Barça 6, Rayo 1, aka “Top of table on a perfect day”

suarez

When RM lost yesterday, gifting Barça with a glorious opportunity to go top of table, it was almost charming the way many culers were still worried.

Pessimism is indeed part of the culer mindset. Barça can be 10 points ahead with two matches left, and culers would say, “Well, the Liga is considering that win is worth 6 points. We could still lose this!

But it’s Rayo, at the Camp Nou. After the story about the worldview of Rayo’s coach, the wonderful Paco Jemez, this past week, the only real question was the final score. Because under Jemez Rayo plays their style, an open, attacking game of football that is always playing to win. Jemez is no more interested in a draw than any good coach would be, and really doesn’t find much difference between a 1-0 loss and a 7-0 loss.

This was always, always going to be a win and so it was, at a canter rather than a gallop. Messi didn’t even play, really, and got a hat trick, even getting a do-over on a penalty that again raises a question about whether he should be the man taking them. Put another way, it’s the 85th minute of a Champions League knockout tie in the deciding leg and Barça get a penalty. How confident are culers, really and truly, with Messi stepping to the spot.

But even before the Messi penalty do-over the match was already 2-0 and done because Rayo, particularly given their scoring record against Barça and the simple quality gap between the two teams coupled with that team’s style of play … this match was a gimme that was graciously accepted.

Much more interesting to me, opponent and death wishes notwithstanding, is what a simple golazo does to a player. Since Luis Suarez notched that bicycle kick he has been unstoppable. The first goal that he scored today was stupefying because of the execution, but also the speed of thought combined with the execution. He pounced on a ball from Xavi and did an outside of the foot finish into the top corner.

It’s a goal that before the bicycle, Suarez doesn’t have the confidence to even attempt, let alone make. But it was a pure striker’s goal, just like his tally against Manchester City in Champions League.

My beyond-the-pitch views on whether Suarez should have been signed have not changed. But these views don’t make me blind to the reality that it has not been since Samuel Eto’o that Barça has had a striker of this quality. And it hasn’t been since that same Eto’o stomped the terra with Messi and Henry that we have had a front three with as much firepower and creativity.

Even more interesting is that Pedro is Pedro when it comes to scoring, a once-confident player who is now a coach’s dream for all that other stuff that he does, and Messi was still singing lullabies to Thiago in his head. This made the attack essentially Suarez, and he still notched that goal. He ran, pressed, passed, assisted, tried to assist when he shouldn’t have, then scored another goal that was quite a bit more difficult than it was made to look. He was my MOTM by a country mile today, Messi’s mostly sleepwalking hat trick notwithstanding, and can be summed up in a simple phrase: Suarez changes everything.

Cannibals on the loose!

Eto’o was wonderful. What made him wonderful was that he was a little bonkers, so you really didn’t know what to expect from him. His genius was either that or madness as he moved wayyy over there to set up a feint that would find him over here, in perfect position to lace home a shot or capitalize on a rebound opportunity. But he moved constantly, which made it almost impossible to play him.

What that movement also did was unsettle a defense, which made the lives of other attackers easier because defenders were always worried about that crazy dude running around behind them. Suarez brings back that kind of crazy. He even scores goals like Eto’o. On his second, he worked play, held himself onside then burst free at the exact right moment to be able to slot home. He created a goal by working a play with Jordi Alba, taking a pass in the box, controlling and holding the ball long enough to find shooting space then smoked a hard, low shot at the keeper. He didn’t score but did create a rebound chance that Messi tapped home.

Confidence is a weird thing. Before the bicycle, Suarez was associative almost to a fault, looking for the pass in the same ultimately frustrating way that Neymar did when he first arrived. It’s almost as if a player wants to prove that they fit into a Barça team whose reputation has been built on unselfish play and beautiful passing. And that need to blend leads to a seeming sublimation of self. We also saw it in Alexis Sanchez, who was most himself when Messi was out and he and Neymar could roam free.

After the goal, Suarez seemed to say to himself “Hey, wait … that’s right. I can do this stuff.” Since then he has been scoring for fun. But more than scoring, he has been influencing the match in ways that give him an indirectly direct effect on the scoreline, even more than before the bicycle. His role in that first goal against Villarreal is a perfect example as he burst into space and made the exact right pass to Messi. Think about how many other players — Pedro is one — who would have gone for the safe pass to a closer teammate, or held the ball up and then passed it back to midfield. Instead, Suarez went for the high-risk ball to Messi because he could see the potential in that pass.

