(A big thanks to Larm for finding this one.)
Um …. damn. Wait a minute.
As I noted in Isaiah’s most excellent preview, that Copa loss was going to do one of two things: Focus the hell out of us, and woe betide the next opponent, or start a downward spiral of “We can’t catch a break.”
Unfortunately for Sevilla, it was the former, not the latter. We put our foot down today and claimed a nice cushion in the Liga, while returning a favor of sorts to Sevilla. You killed our Copa chances, now we’re going to kill your Liga chances. Bet.
This was far and away the best match that we have played the entire season, even with our 60 million dollar man having a shit sandwich.
You could see that it was on right away, as we began pressing them everywhere on the pitch. There wasn’t going to be a laconic start such as we’ve been having, that allowed them to get off on the right foot at their home. Today, we essentially played almost the entire match in their half. Possession stats weren’t as lopsided in reality as they were in actual match time, as Sevilla didn’t have a chance.
Our midfielders were pit bulls, our defenders were sharp and always at the ready, our attackers were (mostly) razor-sharp and Valdes was his usual excellent self, just in case. I say that the match wasn’t as close as the score indicated, and I dare anyone to argue with that one. Palop was reduced to ball-kicking tantrums as we destroyed his side, having our way up the wings, in the middle and every which way. Hell, even with 10 men, we were still the superior side. Just think how good we’re going to be when Ibrahimovic decides that he’s ready to start playing football again, right?
But because Eric Abidal was two men today, it kind of made up for it. You might see a better performance by a Barca defender in your lifetime. If you do, mark the date. Puyol has had immense matches, so has Pique. All of our defenders have had matches in which they have had key stops, etc, etc. But not in a long time have I seen a defender own a team. He intercepted, he stopped, he blocked, he passed, he made forward runs and in a couple of plays that had me leaping from the sofa in joy, he put attackers on their asses, to add physical intimidation to his bag of tricks.
And then, he had the temerity to top it all off with: An absurd back leg, seal dribble, keepe-uppe bit of greatness to bamboozle a cadre of Sevilla players, then the interception of a Sevilla outlet ball, and an inch-perfect pass to Messi for our final goal. The man had one of those matches that just make you shake your head, while you’re giving him Man of the Match. Ain’t nobody even close, kids.
Guardiola rolled out with Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Ibrahimovic and Henry. Or as I call it, the “We’re serious” lineup. The work rate was off the charts, the passing and movement exceptional. We were playing like a team today, as there was almost always someone waiting to receive a pass, which meant that time spent dwelling on the ball was minimal to nonexistent.
And boy, was Henry involved in this match. From streaking up the wing and owning his defender, to passing efforts and crosses, he was playing like a man with something to prove today. And notice how, when he made his burst up the wing, Ibrahimovic went near post? I sure did. And speaking of Henry and Ibrahimovic, the former laid a goal on a silver platter for the latter, who decided “No, I’d rather tangle this shit up in my feet and scuff it wide of the open net. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Rock.”
So he did. I was home alone, and I screamed to nobody in particular, “How in the HELL did that just happen??!!” You almost have to try to miss that shot. And at the time, I rued the miss, because I thought that it would be just our luck that Sevilla would scrape out a goal against the run of play somehow, and spit in the punch bowl. But we weren’t about to even allow them to have the ball, much less score any goals as we clamped down on everything. Busquets laid on a couple of most excellent professional fouls, making it very clear that we were not messing about today.
And how the hell it took so long to score, I still don’t know, because we had chance after chance after chance, none of them sufficient to beat Palop, who must eat his Wheaties before playing us or something, because he was amazing again. And really, the only difference between this match and the Copa match earlier this week, is that we decided to see how it might be to play a whole match, instead of 20 minutes or so. Big difference. We looked dominant, controlled and confident, dishing out pain, elegance and goals in equal measure.
Ah, the goals.
The first one came from a busted play, really, as Marquez took a lovely corkscrew pass from Messi, and flipped a lovely pass to Pique, whose effort glanced off of a Sevilla player, yielding an own goal. My first thought was, “Man, it takes one of his own players to beat Palop. That’s just crazy.”
The second goal came from an Alves interception of a Sevilla outlet pass. He fed Xavi, who popped off a remarkable pass for Pedro!, who made no mistake. Just like that, it was 2-0, and we were rolling.
Our third goal was a well-worked thing of beauty, as we easily worked the ball out of the back, and Xavi put an inch-perfect ball in space for Alves, who crossed in. That his pass fell directly to the feet of Messi was attributable to Pedro! not being as tall as he thought. If he gets to that header, it’s doubtful that a goal results. But he missed it and Messi, who ghosted in behind the Sevilla defenders, controlled a put it past Palop.
The last goal, as mentioned above, came from an Abidal interception and pass to Messi, who needed every bit of his pinpoint control to not only take in the ball but outrun the Sevilla defenders, before calmly sliding it past Palop.
This was a Statement Match, that said “We are the best club in the league, when we play our game. Watch.” Sevilla didn’t play any worse than they did in the other two matches in which we faced them. But we played so much better. It’s as if we were a different club, all because of our early work rate. Are we off to the races in the league? Don’t know, but we have a 5-point gap to the EE, thanks to Bilbao doing the business today. It made me so happy, because I was starting to worry about us. This match didn’t completely dispel the worries, but it sure was nice to see my team again, laying waste and controlling a match, even if the score at the end of the first half didn’t indicate our dominance.
Team: 9. Now that’s more like it. We’re still getting some kinks worked out, but the defending in layers, midfield pressure and constant availability for passes made this match so easy.
Guardiola: 7. He had the lads ready to play today. His substitution of Pedro! for Henry vexed me, since Henry had been our best attacking player to that point. Sure it worked, but what does it say to a guy who played his ass off today?
Valdes: 7. He almost certainly would have scored higher had he had more to do today. It says a lot for his ability that he is capable of swinging into action at a sudden tip of the match. Made a few tricky captures of the ball, particularly that first half trap off the half-bounce. A lot of keepers spill that one.
Alves: 7. Excellent match defensively, as he was quick and involved, making interception after interception, stopping attackers straight up and generally raising hell out there. His offense is still kinda stinky, though.
Pique: 6. Looked a little uncertain out there, clearly our weakest defender in the first half. Settled down quite a bit as the match progressed, though at that point he was pretty much just sweeping.
Puyol: 7. Powerful and fully engaged on offense and defense, just missing a scoring opportunity. Had some dizziness after a head-to-head collision, but he’s just fine.
Abidal: 10. For all of the reasons noted above, and I particularly enjoy his decision to just put people on their butts when they vex him. That’s new, and very welcome. Could he be reading this blog?
Busquets: 8. Another excellent match, with key defensive plays in the midfield, and that constant harassing he does that facilitates the defenders doing their job. He sprayed passes about with style and logic, though he did get silly with the ball as he usually does in every match, being enamored of pirouettes and other nonsense. Keep it simple, dude.
Xavi: 8. What a match from our general, from distribution to control. I’m not sure which pass was tastier, the one in space to Alves, or the one to Pedro!
Iniesta: 7. Excellent first half, then tailed off dramatically in the second. Man, he’s going to score one hell of a goal one day, at the terminus of one of his high-wire runs at a defense.
Messi: 6. Yes, he scored two goals, his 100th and 101st. But he disappeared for stretches, and got selfish when he started taking Sevilla’s constant fouling of him personally. Went a dribble too far time after time, and could have gotten us in trouble when he tried to dribble out of our end and lost the ball. Luckily, defense was on the spot.
Henry: 8. Excellent match for what I believe is his highest rating of the season. His work rate was off the charts, and he seemed to have an extra gear today. He created our best chances of the first half, and that snap shot as he was bracketed by two defenders (excellent save from Palop) was vintage Henry. He and Abidal’s interplay made that side of the pitch so difficult to control for Sevilla.
Ibrahimovic: 4. Where good balls go to die. Maybe that miss of the open netter shook him, but his touch was off, his passing was off and he seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, when he wasn’t lining up offside.
Pedro! (for Henry): 7. Danger Man entered, and scored a goal. Sure, he’s never done that before, right. Created constant danger on offense with his runs and motion.
Marquez (for Puyol): 5. Man, I thought this was going to be another loooong match, as he started right off getting smoked by a Sevilla attacker, and laying out some pretty craptastic passes. But he played his way into things nicely, and his cross set up our first goal.
Krkic (for Iniesta): incomplete. Yes, it’s another incomplete for CT, who came on with about four minutes left, which is barely enough time to flash his winning smile at the ladies.
I’m also feeling pretty good about our chances to enter February with an even bigger lead in the Liga standings. The EE have Maulaga, then Super Depor. We have Valladolid, and Gijon. Time will tell, but the 5-point lead is very nice. And Messi is pichichi by two goals over David Villa.
Now, as usual, a bit of hilarity.