent, but it doesn’t require complicity from its opponent to work. It does, however, require competence from its instruments. The spaces were there yesterday. Execution would have done the trick. It was like ultimate belief was lacking, and don’t kid yourself: belief is crucial at the highest level of athletics. Looking at a tennis player such as Andy Murray as an example, he has had the tools to beat the top players for some time. But now he has the belief, and his game is different because of that belief.
Overall, it struck me against PSG that our belief in the system seemed lost, as if so many moments of individual genius from one player has people thinking that it needs those to succeed. Messi is an awesome force who will go down in history as the best player ever. But he shouldn’t have been needed yesterday, and I find it very troubling, long-term that he was. Is some of it a coaching staff issue, as they said “We have this great thing, now let’s build around it?” Absolutely. But it is the dependence upon that great thing that can also be a hindrance.
Yes, you should want to have the greatest player in the game on the pitch. But players of the quality that we have should be able to function well enough to beat a quality side, without that player. The draw was a surprise. I was expecting a 2-1 win, but I will take it and be happy.
Now the team has time to rest, and heal. Messi shouldn’t play for two weeks. Neither should Xavi. Busquets could also use a break. Because whoever we draw in the semis (I would prefer Bayern) will be a handful. This team can win the Champions League, and I still think that we are the favorites.
But short of emergency therapy sessions, and I confess to not ever thinking I would say this, my ultimate confidence that our players can get this done even without Messi, is shaken to the core.