My match thoughts, numbered for easy consumption:
1. Impressionist Tito envisioned a beautifully lit Bilbao in blue and scarlet with Valdés, Dani Alves, Piqué, Abidal, Song, Xavi, Thiago, Pedro, Fàbregas and Alexis as his brushes of choice. Of course Bielsa is quite the painter too, so we ended up sharing the canvas. It’s all good. Fuck the Guggenheim, San Mamés is where it’s at.
2. Messidependency is all the fashion these days. The diabolical flea turned the game around immediately. Within one minute he threatened the goal and within two he set up Pedrito. Before long he slalomed through the Bilbao defense and scored the equalizer with a flick of the foot. It was a magical effort, his 44th goal of the season a contender for the goal of the season. Shortly afterwards he set up Alexis with a brilliantly headed pass for Barça to take the lead.
3. A steady (and not entirely invalid) criticism has been this year that the fact that our game always flows through Messi makes us relatively predictable and easy to defend. Still when he doesn’t play, our offense often seems to lack a focal point instead of becoming more diverse. Our frontline is still incredibly talented even without our Argentine extraordinaire, but the problem is that most of our attackers like to have the ball played to their feet. The two players we do have who can make forward runs to invite through balls have either stopped doing so (Pedro) or stopped doing so (Villa). Sanchez has that ability but doesn’t do so quite enough. When he starts making those runs more often, watch out.
4. Speaking of Lexus, he was easily our best forward during the first forty-five minutes. He was an active part of the offense and defense and consistently made the right decisions on the ball. He was unlucky not to get the opening goal when he hit the post after an excellent attempt, and although he disappeared somewhat later in the game, he more than made up for that by scoring what should have been the winner. I have been one of his harsher critics among the BfB team, but note that I have never given up on him. I am glad to say that after an extremely frustrating first half of the season, he is making a very strong case to not get sold this summer. Not only is he scoring (like I said he would), his decision making is also improving.
5. Lost possession, long ball… Put Abidal in a complicated position near our own corner flag, lost possession… Long ball, lost possession… Awesome one-time pass, tiki taka, wow, nice… Long ball over the ground which Cesc could not control… Long ball, loss of possession… Long ball under pressure.
What’s that? Oh, you got my notes! I wondered where I left them. The above is what happened every time our Victorian Secret had the ball passed to his feet. Six out of seven times it resulted in a loss of possession. Previous games have offered similar tallies (in my head only though, not on paper). Now I am not saying he had a bad game. No, Sir, that is not what I am saying. What it does suggest, however, is that when he moves to another club, his passing won’t be missed as badly as is often claimed.¹
6. Barça conceded the 35th goal of our league campaign, equalling our worst defensive year under Pep² with five games to spare. We have been talking about the state of our defense since the season started. I feel there are three factors at play here. We don’t press us much as before, we employ a slightly more direct and riskier style, and we have never adequately replaced Puyol and Abidal. As for the goals, Piqué got absolutely roasted by Aduriz and neither Abidal nor Jordi Alba blocked the assist. And the equalizer would not have happened if Captain Carles or king Eric had been on the pitch at that time – either one of them would have properly headed away the cross that led to Bilbao’s second goal. As some of our female readers might say, size matters, and through no fault of his own, Adriano came up short. Draw your conclusions as you see fit, I have been arguing that our backline lacks height and physicality for quite some time now.
7. With Xavi nearer to the end of his career than to the start, Cesc continues to trade off good performances with mediocre ones. Sport magazine was quick to publish the possibility he might return to London this summer and I dare say some culés would not even mind (though in my mind we’d be crazy to let him go). In the meantime Thiago had one of his better outings of the season. Both midfielders should have a place in Barça for years to come, although a player of Cesc’s quality and maturity would do well to show us some more consistency.
8. I don’t know what’s what anymore… Sport magazine? Culés? Well, yes, a poll taken in the former – and presumably answered by the latter – showed a whopping eighty percent in favor of letting Tito go. Pardon my French and then some, but mother****ers are crazy! You’re telling me that a coach with the winningest start in La Liga since its 1929 inauguration is not good enough for us? The man who made one of the most successful managers in the history of the game, who is leading the most expensive team ever assembled, give up on the league after a mere half season?? And you’re not willing to give him the chance to coach our team for a complete season, uninterrupted by a potentially fatal disease that caused him to observe trainings through webcams for months? Crazy, that’s what’s what.
9. I digress… Back to the game: if we have to lose points, I prefer it to be against los Leones de Athletic Club. As is their won’t, they fielded a team of Basques only, nine of whom were brought up in their own academy (how do you say Masía in Euskera?). Unless your name is Maradona, the games between our two clubs are usually among the more entertaining³. This match was no exception. Since it was our last encounter ever at the San Mamés, one of Europe’s oldest stadiums and home to one of its most special clubs, it is only fitting that it ended in a draw. Visca el Barça! Visca Catalunya! i visca Euskadi!
¹ Just for your clarification. I do think that for his position Valdés is an excellent passer of the ball and that that makes him a good fit at Barcelona. This match, however, does suggest that we have a tendency to exagerrate his passing skills, or at least the positive effect those skills has on our the game. Also, the very fact that I decided to take specific notes every time he had the ball at his feet should suggest to the reader that this match was not a one-off either.
² Our worst defensive year? The one that coincided with the triple glory of league, cup and CL championships.
³ The respect that has characterized the matches between both clubs has not always existed. On the 24th of September of 1983, Diego Maradona almost got his leg sawed off by Andoni Goikoetxea, who had broken Barça player Bernd Schuster’s leg two years earlier. Hence, the nickname, the Butcher of Bilbao. When Maradona next faced Athletic a year later he instigated an all-out brawl. It was to be the end of the Pelusa at Barcelona, as president Nuñez unforgivingly shipped him out to Napoli. I sometimes still wonder what would have happened had Goikoetxea not broken the ankle of arguably the best player ever as he was to embark on his career in our beautiful club.