The year 2008 might well stand as one of the best transfer summers that our beloved club has ever had. We grabbed Gerard Pique, Dani Alves and Seydou Keita, all in that same summer.
And at the time, people giggled as Del Nido rubbed his scaly fins together, saying that we were taken to the cleaners with the 14m for Keita and the 28m (and counting) for Alves. There were a lot of “What did we buy him for,” for the former, and “Boy, did we overpay” for the latter.
Only now, in the light of history and overwhelming success on the part of our club, do those transfer fees now seem a bargain, as both players have been crucial parts of our machine of victory. And today was no exception. Keita slid into the role of defensive midfielder and did an excellent job, and Alves just raised pure hell, with a hand in all three of our goals, one crappy little samba and a performance that earned the enmity of Valladolid’s home faithful.
So what the hell is this picture of Victor Valdes doing up here, right?
I have never, EVER had a more difficult time determining Man of the Match. Strong cases could be made for Keita, Alves, Puyol, Xavi and Valdes. And by a whisker, because I think that keeping goals out is a more crucial foundation than scoring them, it’s Valdes for me. But the debate in the comments section will be fascinating.
Even though Valladolid sit near bottom of the table, Guardiola rolled out his “we’re serious” lineup, with Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Keita, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Henry and Ibrahimovic. It might have been overkill for Valladolid, but Guardiola has other motives, I think. He wants his best lineup to play together as often as possible, in the run-in to the resumption of Champions League football. There are also some big matches in the Liga coming up, and what better way to get the machine in tune than to give it a nice run-out against a side that it should be able to take apart pretty easily.
Valladolid, however, didn’t get that script. They rolled out with the usual tactics against us, high pressure and a flooded midfield, and it worked a little bit only because we got off to our usual kinda sleepy start. We gradually began to work our way into the match, until an awful Pique giveaway led to an excellent Valdes save. And then came the two-minute stretch in which we put the match to bed. Keita broke up yet another Valladolid attack, then Pique played to Iniesta, who played to Xavi, who unleashed an inch-perfect backheel to Alves that sent us off to the races on a counter.
Think for a moment about how a keeper must feel as he sees running at him: Xavi, Messi, Alves, Henry and Ibrahimovic, with Keita and Iniesta waiting for any scraps that might fall from the bone. Tika-taka is one thing, as a good keeper can play the angles and at least have a shot. But on the break, forget it. So an inch-perfect cross from Alves found the (comparatively) unlikely danger man of that group, Xavi, who side volleyed it home.
It was 1-0, and Valladolid fans could be forgiven for thinking that it was undeservedly so. Well, they must have been crying in their beers when an Abidal interception again unleashed the hounds, with a lovely ball from Keita finding Alves, who did this crazy little bounce pass off the pitch to the head of Messi, whose glancing header fell perfectly to Alves in space.
Until the day that he dies, Dani Alves will say that he was shooting all along. I contend that it was a cross to Ibrahimovic, who was filling that back post like a locomotive to no avail, as Alves’ crosshot nestled into the far corner. His post-goal grin was a little sheepish, and just like that, in less than two minutes, really, the match was over, because Valladolid was already beginning to feel the price of the effort necessary to pressure us high, and chase the ball around.
And really, that was that. The rest of the match was rather unmemorable, as we knew that Valladolid couldn’t come back, and in their heart of hearts, Valladolid knew they couldn’t come back. Every time they tried, either Keita or Puyol were in place to say “Nope. Not today. Sorry.” But there were two moments that really stood out for me in the second half.
1. The third goal, which was really the product of bad control by Ibrahimovic, who couldn’t quite latch on to an Alves pass. So he got control and drifted laterally, having already spotted Messi, who was streaking in from midfield. He laid a millimeter-flawless ball in, which was roofed by Messi for the third goal that really made things well and truly hopeless for them.
2. If you have the match on DVR, or are watching a rebroadcast, pay particular attention at the 63-minute mark for a play that, for me, sums up why Xavi is irreplacable for us, more than any other player on the pitch. He takes the pass, works a one-touch with Alves and as he releases the ball, pauses to look up the pitch. It comes back from Alves and again, right before the ball comes back, he takes another snapshot of the rest of the pitch. He pops it back to Alves, slides forward just a bit to create space, gets the ball back and is bracketed by three defenders. He takes a hit, moves back a bit, never losing complete control of the ball, and side-foots a flawless pass to Ibrahimovic.
I commented on this during the liveblog, and it was even more dazzling on the T-and-V. If I were a fan of any player, it would be Xavi. All day and all night.
Team: 7. A nice, solid performance. They weren’t working at the highest level, but the beauty was there, and you can see us hitting stride. Every time an error was made, somebody was there to back things up.
