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All right. Let’s not waste any time today. Record breaker Tata shuffled through his vinyl collection and selected the following tunes: Valdes, Dani Alves, Bartra, Piqué, Adriano, Song, Fàbregas, Xavi, Alexis, Neymar and Tello. Yes, his favorite hit single no.10 was scratched, which, if it doesn’t get fixed any time soon, might not only effect the Argentine’s unprecedented four-year run at the top of the Billboards, but could actually rob our band of its best lyricist. However, let’s not mind the tango* for now. Today is about samba*.
The twelve inch version
In a first half that was quite open, Real Valladolid hushed the crowd after fifteen minutes of play. Both Tello and Ney struck upon a false key and left it up to the Chilean Steven Tyler to seek rock star immortality by scoring an absolute screamer. After forty-five minutes in which Barça riffed back and forth with their guests, both went into the dressing room with the score level. Only one team came out of the dressing room to take over the show however, and with Neymar playing the lead guitar, Barça offered up a beautiful performance. Well rehearsed interplay of Xavi y Los Culés saw the band leader put the home team up by one and, backed by Song’s steady bass line, another two hits were soon added to the repertoire, courtesy of Lex and Ney. That’s all she wrote, folks, four to the one. And although the spectators in the stands who had their five fingers raised were left hoping in vain for an encore, they surely must have gone home satisfied after witnessing a gorgeous concert in which our team hit pretty much all the right notes.
The standout track (1)
Two goals and an assist for Tocopilla’s most famous son, Alexis Sanchez, certainly makes him joint MOTM in my book. His first goal, an unstoppable nuclear strike from outside of the box, was possibly the finest he has ever scored in our colors and his second was taken with the precision of a poacher. I personally would have preferred him to go for a hat-trick instead of assisting Neymar for the fourth goal, if only for the fact that he was in a better position to score than the man he passed the ball to, but oh well. Some might notch it up as a “team-building” assist and he did end up getting the Brazilian wundermeninho a much deserved goal for his performance. I guess I can live with that.
Last year I criticized Alexis heavily for not scoring. Some did not agree, calling attention to all the positives he added to the team. People also argued that he had never been a scorer at his previous clubs. They were all valid opinions, but in my view very much beside the point. First of all despite rythm-interrupting injuries he scored 15 goals for Barcelona during his debut season, showing us that in a system which affords him plenty of opportunities to do so, he can definitely put the ball into the net. Secondly he just missed way too many chances during that first half of his second season, a simple matter of lack of confidence which I was reasonably sure he would overcome.
He now has four goals and three assists in ten appearances (note: not starts, appearances). By comparison, last year he did not score a league goal until February. Quite a difference.
A new voice
Did you notice that every minute he spends on the pitch, Marc Bartra pinches his arm to make sure he is not dreaming? He has now started three consecutive matches in the center of the defense and the world has not ended. I am not quite sure why his minutes feel so unexpected, because since the only thing we can reasonably expect from our defenders is that they get injured, Marc was bound to get his chance sooner or later. And while our defense did not get tested all that much by any of our last three opponents, he has certainly performed well as far as I can tell. The young defender looks more confident than last season and he has the support of the Camp Nou, who cheer him on whenever they can. I am still not sure whether he will be a future starter or not, but I certainly feel better about our defense knowing that Bartra is part of our squad.
The sleeper hit
Despite an underrated first season at the club, many culés (myself included) are not convinced about the need of Alexander Song in our squad and would have preferred that money to have been spent on someone else. So ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you, the following Fact with a capital F. According to whoscored.com our Cameroonian midfielder had 110 touches of the ball and a 100% pass completion. Let me repeat.
100% pass completion!
That right there deserved its own paragraph and exclamation point and there is not much that I can add to make this any more noteworthy.
Myself to BFB team, by e-mail, a little more than a month ago:
”I’m really into the idea of using more video material, something I will get better at as time goes by … I’m thinking of a video comparison between Xavi’s horizontal passing and Cesc’s vertical passing, for example.”
This was right after our game at the Mestalla, where Cesc ripped Valencia apart in the first 40 minutes by attempting an assist almost every time he got the ball. What happened to that great idea, some might ask. Well, apart from unexpected time constraints and very annoying technical issues**, Xavi Hernandez has gotten wise to the idea that not every ball has to be passed to the left or the right. His style, in concurrence with the team’s philosophy, has gotten a whole lot more vertical. That’s right, with a “Daddy’s got a brand new bag full of passes” remix, one of the oldest members of our squad, whose game has looked in steady decline for two seasons now, is enjoying himself like a young dog out there, ready to bite any sleeping defender into the hind parts. I will even go as far as saying that when Iniesta came on it was our captain who seemed to play the most forward role of the two.
