Manchester City 0, Barça 2, aka “Worry banished, if only for a moment”

pique

Pam, pam, pam, pam …

The players move, amoeba-like shapes forming and breaking apart, being chased by other players like a schoolyard game of keep away defined by an incessant rhythm.

Pam, pam, pam, pam …

A lunge, a shove and a press to shift play for a bit, an effort met by an anticipatory trot, like a battle in which one opponent has read the other’s plans, and order is restored.

Pam, pam, pam, pam …

That distinctive sound of a boot-clad foot striking a leather sphere, a situation that lives at the intersection of theory and reality, as practice rondos become match day execution.

Pam, pam, pam, pam …

So much has been written about this match that you wonder whether there is anything more to say, even by a maniac who lives and breathes Barça. And yet, there is because there always is. Beauty is inspiring. In a match where FC Barcelona wasn’t supposed to have a chance against the bigger, stronger players of Manchester City, in a stadium where those colossi doth bestride the earth like goal-thwacking Goliaths, beauty and execution had their way, expressed in that beautiful sound that culers have come to love.

Pam, pam, pam, pam …

The worry, the fretting, the doubt. Has there ever been a more talented team surrounded by so much doubt as this one? Every hurdle, every obstacle is greeted by a “Okay. But wait until …” Manchester City at the Etihad was the latest for a team that has heretofore done everything asked of it: won its Champions League group, beat a big rival in a pre-season trophy clash, beat its historic rival at home in a match that wasn’t as close as the scoreline indicated, is leading its domestic league and has reached the final of the domestic club cup. Everything.

But in a world in which everything isn’t enough, where success is defined by a nebulous psychological comfort that nobody can exactly put a finger on the exact form of, there is always uncertainty. The Way of the Culer is paved with pessimism, but doubt and disbelief are new annexes along that path, rooms built in the sad, angry aftermath of a 7-0 demolition.

Let’s face it. That two-legged tie has defined everything since. The reasons behind it – fatigue, injuries, cancer, a damaged superstar – are by now immaterial, seen as silly excuses by people who don’t want to admit how bad this team is. So it’s not at all surprising that everyone, still suffering the psychic damage of that scoreboard thrashing, is reeling, distrustful of anything good that happens. The team won the league. So what? It lost 7-0 to Bayern. They stomped Rayo 6-0? So what, that was Rayo, wait until Manchester City.

When the Champions League draw happened many, including culers, were already thinking that this would be it, a round-of-16 elimination for very logical reasons, it must be said, stark black-and-white assessments that served as evidence that the light at the end of the tunnel was a blue-clad train.

What others dared to mention, in dark corners lit by the sunlight of hope, was that Barça would do well in this tie because it still has a collection of the best players in the world. Let’s think about this for a moment … what other team has a collection of talent in its starting XI as we do? Start from top to bottom, keeper to forward, and list them: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro, Sanchez, Messi. And Neymar comes off the bench! Every last one of them doesn’t just start for his national team. They run that team, star for that team, are integral parts of that team. It’s an enviable collection of talent that, prima facie, should inspire complete trust.

valdes

The second guessing began even before the match started. “Fabregas isn’t the right choice.” “Alba AND Alves? What is Martino thinking!” “Mascherano is going to let us down.” “Set pieces, oh, my!”

Then the match, and the rhythm began.

Opponents have a lot more faith in our team than its supporters do and Pellegrini, rather than opting for business as usual, sat back in worry, even in light of the Xavi/Fabregas/Iniesta/Busquets midfield that very clearly had a single mission in mind: keep the ball. And as they sat back the ball circulated, from Sanchez to Messi to Xavi to Fabregas to Iniesta to Xavi to Fabregas to Sanchez to Messi as the players passed and probed. Possession stats climbed, an immaterial number except for those who understand how Barça in fact plays defense.

And then, in a sudden explosion of passing, the Manchester City striker, Negredo, had a chance. The defense did its job in forcing a difficult shot that floated wide of goal, and the rhythm resumed. Xavi was playing as if years younger, slicing through balls to attackers and darting toward the box as Iniesta, Busquets and Fabregas had his back. Iniesta floated into the box as if by magic, then, when you figured he was going to shoot, when a normal attacker would indeed have shot, Iniesta’s heart just didn’t allow him to be so mean like the matador who, in the face of the bull in the ring, decided he just couldn’t put the sword in.

The first half ended scoreless, and without any intimate knowledge of his brain, it isn’t that difficult to imagine that Martino was pretty happy with that. The first leg of a knockout tie has a dual advantage for the away team, in that it doesn’t really NEED to win. It just needs a scoring draw because of the power of the away goals rule. And as the ball moved faster and Manchester City’s defenders began to lunge and get stuck in, it was clear that Barça was at some point in the match, going to score.

Social media was fascinating, because the few attacks that City was able to muster showed some purpose. They got a set piece that was calmly dealt with. Then they got another set piece that, thanks to Valdes making a hash of the clearance, was not so calmly dealt with, even as he was surrounded by his defenders until all was well. But in the Twitterverse, a snapshot of the vox populi, the mood was one of doom. Streaming the match via mobile with Twitter in the other window, it wasn’t all that hard to remain immune to the mood because if you had eyes, the balance of the match was clear. But doubt creates need. “Alves was poor.” Not if you watched the match through something other than that doom-colored shades.

Pique and Mascherano made liars of their doubters, Xavi giggled at the people who want to find a spot for him in the pasture and Alba found somebody his own size to pick on.

martino

For observers with a sense of positive as well as negative history, Tata Martino, a man so many allege is clueless about The Way, erected a shrine to the tactical past, a return to tika taka as a way of defense and limiting chances. You don’t have the ball, which means that you don’t have as many chances. When you don’t have as many chances, what you do with those chances begins to press on you. Valdes stops one, Mascherano snuffs out another, Valdes flicks one away, and that’s that. Because you don’t have the ball, and there’s that damnable sound.

Pam, pam, pam, pam …

Water torture breaks you through inevitability. It’s the next drop, drop after drop, the feeling that the drops are going to continue forever and there is only one way to make them stop. Wait … NO! … here comes another drop. And so, pass after pass, as English-centric commentators nattered about ineffectual possession, you could see the cracks. One player in the box, forcing a defensive intervention. Then another player in the box, forcing yet another intervention. Passing lanes were open where suddenly there weren’t any as that sense of inevitability grew and grew.

Tika taka was revealed for what it was during one elegant sequence early in the second half. One defender was a little less vigilant, alerted to another form of danger, which resulted in his teammate being left in the clutches of a vile combo platter of the team’s most dangerous player and its best attacking player on the night. An explosive run dictated the cutting pass, just as the Barça Way demands, and that victim was exposed. The option was to lunge from behind, in false hope that a defender who is good enough at his best tried to stop the best attacker alive.

Three months ago, Dimichelis might make that play on Messi, whose explosiveness and capabilities were blunted by a succession of injuries. But on this night, fit and in form, the result was a red card and a penalty, duly dispatched by Messi for a 0-1 lead.

Some say that the match changed at this point but it didn’t, really. Not for me. Possession didn’t really change, nor did the sense of looming danger and the effectiveness of typical Barça defending, which intervenes more than stops. And as the match progressed and the sense of necessity multiplied in the minds of the Manchester City players, their spines stiffened as they mounted an assault on our end, including a particularly dangerous attack that, for a few seconds, encapsulated all of the objections to Jordi Alba in the starting XI, never mind the excellent match that he had been enjoying to that point as he removed a key component of the City attack, Jesus Navas, from its quiver of arrows. The defense, however, as it did all night, dealt with it, and then a curious thing happened from a not-so-curious moment.