Guardiola: 8. Leapt from the bench as if on fire when things seemed a little funky with the lads, and got things under control on the pitch. His frantic instruction for the defense to Abidal tightened things up at the back, and after those two goals, he relaxed quite a bit.
Valdes: 9. Some funky clearances kept him from perfection, but what a match, including that last save of a ball that took a crazy bounce off a very slick pitch. A lot of keepers spill that one, and with a Valladolid player right in his face, he had to be perfect. And that save off the free kick will have people saying “They hit it right at him,” but he was unsighted, and pulled off a crazy reflex save. Hell of a match, buttressed by precisely the kind of more static saves that people (like my dumb ass) say makes him not the best choice for World Cup duty. And the way he came off the line when Puyol and Milito were caught out by a pass? Wow.
Alves: 10. He was astounding today, with a hand in all three goals, firestarting and excellent defense. His offense is getting better, but the improvements in his defending this season are impressing me more, because it makes him less of a liability at the back. Before, it was “Well, we might have to cover for Dani, so get ready.” Now, he’s holding things down, even in 1-v-1 situations.
Pique: 4. Pretty crappy today, as he put us in danger time and again with passes directly to Valladolid attackers, or wayward headers.
Puyol: 9. Clearly, he and the ball were magnetized today, as every time something potentially dangerous got as far as our part of the pitch, there he was. Magnificent, Captain-quality match from a guy with an injured back? Are you kidding me?
Abidal: 7. Came down from his immense performance against Sevilla, but still a very good match full of timely interventions and interceptions.
Keita: 8. Worked like a dog out there, and played the destroyer DM role for us, where he just broke up attacks, played as the omnipresent passing outlet and made smart, direct passes to our midfielders. I know that there were some worries about him in the DM role for us, but he did an excellent job today, even finding the energy to do the box-to-box thing. And keep in mind that he just finished with ACN duty for Mali.
Xavi: 8. Some uncharacteristically loose possession, but what a match from our midfield general. He is so elegant, and so smart with the ball that it’s easy to take what he does for granted. We never, ever should. When he took that foul, and took a bit to get up, my heart was in my throat. We can play without anybody else. But not Xavi.
Iniesta: 8. I loved his match today, because he filled his joint wrecking ball role alongside Xavi. Those two work so well together, and Iniesta reined in his runs quite a bit, knowing that midfield control was going to win this match the way that Valladolid was attacking us. We’ve seemed a bit loose in midfield control these past few matches, and the return to Iniesta of his best (for my money) role is part of the reason we had the midfield so locked down today.
Messi: 5. Messi makes a run, ignoring both Ibrahimovic and Henry, who were both onside and open, and Ray Hudson is lauding Messi for almost making it, and being “slippery as an eel covered in Vaseline.” And there’s the problem. Someone should say “You should have passed the ball.” Again in the second half, he shot instead of squaring to a wide-open Keita for the tap-in, particularly after Keita made the defensive play to start the break, then busted his lungs to be in position to take the square ball. Instead, Messi opted for a shot that didn’t have a chance in hell of going in. Had some good moments, and scored a goal, but he seems to be regressing a bit.
Henry: 6. Unforgivable laziness in chasing an Alves cross. You can’t stop running, thinking that “The defender is going to get it anyway.” Bullshit. Now, the discipline in maintaining his width on the left, the interplay with Ibrahimovic and constant playing of defense earned him a better rating than I’m sure many think he deserved. Ray Ray was slagging him for being poor. For me, seeing him running alongside a Valladolid attacker, helping to harass the ball loose, has just as much value in our attack as his runs along the wing and into the box. Deserved a goal on that volleyed blast off an Alves cross, but the keeper was outstanding.
Ibrahimovic: 5. His game is almost complete, except for scoring goals, which is the reason we bought his big ass. His link-up play is exceptional, as is his passing. And he runs a lot. I know that people rip him for being lazy, but watch the match again to see how much he runs. I didn’t realize it. But his first touch is still off, and he’s making some questionable decisions with the ball. Luckily, we can afford to carry him for a bit. But soon, we’re going to need him. Bad.
Milito: 6. Nice, solid performance, and he works well with Puyol at the back. Yes, that furry tandem were caught square (and bailed out by Valdes), but for me, he might have played Marquez into the nether regions of the bench.
Txigrinski: 4. Bad. Just bad. Passes to the wrong people, and with insufficient weight. I know that he needs time, but come on, dude. You were better when you first arrived.
Krkic: 3. Is nonexistent worse that being bad? Good question. He was chasing the ball and the match in his late substitute role, to no avail. Maybe with more time he would have been less ineffectually anonymous.
–In the “Holy crap, Batman!” file, there’s a story building steam that Stuttgart is thinking about ripping up the Hleb loan agreement and sending him back to us before the window closes. Apparently, however, the Stuttgart coach likes him and his potential a lot, and wants to keep him. Stay tuned for that one.
And as usual, a bit of joy: