Today is a new day, one in which for the first time since 2008, we have been knocked out of a competition.
And I will tell you right now, that I hate it when our club loses. Anything. Period, full stop. A match, a competition, its way, some keys, a Euro …. anything! Further, I know that I am supposed to feel pride in the way that this club fought in that second half, and the brilliant plays that just missed being goals by a whisker. I know that I am supposed to believe that since Sevilla had two perfectly legitimate goals taken away, justice was ultimately done in this Copa del Rey tie. I know that I was saying “Dump the Copa, so that we can concentrate on the big-time competitions.”
I know, I know, I know, I know.
But this morning, I still feel like Guardiola looks in this picture, dejected and lost.
What bums me out a bit is that we didn’t go out with our principles intact. The Copa has always been for the kids and subs, Pinto, Krkic, Pedro!, Dos Santos. My hope was that Guardiola would stick to his guns, and trot out a proper Copa lineup. Maybe he thought that the moment would overcome them. Maybe he wanted the streak to continue. For whatever reason, he rolled out with Pinto, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Henry and Ibrahimovic.
What makes me smile is that we went out like champions, like lions who fought tooth and nail for the last scrap. It made me so proud. Our beloved club fought for every last one of the trophyless years that we’ve all watched, it fought for its coach, it fought for pride. In the end, it was outdone by a lackluster home performance at a crucial time and, when it mattered most, a superhuman performance by Palop, the Sevilla keeper who was majestic. Full credit to them for a hard-played match, and a plan that, as Isaiah noted previously, they executed to not quite perfection, but close enough to get the result that they wanted.
Simply put, it was to take advantage of the lackadaisical nature that has been manifesting itself at the beginnings of matches, and put early pressure on us. They did this with the usual high pressure, and having their attackers make long runs at our defense, because every club in the universe knows that we don’t put in the professional foul. So Navas just runs, and runs and runs, bereft of the good whack that Messi gets all the time from other clubs.
Helping this was the fact that we didn’t have any width to our attack. Alves was spraying shit around like a cat in heat, and for whatever reason, people would not pass to Henry. Think I’m crazy? At the 9:25 mark, watch as Henry is running into acres of space, and would have been 1-v-1 on Palop, but Iniesta ignores him, deciding to play the ball to Ibrahimovic instead, and the moment is lost.
Again at 16:25, Ibrahimovic gets the ball, with Henry behind his defender, just waiting for the through ball. Ibrahimovic plays it back to Iniesta, and that moment is lost.
Now, when Ibrahimovic switched to the left, the balls began flowing over there.
I admit to being clueless about why this is happening. Perhaps Hector can watch, and drop some of The Knowledge on my ass, that will explain it for me. But from what I saw, on many occasions, we decided to ignore a guy who could have given us a great shot at an early goal. And as I said, this was unfortunate because there was nothing happening on the right, and Messi was taking the first half off.
So the attack was essentially directionless, as Ibrahimovic seemed more interested in acting like a midfielder and again, nobody was in the box to take advantage of the crosses that Henry was laying in. As the announcer noted, “Henry crosses it in, nobody in the middle.” Indeed. Last season, Eto’o and his constant motion was in the middle, ravenous and ready to take rapacious advantage of any ball that got anywhere near the box. Ibrahimovic sets up on the wrong side of the defender, and stops, pointing to the ground in front of him as the play ends, as if the ball is going to magically pass through the defender between he and Henry.
If we can get somebody near post, Henry’s assist total will skyrocket. He only has one real play left these days, but he’s gotten the hang of it: the dive for the end line, and a cross into the box. If we just get someone on the end of those crosses, we’re in business.
Our passing attack just wasn’t right, as we didn’t seem to know who to play the ball to. Ibrahimovic, at one moment, played it to Xavi instead of a wide-open Messi, who made no bones about his frustration. Iniesta’s passing radar was funky, and the differences between he and Xavi were very clear. Iniesta will try passes that Xavi wouldn’t, or he’ll have just a bit too much weight on the ball, where Xavi is inch-perfect. Yes, it’s comparing a guy who is still getting there to one who is There, which made the differences no less apparent.
