How excellent it was that this glorious moment, captured after the goal that, in effect, put this match away for good, features two of our best players, on a day in which everybody who took to the pitch was very good, and in some cases magnificent.
This was right after the second try that Messi had at feeding Xavi, the successful one, for a butter-smooth goal that came off a counterattack that was kick-started by the man people love to hate these days, Rafa Marquez, who was having one hell of a match. But more about that later. For now ….
I want to start with some choice Guardiola quotes, that echo how I felt about this wonderful victory.
“I am very proud,” Guardiola said. “Getafe are the worst team to play against with 10 men, but we took a step forward and my players behaved marvellously.
“It is one of the best days we have had, one of the games with most merit.”
I fully and completely agree. Guardiola rolled out with Valdes, Maxwell, Pique, Milito, Abidal, The Yaya, Keita, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Ibrahimovic. The interesting thing about this lineup is that there wasn’t a left winger, per se, as Guardiola was banking on more of a command and control presence in midfield. Recall that the tactic of late has been to flood the midfield and pressure Xavi, who would often be left on an island.
Not today, baby, as we rolled out with a midfield of wrecking balls, some big and some tiny, but all loaded for bear. And we knew this was going to be a great match when right from the opening kickoff, Ibrahimovic went crazy, applying pressure and chasing the ball right into the Getafe box, being only an astute clearance away from maybe shaking something loose. We were flowing to the ball, chasing it like crazy people, and for a change we were the ones applying high pressure, and locking down the midfield. The difference that it made in the match was seen very early, as Ibrahimovic and Keita pressured a ball loose, and the resultant cross by Abidal for Ibrahimovic, who hauled ass from the right sideline into the box, forced a corner.
Pique’s header fell to The Yaya, who spanked a ball to Messi who, without even breaking stride, smoked a curler (should you call it a curler when the ball makes a right turn in mid-air?) into the net for our first goal, a mere 7 minutes into the match. And it was one of those head-shakers, a moment of individual brilliance that makes a coach say “Yo, what about this shit here??!!”
But there’s no real answer for it. Messi’s shot was absurd, and we were off to the races, led by the attackers, including a spectacular Ibrahimovic. Yes, I said spectacular. And so did Guardiola, who said: “He was scandalously good tonight.”
And it’s true. Look at the almost unerring passes that he made, the defense (including on set pieces), the running, the conspiring with Keita to win balls in the midfield …. he had one of those stat-stuffer games that, had he scored the goal that he really should have scored, everyone would be saying that Ibrahimovic is back. He was involved, and amazing. Yes, he was subbed for Busquets, mostly because playing a man down and with Getafe trying to apply even more pressure to equalize, Guardiola knew that the midfield would be where it was at, and that Busquets was just the man for the job. And boy, was he ever. But more about that later, as well.
Yes, Ibrahimovic’s job is to put the ball in the net, and he hasn’t done that for a while now. But when a player is as involved, dynamic and energetic as he was, the goals will come, and they will come in bunches. But he was part of almost everything good in the first half, and deserves some credit for that.
And now, for MOTM, Messi. Now, I’ve been called a Messi-hating jackass because of the ratings that I have given him, but this match is my argument. This is how Messi is capable of playing all the time, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with holding him to that standard. Because when he plays as he does today: midfield pressure, constantly chasing the ball, control, playing off fouls and continuing on and having the sense for when to pass and when to shoot, he makes everyone around him better. Note that there wasn’t a single instance of Messi Quixote, tilting at windmills of a packed back line.
That second goal came because Messi was jerking four defenders around like marionettes, and they were all playing him for the shot, because well …. that’s what he does, right? His first attempt to stab a ball to Xavi was blocked by a defender’s feet, and Messi drifted a little more as everyone, including the keeper, had eyes only for him. So when he slid that ball over to Xavi the only defense that Getafe had was to raise their arms and plead for an offside call that wasn’t going to come, because referees might be fallible, but they aren’t churls. Nobody wanted to see that goal get messed up. And it was all a consequence of Messi’s brilliance.
It was also a goal that started from the back, as Abidal’s perfectly timed sliding tackle knocked the ball loose. It fell to Marquez, who popped a perfect little ball for Messi, who did the rest. But that wasn’t all that our little wizard did, as he was everywhere today, earning MOTM in a hotly contested battle. He played the match that I expect of him, and that we all should expect of him. He can control the match every time he strides onto the pitch. As he realizes that power, we will see his true excellence more often.
Oh, yes …. that red card for Pique. That was a weird play that came about because of a foul that should have been called when Boateng rugby blocked Messi away from the ball. Yes, The Yaya bodied a Getafe attacker off the ball earlier in the half, but not like that. When it wasn’t called, the resultant hesitation (because everybody in the stadium expected the whistle) meant that Maxwell wound up on the wrong side of his man, and gave the professional foul.