The standout track (2)
I saw Neymar play as a false nine several times for Santos last year and was left thoroughly unimpressed. His talent was plain to see and it was obvious I was watching a player of guile and vision, but it was a player who made wrong decision upon decision, which put his team at a steady disadvantage every time I watched them. Was I happy that we bought him? You bet! I had seen (and heard) enough of the player to think the Robinho comparison needlessly facile and too easily employed by the legions of haters out there. Here was a young man with genuinely special talent and the apparent will to make it at the club we all love. But I did not think that he would quite lead Brazil the way he did at the Confederations Cup. Not at his age. Or that he would not only integrate so seamlessly into the Barça line-up but already be one of our consistently best players this early into the season. I honestly did not expect that much, that fast. Surely all the Brazilian ex-superstars who kept telling us O Ney was the greatest thing since sliced bread were just hyping one of their own…
It turns out that even those of us who wanted him to come did not realize how right we were. O Ney led the attack and then some. His dribbles and passes electrified the crowd, who expected the unexpected every time the young Brazilian received the ball. He was directly involved in three out of four goals, which could have been seven or eight. And more often than not, positioned in the center of the attack, he made the right choices.
Some hours after the game I texted a merengue friend of mine that if it weren’t for their incredible luck, they would have already given up their league hopes this season. He answered: “tenemos Ronaldo. El Unico” (we have Ronaldo. The Unique One***). I laughed to myself, because as special as Cristiano Ronaldo is, something only a fool would deny, I secretly wondered whether Neymar was already a better player than the Portuguese superstar who scores more goals than he plays games. The fact that the very question entered my mind, at the start of the 21 year old’s career in Europe, helped me realize how lucky we are to have him at our club.
Parental Discretion Advised
Speaking of which, had Neymar worn a shirt the color of toilet paper he would have been awarded two penalties. I’m just saying…
The man behind the band
Gerardo Martino has now started the league with eight consecutive wins. Another year, another record. He has intelligently brought Neymar slowly. He might be the first to get the best out of Cesc (well, other than Wenger) and he has Alexis Sanchez brimming with confidence. His team averages more than 65% possession yet seems a lot more direct than its previous incarnations. We seem to concede less counter goals, although Victor Valdes’ excellent start of the season might have something to do with that as well. He also appears to rotate more than Tito or Pep, which leaves a lot of us scratching our heads as to why Xavi Hernandez still plays so many minutes. His stroke of true genius, however, is to make our opponents think they can score from every corner. Our weakness has officially become weaker. No coach in the world will ever worry about an offensive gameplan that focuses on anything else than F.C. Barcelona conceding corners. After all, any reasonably well taken cross will result in a goal. And then, six months into the season, all of a sudden and without any warning whatsoever, Tata will spring the mother of all surprises and position a player at the first post and another one at the second post to defend the corner kicks. Opponents will know neither what to do nor how to score. Genius, I’m telling you, the man’s a genius.
So we annihalated another opponent, only this time without Lionel Messi. Strangely enough, I believe it makes for the ninth straight match (correct me if I’m wrong) that Barcelona won without the Flea. Are we better without the Best? Are defenses more focused with Messi on the pitch? Does he press / track back that much less? Are Neymar and Alexis more comfortable without the Argentine superstar stifling their movement or creativity? Or is it all just a coincidence? My short answers are no, no, yes, maybe but they shouldn’t and yes. We are not better without Messi and any professional soccer player is focused when facing a team of Barcelona’s caliber regardless of its line-up. I think Messi still presses and tracks back less but I am willing to make that trade off – when it comes to pressing he chooses his moments more carefully than others and as for tracking back I would prefer him to be fresh when he receives the ball. A lot has been made about how Sanchez plays better without Leo and this might be true – his best performance last season was the 2 goal, 2 assist game with Fab Four hat-tricking from the false nine position. However I believe that Alexis has been playing with more confidence, period. As for O Ney and La Pulga, we have already seen how in a short time they have gotten to understand each other on the pitch and this should only improve. Ultimately I think it is up to the team to work together, and I think we are lucky enough for our stars to understand just that.
*To people who realize that not even in South America does time stand still and that yes, the 21st century has reached the shores of this wondrous continent also, this should actually read: let’s not mind the cumbia, today is about funk.
** Really, Adobe Premiere can’t handle .mkv files? And Windows Movie Maker shuts down every two minutes? What’s up with that?
*** Ronaldo scored M*drid’s overtime winner earlier that afternoon. I replied that he was an excellent player and certainly among the top five in the world right now. I think my friend lost it a little.