What makes excellent players so isn’t talent, though that is certainly part of it. When Tiger Woods was himself, he hit shots that didn’t occur to anyone else. It wasn’t that other players didn’t have the talent to make those shots. They didn’t have the audacity to even consider them. That’s the difference.

messi

One year the Chicago Blackhawks played the Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs, during the Gretzky days. Gretzky was rolling up the wing on the break, and a Hawks defenseman had him cold. But Gretzky already knew. He stopped, pivoted and flicked the hockey equivalent of a backheel to a streaking teammate, who slotted the goal home. The pass took an unusual amount of skill, but it mostly required the belief that such a thing existed in your skill set.

Phil Schoen described the situation very well when he noted during a recent match that people were expecting Liverpool Suarez to show up, but Uruguay Suarez showed up instead. At Liverpool he was everything, and had to play that way. For his national team he has players that require a different, more associative all-pitch approach that in the context of a Barça in which everyone does everything, makes him potentially devastating.

Now what?

Barça is top of table. As Mascherano said after the match today, all 3 top teams are going to drop more points, and the Liga won’t be decided until late. He’s correct. Being top of table with 12 matches to go is immaterial. Counting chickens before they are hatched is foolhardy, so the bleating of culers after the Malaga defeat about a Liga being lost when it wasn’t even won, should make you giggle more than anything else. The entorno is happy right now, but don’t forget that at the beginning of the season and well into it, RM was the best team that anyone had ever seen, every bit as good as the great Guardiola sides.

Now, having dropped 5 points in the last 2 matches, RM is anything but. But now the tables are turned and people are overblowing Barça, daring to talk about a league title. Mascherano is right in that it isn’t over until it’s over. One thing that is reassuring is that for yet another match, Barça displayed the kind of level-headed pragmatism that points to a well-coached team.

Xavi and Iniesta were excellent today, which would come as no surprise in a match tailor-made for their skill sets and physical gifts. Xavi picked that assist to Suarez as only he can, and Iniesta was, as Ray Hudson described him in match commentary, “like smoke through a key hole.” Rayo is always the cure for what ails. No physicality, no pressing midfield, no attacking mids directly in an effort to starve the beast of food. Everything today was exactly as it was supposed to be.

iniesta

During the Rayo match particularly in the first half, there were mutterings about goals left on the table, Barça not playing well, etc, etc. From the seat in my man cave, no reason for any stress was in view. It was 1-0, Rayo was about as likely to score as I was and Barça was in second gear. Again, it’s worth asking about the gallon jug of effort that teams and players have, a jug that has to be metered out over the duration of a season in which a team is active in three competitions. Barça could have gone all out, ripped and ran and scored 4 or 5 goals by the half, but why? Rayo wasn’t going anywhere.

Given another, less-willing opponent with less pride, who might turtle up and go for the point that they arrived with creates a different picture. But Rayo was a practice scrimmage in the Catalan sun. Why not relax and save the effort for when it was really needed? I was at the Gamper match in which Eto’o suffered a severe injury while trying to ice the cake of a 5-0 Milan thrashing. My first thought … well, my second was “Well, that was stupid.”

There is a time to go all out and a time to relax and take what an opponent gives you. In many ways, that has been the operating mode for Barça this season, and not only on this lovely Sunday. The team is top of the table, a feat worked by taking what opponents have given. What’s next is a dozen matches, all finals really, when you consider that RM has the talent to go on a 12-match winning streak, just as Barça does.

It is pressure and how a team and its players manage it that makes a champion.

team

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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.

35 Comments

  1. Jim
    March 8, 2015

    Kxevin, that was lightning! Do you even wait till the match has finished ? You must just sit down and do it all in a oner. A good skill to have as a writer.

    I commented on the last post not knowing this was up already so if you don’t mind I’ll repost here

    One happy camper here today. I asked in the last post for Pique/ Mathieu at the back and got it – very solid until the fifth went in and Mathieu looking more comfortable although I still worry about his distribution if pressure is put on him. Good to see him still with pace in the last ten minutes though. Need to stick with that though. Don’t want to rotate these two unless necessary. Given the FB absentees next game I’m also gonna put in another request we try Bartra at RB. Need another look at him but I was impressed last time and it keeps him happy. He must be thinking about a move at the moment.

    I asked for the twins in Midfield – I think you’re right, Kxevin, that there’ll be more physical teams against us from now on but the biggest factor for me was them coming out to play – always a mistake. That doesn’t mean there was no pressing from them. They aren’t a relegation team – they’re mid table and no mugs. And our midfield was great today.