The resultant free kick was dealt with, then the ball started banging around. Ibrahimovic made a one-touch back pass to The Yaya, thinking that our Colossus was going to do one thing, but he did another before having the “Uh, oh” moment as he saw the ball sliding into the space that he probably was thinking of occupying. Even then, he arrived with the Getafe attacker, and the ball pinged loose. Pique has the next shot at it, battling for possession with two Getafe players. He worked it loose, but it bounced off a leg, coming out with too much pace. His tackle attempt found his studs high, even though they were coming in from the side, rather than straight on. Frankly, the tackle looked far worse in real time than it did in slow motion, and probably would have gotten a yellow, had the Getafe player not done what any good footballer does: Act like he’d been hit by a nuclear warhead.
The subsequent red card meant that we were down to 10 men, and began the accusations of sucky refereeing. Yes, at around the 76th minute, a Getafe player came sliding at Xavi with studs up and bared, and nothing was called because Xavi just played around the contact, no doubt thinking “Nice try, jackass.” And others thought that all of the favoritism accusations meant that the ref wasn’t going to call some things, and would be biased against us. But almost any ref in the world calls at least a yellow on the Pique challenge and most call a red, because of the real-time violence of the collision and the exposed studs.
And here’s Guardiola on the ref situation: “We shouldn’t always doubt the referees — we need to enjoy this wonderful league and spend less time talking about referees. It’s not worth talking about it — they make mistakes and get things right like everybody else.”
It also ushered in the Era of Valdes, as our keeper came to the fore to save an unsettled side that was still reeling at the seeming injustice of the red card. His brilliant diving save set the tone for his match, as he didn’t put a foot wrong, safely getting us to halftime when Guardiola could make the speech that he clearly must have made. Because in the second half, we had the midfield on lockdown.
Yes, Getafe got a few shots at goal, but Valdes successfully parried them all without a hint of drama, as the Mighty Mites just controlled everything led by The Amazing Iniesta, who had the best match that he has had all season, and one of his best in the colors. When teams pressure Xavi, as Getafe did, for the second match in a row, Iniesta assumed the Xavi role, and just killed it. But it wasn’t just offense, as he was intercepting balls, and reminding us that in addition to his left back excellence, Abidal’s value is in the pressure relief valve for Iniesta. And once Busquets was added to the mix, Getafe didn’t know what hit them.
Then came the bit of nastiness, the fly in our ointment of perfection, when Abidal spanked a clearance that missed Keita, and Getafe banged the ball right back into the box. When Abidal made the clearance, that looked it would get to Keita, our defenders were all moving up the pitch, ready to resume the advanced line that we play. When the ball came back at them, some scrambling took place, and Marquez got caught out. There were a couple of blunders here:
–In the “garbage in, garbage out” mode, Abidal should have controlled the ball and made the safe pass to Keita, rather than an airborne, side-footed thing.
–Marquez should have just played position defense, keeping his hands off the attacker and allowing Valdes to cut off the angles. With the match he was having, our keeper would almost certainly have made the stop.
But none of those things happened, the penalty was called and as Marquez was the last man, it was a straight red. Bummer, because history will reflect a 2-1 scoreline in a match that wasn’t at all close.
Now, some ratings (Warning! Lots of high scores in this one, folks, as it should be.):
Team: 10. I’m with Guardiola on this one, it was a magnificent display from the best club in the world, that played 2/3rds of the match with 10 men, but never looked like it. The defense and attack in layers were dazzling.
Guardiola: 10. Perfect substitutions that were, for a change, well-timed. And how did he know that Maxwell is the second-best right back on the team?
Valdes: 9. Caused a bit of worry with his penchant for playing too much with the ball at his feet, but what a match from our keeper. His reflex saves are exceptional, and there isn’t a better keeper/sweeper in the world at controlling the entire area in front of their goal, not just the net space.
Maxwell: 8. Holy crap, what a match. With the late Alves scratch (who even warmed up with the starting XI), we were all a little worried. But Maxwell kicked out the jams with a gilded boot, coming up short only when beaten for pace and positioning. He was dangerous going forward, and resolute at the back. He also kick-started what would have been Liga Goal of the Year had it come off, an amazing bit of interplay with Messi and Ibrahimovic that included a backheel.
Pique: 6. This is a complex rating, because he had been playing well until he was ejected. And you can’t really take points off for that, because when a player is making a sliding tackle, there isn’t as much body control as we might think, and he didn’t go straight at the attacker with studs up. So a 6 it is.
Milito: 8. Let a player into the middle a bit easily on a couple of occasions, but what a match from our strongman, who was playing like Captain Caveman, but without the tendency to go running around all willy-nilly, trying to put out fires. His positional sense is exceptional, and he understands how to be physical in the box without doing any damage. What a match from a guy who, let’s not forget, has only recently returned from a long, long injury layoff. He’s turning out to be quite the key winter “signing.” Imagine if we didn’t have him for the next match.
Abidal: 8. Another all-man, all the time match from our French Greyhound, who is displaying the kind of telepathy that great defenders who are fully involved in every match have. Many a time, he was at a point before the ball got there, to make interceptions and knock balls away. My wonderful Abidal moment came when he intercepted a Getafe pass in mid-air and spanked a perfectly weighted pass to Ibrahimovic, who anticipated it and was off to the races. Unfortunately, his help didn’t show up until the Getafe defenders did.