So we scrambled around, beginning to play our way into the match. Messi had an excellent chance in the 30th minute, a shot that he smoked toward the lower corner, that was snuffed out by Palop. Yet as we began to regain midfield control, in large part due to the efforts of a magnificent Busquets, the match was starting to turn our way even if ultimately, we weren’t playing smart football. Our passes were too ambitious, through balls that didn’t have a chance of getting through, or passes that reached one of our lads, as he was surrounded by defenders.
Sevilla’s game plan was very intelligent, with its strengths carefully attuned to our tendencies, and in the first half, we played into their hands.
Ah, but the second half was a very different matter. We picked up where we left off, with iron-clad control of the match. Sevilla was beginning to tire, and we were stepping on the gas, asserting ourselves like the champions that we are and always will be. Iniesta was suddenly on target, Xavi was still magical and we were now completing those impossible passes, as the Sevilla defenders tired just a little bit.
But we kept going a dribble too far. Iniesta did it, Messi did it, Ibrahimovic did it. Shoot. Just shoot. And then, Xavi did precisely that after a broken play found a defender’s frantic clearance whacking him in the chest. He turned and shot, and what a beauty it was, beating Palop and giving us that precious goal. We needed one more. Just. One. More.
Then Messi came to vibrant life, dribbling most of the Sevilla defense and smoking a shot that just missed. Then Messi hit the post. Then, after a beautufilly worked attack with Henry, lifted a brilliant little chip that just didn’t have the right dynamic on it. And still, we kept coming. Iniesta had an amazing chance, but went a dribble too far. He still got off the shot, but it was cleared just off the line by a scrambling Sevilla defender.
The pitch was drying, and our passing game was coming into its own as we suddenly turned the 1,000-watt bulb that is our game, on full. And Sevilla were just trying to fight their way out, to at least get the ball out of their end of the pitch. Still, we kept coming, and coming, and coming. An exquisite free kick found the head of Ibrahimovic, and his lofted header was stymied by Palop, who was having the match of his life.
That we tried and tried and tried and never said die, was the bright, shining evidence of our heart, pride and excellence. When we are on, we’re still the best club in the world. And for most of that second half, we were on.
But it ultimately just wasn’t to be.
The up side is that it’s kind of okay, because it relieves the club of the burden of a competition that many consider second-rate, leaving us with our full focus on the Liga and Champions League. And I think that some lessons were learned, such as we have to play a full match against a determined, resolute opponent such as Sevilla.
Another thing learned is that we are better with width. When we started playing the ball to Henry, good things started happening. When Alves got a bit less funky, even more good things started happening. Because movement-based offenses work better with more variables, right?
Here’s another question: Why do keepers have the matches of their lives against us with much regularity? The question has come up time and time again, and I have a thought, that is probably worthy of its own analysis post by Hector or RockChalkJayhawk: What if the inexorability of our offense, and its tika-taka greatness, also makes it predictable? That is, those lovely triangular diagrams that we describe that are so beautiful in their geometric precision, also have a terminus that keepers can figure out?
And before I get to the points, know this: I don’t want to hear any blame. We win as a club, we lose as a club. Some will say Txigrinski shouldn’t have taken the penalty. Okay. But how did the ball get there? Elves didn’t bring it there. If the other club scores, we are supposed to score. Twice. And we didn’t, as a club. Guardiola is saying “I failed.” I like that, the leader of a team taking on the onus for the success of a unit. That’s what a boss is supposed to do, but he’s wrong. We all failed. And by we, I mean the collecting beating heart that is Barca, one that has at its core the people on the pitch, and ends with us, sitting in front of TVs or computer monitors and sweating, trying to physically will the ball into the net.