That Neymar was going to be subbed in wasn’t a shock to anyone. That he was subbed for Sanchez was a bit surprising, but even more so was that Neymar promptly stationed himself on the same side of the pitch as Dani Alves, the right side, a double dose of Brazilian “Wheeee” for defenders already struggling with Alves alone, to consider. And as wonderful an attacker as Alexis Sanchez is, as fine a match as he was having doing all that non-attacking stuff, Neymar was Next Level attacker that City didn’t have an answer for.

neymar

As with Messi, you don’t really have a list of available options for Neymar. As a defender, you know normal attackers have lapses, weaknesses that make them predictable. Control is lax so you can get them as they rein the ball in. They aren’t quick or fast so you can catch them from behind. They don’t pass and are one-footed, so shade them to a favorite side. Like Messi, Neymar almost always has an answer. Shade left, he shifts to right. Cover the favored foot, he can pass or shoot with the other. And because control is usually absolute, passing lanes that disappear for ordinary players in that instant they wrestling with the ball are visible and gaping to those Next Level attackers. Neymar made that second goal a near certainty. So when he and Alves combined for a Julio Belletti moment that sank the knife into yet another English side in Champions League, the screech of joy was leavened with a little bit of “See, I knew that.”

I have no idea what is going to happen in a few weeks’ time. For all I know City might do to us what we did to Milan last season. But I do know this: the time for doubt has passed for me, not that it ever was that time. I was predicting a 2-2 scoreline yesterday, mostly because I was thinking the match would be more open and attacking. Pellegrini surprised me by being fearful. Of course, he further surprised me by being a Mourinho lite, blaming the official for not only how he called the match, but suggesting that his country of origin had a bearing in his qualification to be part of that match officiating team. It was stupid, shameful and I would hope, in the less-heated aftermath, regrettable.

The final score was 0-2, but it was more than that. It was two away goals by a team that was supposed to be bullied off the pitch. It was redemption for doubting culers who were expecting, and wouldn’t have been surprised by another Bayern-style hammering. It was an affirmation of style, of the power of passing and beauty. Size didn’t matter, magic did.

But it was also just another win in the Champions League by a team that should have, by all rights, been the favorite. Our players have been better than the City players in their previous settings. What made people think that it would somehow be different when you combined all those players? Negredo took many a Liga beating from Barça, as did Navas, and Silva and Dimichelis. Toure Yaya helped administer some of those beatings, so he probably watched that rhythm, that movement and said to himself “Oh, crap … I used to help do this.”

Is it as simple as reducing it all to a batch of parts? No way. They have excellent players, athletes who can score a couple of goals at the Camp Nou just as we did at the Etihad, and they will have their most dangerous attacker back in Sergio Aguero. But at some point, we have to start having faith in this team, even if that faith might be dashed at some point. You have to fall in love again, believe in our sprites, because fit and on form, I firmly believe that our team can beat any team in the world, up to and including Bayern.

Only a fool would suggest that this team doesn’t have needs, that it is far from perfect or even as good as it has the capability of being. But that is stuff for the summer. For now, here and now, there is a delightful night in England. Was this a great match? Nope. Was it a big win? In context, yes, but in consideration of the capabilities of both sides, not really. But football matches always get extra stuff precisely because of the context in which they exist. Past failing as present paranoia. Was a bit of faith restored? Maybe, maybe not. Because after all, belief and faith are odd qualities, reassuring and at the same time, oh so fragile. But to love something to the fullest, they are essential.

duo

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

155 Comments

  1. kosby
    February 22, 2014

    turns out I was wrong, no bus tonight ! evenly poised at the moment..

    • kosby
      February 22, 2014

      good goal by sociedad and an even more amazing goals by us, Busquets is unbelievable…

  2. georgjorge
    February 22, 2014

    Hmmm, our offense seems to be less dynamic and our defense less sure what to do than would be desired…I hope Tata finds the right words at halftime.

  3. Jim
    February 22, 2014

    No real platform for us to cause them problems. Missing Xavi. Not enough touches from Song and Busi playing a strange mixture of positions for me.