The Yaya: 7. Showed some early signs of rust, but played into the match brilliantly, with those one-touch balls of his that just keep the offense flowing. It was good to have him back, and unfortunate that he’s out for two weeks with a groin injury. He is physical without (usually) being overbearing, and his rumbles up the pitch are always a joy to watch. He erred, however, by rumbling a bridge too far, and losing the ball.
Keita: 7. Really could have had two goals, and what a dynamic match, as he donned whatever mask was needed: midfielder, left winger, CB, you name it.
Xavi: 8. Amazing. Once we got the goal, and his command/control game came into effect, he was almost faultless, right up to his well-taken goal. He was more offense-minded today, as Iniesta was holding down the playmaker role in the middle of the pitch. The effect was to flummox the defenders, who didn’t seem to have a Ghostface Plan B.
Iniesta: 10. It is impossible for me to imagine him having a better match in his role. If he ever learns how to score goals, we are going to be unplayable. Teams are going to say, “We spot you two goals, just don’t play him and Messi.” For me, his best moment of the match came when he had the ball just outside of our box, and was faced with a pair of ball-hawking Getafe midfielders. Danger was everywhere, but he just flicked the ball backwards, snagged it and slid between the two before proceeding up the pitch as if nothing jaw-dropping had just happened.
Messi: 9. He wasn’t quite perfect. The one pass that he tried, he actually should have taken the shot, and he had another goal on his foot that only required a better placement. But still, what an amazing, amazing match from Argy Bargy. If he keeps playing like that, I have full confidence in the Liga and Champions League. Note that Messi is also pichichi again, with a 1-goal lead over Villa.
Ibrahimovic: 7. He loses points for trying to make his goal too perfect (a more confident Ibrahimovic just chips the keeper), and evincing poor judgment at the beginning of the sequence that led to Pique’s red. He should have just banged it up the pitch, but that isn’t his wont. He was everywhere today, stealing balls, defending on set pieces, setting up Messi, crashing the box, harassing the keeper, etc, etc, etc. No, he didn’t score. That will come.
Busquets (for Ibrahimovic): 10. If he’s the future, it’s a very bright one. He has been much more composed and mature his last couple of outings. My Busquets Moment was when he harassed Boateng for about 20 seconds, finally forcing the Getafe midfielder into a negative pass, that became a turnover. He was everywhere, using his immense energy for good and playing in a controlled, commanding fashion.
Marquez (for The Yaya): 6. Excellent play, sullied by his dim-witted penalty. Had a number of excellent passes and key interceptions that broke up Getafe attacks before they could develop into anything dangerous.
Pedro! (for Iniesta): incomplete. Action Jackson as time-wasting momentum killer? Sure, why not?
This was an expensive match. We lost Alves in the warm-ups, Pique and Marquez to reds for the next match, The Yaya to injury and Busquets to an accumulation of yellows. So it’s looking like Maxwell will have more chances to show off at right back, which ain’t a bad thing, right?
I’ll wrap this up with two more things, take them for what they are:
–Sometimes, some pessimism creeps in during matches. I’ve run the last few LiveBlogs, and it sometimes surprises me, particularly when we have the match under control. I know that a fan’s lot in life is to be paranoid and expect the Gods to come along and piss on your club, right? It’s seemed particularly noticeable the last couple of matches, I think mostly because we have been in far more control than we can ever know from those stuttering, grainy Web feeds. No, it isn’t a criticism, but it is an observation, take it for what it’s worth.
We are in an extraordinary period with this club right now, one that might not be repeated in many of our lifetimes. The club that we love is the best club in the world, and plays the game in a way that many of us have never, ever seen. It hasn’t taken me as much time to watch a match in some time as today’s did because of all the moments worth watching again and again. I know that we worry, and sometimes fear the worst, but this really is a glorious time right now, sort of like a jazz group comprised of all stars. Each solo, each delicious lick pushes the collective higher and higher, until it is performing at an unheard-of level.
Let’s celebrate that.
–If you have any issues with the ratings here, or anything that I have said, weigh in with the reason that you think I am incorrect, and the group can debate it. Charging in with “You just hate XX player,” or “You say you aren’t biased, but you hate so-and-so,” doesn’t advance any argument or help debate. I’m okay with being called wrong, and even proved wrong. It’s the nature of debate. I’m not okay with being labelled things that I am not, as a way of arguing a point that is never made. None of us should be. Every numerical rating that I make is supported by its rationale. If you want to call bullshit on it, rock on. Just support it, and let’s discuss it among the collective.
As the space grows and new readers visit, it’s something that is worth noting.
And now, as Ol’ Dirty Bastard sang (picking up on a LiveBlog tangent), “Introducing the Ghost Face Killaaahhhh,” who has now played 200 matches in the colors, quite a feat for one so young.