Just as we should all feel proud, with no recriminations. Just as we will analyze the match in the comments, the players and staff will analyze the match and some of the things that happened. No blame, just the kind of bloodless analysis that should come as an entity tries to improve.
Guardiola: 5. I just don’t think that you did the right thing in not starting the Copa group. I know that you want to win, so sub in the big boys if the match doesn’t go as you want. And even if you have to inject them with caffeine, have them ready, rolling out of the gate.
Team: 6. Those lackadaisical starts hurt. Last year, we had matches killed by halftime. This year, we’re back-loading our efforts. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Once we started playing as a unit, we were majestic. It just took too long to get rolling.
Pinto: 6. Dude, don’t be playing with the ball outside of the box. That was a goal, and the ref bailed you out. Excellent reflex save early in the match for sure, and your play was mostly very good, when you had something to do.
Alves: 4. Not a fan of his performance today. Was it playing in a crucial match in his former home? Should Guardiola have gone with Puyol at right back, with Milito partnering Pique? Who knows? But between spraying balls and being in the wrong spot defensively, he was a bit of a mess.
Pique: 7. He should go to lunch with Guardiola more often. He showed major signs of coming out of his funk. He still lost track of men he needed to mark a few times, and seemed to have bits of uncertainty.
Puyol: 8. Loses points for not doing a more effective job of marshalling his back line. On set pieces, Sevilla players found holes in the defense time and again, and when things break down, it’s still a fire drill, but nobody knows what pole to slide down.
Abidal: 7. Had some early funk, mostly with spraying balls around. And here’s thing, dude …. if Henry is smoking his defender, don’t drag yours into the box with you, thus cutting off available passing angles. And you’re bigger and stronger than Navas. Take the professional foul and knock his ass down.
Busquets: 8. Great galloping Jesus, this is what I’m talking about! I thought that he was spectacular today with his midfield presence, with scads of plays and key interceptions, including one crucial one where Alves gifted the ball to Sevilla, and Busquets made a key intervention. On offense, he was simple and direct, though he lost ground trying to get too fancy later in the second half.
Xavi: 8. Wow. What a goal, and what an effort in controlling his charges. Started a little anonymously, but came on like a freight train.
Iniesta: 7. A pretty stanky first half, with balls flung all over the place, either to the wrong color shirts, or with too much weight/ambition. Spectacular in the second half, and really deserved a goal. Shoot, Ghostface. Shoot! They don’t all have to be perfect.
Messi: 8. Began playing his way into the match in the first half, and then lost his mind in the second. Dude could have had a hat trick in about a 10-minute span. Yes, we lost the tie, but I think that the Most Dangerous Player in the World is back. I do want to see him pass more when he is facing four defenders, but he even started doing that as the match progressed.
Henry: 5. You have to get yourself involved in the match, if they aren’t passing you the ball. Make runs to present yourself, but get in the game. When you’re involved, we’re better. Keep making those runs and crosses, and hope that we figure it out.
Ibrahimovic: 4. We didn’t buy you to be a playmaking midfielder. Get your ass in the box and raise some hell. You shouldn’t be passing to Iniesta. Iniesta should be passing to you. This was another match that was begging for you to stamp your name on it, and you came up woefully short. How can you not even get that Messi rebound on frame? The net was open! Yes, you’re that good, so play like it.
Krkic (for Ibrahimovic): incomplete. Came on and disappeared. He should have been getting subbed for, rather than subbing for Ibrahimovic.
Pedro! (for Alves): 6. Good effort and energy, including one play that created an almost chance. He’s quite the firestarter that I would have loved to have seen in the starting lineup, or as an earlier substitution.
So we have Sevilla again this weekend, in a Liga match. People are saying that it’s time to make them pay. Nonsense. I think they have all of their eggs in the Copa basket. And I hated the sight of that black hat-wearing little git Del Nido with a shit-eating grin on his lizardesque mug. Grrrr!
I know that I usually leave everyone with a photo to make everyone smile and stuff, but you try doing that from a smartphone. Word.