    • kosby
      February 22, 2014

      Think Song and Busi are both feeling out of place. I wont say I am against this combination, they perhaps just need more time to get accustomed. Just goes on to show the true meaning what it means when they say “You realise Xavi’s importance when he’s not there”…

    • Jim
      February 22, 2014

      Well, he’d better start warming up if we are to get anything out of this.

  4. Ryan
    February 22, 2014

    Now it’s 3-1. We are looking quite shaky on defense.

  5. Jim
    February 22, 2014

    Messi’s decided to move back to get the control.

  6. BA
    February 22, 2014

    we’ve been seriously outplayed in this game.

    • kosby
      February 22, 2014

      yup, thats the word…”outplayed”. Funny how much difference a few days can make.

  7. BA
    February 22, 2014

    our defense is absolutely farcical.

    Carlos Vela alone could have won this 4-1 for Sociedad.

  8. Ryan
    February 22, 2014

    It looks more likely that we’ll end 4-1 rather than 3-2. Rough game and the winless streak at Real Sociedad continues.

  9. stefan2k
    February 22, 2014

    Ok Tata got em wrong this time… frustrating to watch, a lackluster game and certainly a team effort.

    Nevertheless, in Tata we trust!

  10. BA
    February 22, 2014

    going to enjoy the post where someone tries to defend that performance. that was *dire*.

    • February 22, 2014

      Not sure what makes you assume such a thing is going to happen, but if someone wants to write one I certainly won’t stop them.

  11. georgjorge
    February 22, 2014

    Well, better to get the 1-3 done now instead of in a few weeks against Man City ;). Let’s put this one down to the Anoeta curse (keeping the feet of our forwards from making runs, putting doubt in the mind of our defenders where to place themselves), shall we?

  12. kosby
    February 22, 2014

    Extremely well played by Sociedad, they came out and caught us napping.

    As for our team, we were sluggish and had no control throughout the match. Whether the players were tired after the ManC game, I dont know. But we did have 6 changes from that team though.

    Especially poor performances from Pique, Song, Messi (yes even though he scored). This does not mean others were playing, everyone other than Iniesta and maybe Pedro pretty much played there worst game this season.

    Infuriating from Messi…he disappeared for most of the game. If he is not injured, then he seems disinterested…something definitely seems wrong with him (hopefully its just his health which he should be able to recover). Sadly, it looked like Neymar and Messi hardly knew each other.

    Also contributing to the poor performance from the forwards was the missing midfield control. Very slow transitions from defence to attack, we could hardly get the ball out of our own half for several extended periods of time.

    Hoping all that this team needs is some rest and a nice pep talk (no pun intended).

  13. psalmuel
    February 22, 2014

    I didnt get to watch the match so, it wouldn’t hurt much. But there are 13 games left right? The 2 Madrids won’t win all of ’em right?

  14. TITO
    February 22, 2014

    We got outplayed, outsmarted, outmuscled, outf.cked, outwhateveryouwnnacallit. So much lack of focus, running, even desire and maybe lack of interest i haven’t seen from this team for a while.
    And when you are going to a place where you have not won for a while, well, there should be at least an effort to prove something, but we didn’t.
    Can’t figure it out why we played so badly, but anyway, disappointed with the approach. Hopefully we’ll be more serious in La liga.

  15. Jafri
    February 22, 2014

    Agh. That was… disastrous. So much confusion, so little intent… And I think we can put this one on the team rather than blaming one person. Like Song, for example.

    I’d like to see how much they ran vs how much we did. They seemed to be literally everywhere on the pitch.

  16. flyzowee
    February 22, 2014

    Im going to watch the match a second time but I must say that positionally speaking adriano seemed to have the worst match I have seen from a fullback in quite sometime. Constantly being caught upfield whilst providing very little in attack. I know hes scored a few golazos but someone needed to call him into order. He essentially converted pique into a make shift LB who struggles when dragged out to the flanks. These are just my first impressions. I need a 2nd viewing to be sure.

    • February 22, 2014

      Someone else Tweeted that to me this afternoon. Will keep an eye out for him.

  17. Seyi38
    February 22, 2014

    Disappointed with the lineup today but the players are equally to blame (except Iniesta and maybe Valdes & Pedro). Sociedad played like they wanted it more and deserved to win. Seems like Martino was somehow jinxed by that Song stat. LOL. Tonight’s defeat was valuable experience for Montoya and Bartra as long as they don’t pull a ‘Thiago’ on us.

    • bhed
      February 22, 2014

      While the loss certainly wasn’t Montoya’s fault, based on every game he’s played this season, he’s just flat out not good enough to play in the colors in my opinion. His passing, positioning, crossing, defending… everything has been lacking this campaign.

      Again, not his fault tonight, but I hope we don’t need to count on him much this year.

  18. February 22, 2014

    Wow. Football is a funny old game isn’t it. Just a few days ago we saw a very complete team performance and tonight we saw the complete opposite. It is natural to try and lay blame at the feet of individuals but this was as collective a breakdown as I have seen. Yes there were a few brain farts from the likes of Pique but all in all the whole team was just not there tonight. It happens in football and it has happened to this team many times over the past few years including the treble season so lets not all go claiming this is the end. It was a shitty night. It happens. Suck it up and move on.

    I have to say I like the way Martinho handled the presser, taking the pressure off the players, very “Mourinho-esque”. That being said I hope he gives them a right old bollocking the dressing room because they just didn’t show up tonight. Messi in particular was just not interested in the slightest. In fact none of the players were. Maybe the feeling among the more senior members of the team is that the priority is the CL because the difference in concentration and focus between the last game and this one was just astronomical. Difficult to understand why. Oh well. Lets hope Athletico drop some points tomorrow.

  19. Seyi38
    February 22, 2014

    Really Love this Martino dude. Plain honest man. Could have easily blamed the ref for playing Ramos in MF but simply admitted he was outsmarted especially with the position Canales played.

  20. Huckleberry
    February 22, 2014

    Worst Barça I have seen in years…
    That would not have been happened under Pep or Tito.

    • February 22, 2014

      In the Treble season, we lost 5 times/drew 6 times. We didn’t win the league in Guardiola’s last season, which means that it DID happen under Guardiola. It also happened under Vilanova, and every other Barça coach. Matches like this one happen from time to time.

      Martino says that he got the selection wrong, but it was more than that. Iniesta said the players got it wrong as well. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out what he meant by that one. La Real kicked the crap out of us. Could have been 4 or 5-1, really.

      Mama said there’d be days like this …

    • Jafri
      February 22, 2014

      I’ve seen a fair amount of these performances – usually right after a big match or international break – and I’ve only watched the team under Pep and Tito.

      They were simply unable to raise their intensity for this game and I think it’s myopic in the extreme to blame this all on Tata.

  21. mom4
    February 22, 2014

    That was sad. Very sad. And pathetic. And painful to watch.
    Someone said it’s national margarita day. On the rocks no salt please.

  22. KEVINO17
    February 22, 2014

    Too easy to blame the defenders. We didn’t press (Im looking at you, neymar and Messi) and got done over by a deadly counterattacking side that was much fresher. In hindsight, should have played Xavi to slow the game down to our energy level.

  23. February 22, 2014

    The most lackluster performance ive seen in a while. You think they’d have learned their lesson against Valencia at home. But nope. Messi was sleepwalking, balls were given away in dangerous areas. I know these games happen and we can’t win all the time but what a lifeless performance from the team who just had a great game in England. Consistency is key and I’m not seeing that from this side at the moment.

    • KEVINO17
      February 22, 2014

      The way easy passes were missed in the middle of the pitch was the biggest sign of how tired and jaded they all were. Sociedad really were the wrong team to have to play at this time.

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