    Someone will need to remind me why we can’t play Xavi and Iniesta together. Seems to me it was because the opposition run past them. Well, as we saw today this was a team trying to attack and committing bodies into the midfield and what happened was them restricted to a couple of chances ( more to do with a lapse in defence than midfield). Our defence, unless caught short of numbers is good. Let them do their job.

    Then it was because they slow the play down. Watch the first half and tell me that again.

    Is it now because other teams will press us harder ? If so, then my money on keeping the ball and the possession going would be on them rather than anyone else. I’ll say it now. Better teams won’t concentrate on them. They will target Mathieu if they can but certainly Masche at DM. How he responds to that will settle a lot but if I were him I know which two names I’d want beside me in terms of being available at the right time, being able to hit poor passes to them if under pressure and they will control and keep possession.

    Up front, I just have to agree. Suarez !!! You just couldn’t find a better fit for us. I just loved the ridiculous attempt to play Messi in towards the end when he overhitting and Messi’s first touch got away from him. Both lying on the ground smiling. Great to see. How well has Suarez integrated? Can’t agree on the non- signing of him but we’ve been there before so aren’t revisiting it after a performance like this. An interesting point for me is that, imo, both Pedro and Messi were virtually passengers in the first half yet thanks to the mids we still created chances. That’s what I’m looking for. Where all parts of the team can contribute.

    We could literally have scored ten today easily but for some poor finishing ( how many 1 on 1s?) saves from their keeper and showboating we haven’t seen since the Pep days. Great display and has often been said you can only beat whoever is in front of you.

  2. Jamal103
    March 8, 2015

    You bring up a good point about Messi’s penalty profligacy. He struck his second penalty much harder which leads me to believe it’s a psychological/concentration issue. It definitely needs to be addressed because the way Suarez and Neymar are playing as of late, we’ll be awarded myriad penalties in the latter Champions League stages. Liga refs are a different story..

    • Jim
      March 8, 2015

      I think the first penalty was nervous, the second angry. I honestly didn’t think he was going to take it but his conversation with the keeper in between seemed to relax him.

    • Gutierer
      March 9, 2015

      My understanding is that for most quality professional shooters and passers, successful penalty kicks are psychological, meaning that placement and less often pace are important in scoring in 80% of the time. There are times of course the goal keeper is lucky, but if the shooter maintains concentration and manages their emotional state (whether through courage or handling their anxiety, or whatever), they will convert most of the time. This was based on some conversation several months ago on BeIn Sports Locker Room in Spanish which included a former player.

  3. yousaf.rahman
    March 8, 2015

    “not been since Samuel Eto’o that Barça has had a striker of this quality”

    Respectfully disagree. Villa was in the same bracket as Eto’o and Suarez.
    If only we’d have signed him to replace Eto’o instead of Ibra, and if he didnt break his leg. I am convinced that we’d have one more CL title.

    • Jim
      March 8, 2015

      Yup. If we’d played him in the centre and moved Messi to the wing we’d have had the same effect. Sadly we only really saw the possibilities in the Milan return leg.

    • Inamess
      March 8, 2015

      Villa was, for me, an extremely overrated signing and I’m still not sure why Barca fans feel so much gratitude to the guy. His legacy rests on four or five “iconic” goals but in actual fact he was quite mediocre much of the time even before he broke his leg.

      Kxevin is right on the money here. To compare Villa in a Barca uniform to Eto’o is an extreme insult to the to one of our greatest players ever and one who directly gave the club two CL championships instead of “iconic goals” which in reality were just padding to already decided games:
      Manita: goals 3 and 4 in 5-0
      CL final: goal 3 in 3-1
      MIlan: goal 4 in 4-0

      El Guaje was a great player for Spain and Valencia, but not, alas, Barca.

    • Jim
      March 8, 2015

      It wouldn’t be an insult to compare anyone to Spain’s all time top scorer. He has also won everything in the game. However, I’m not comparing him to Eto’o although I think he could have been every bit as good. We took a natural back to goal, penalty box player and put him out wide on the wing. For me, a bit of a waste.

    • yousaf.rahman
      March 8, 2015

      He scored the 3rd goal in the 4-0 against Milan, a goal that put us ahead on aggregate. So that goal was indeed vital.
      I would argue that the 3rd goal in the Manita was indeed important. 4th wasnt, ok.
      The 3rd goal in the 2011 final was DEFINITELY important. Utd equalize and they suddenly have the momentum going into the closing stages of the game.

      The point i’m trying to make is that yes, Villa wasnt as good as he could have been, but I dont blame the player for that. Like i said, If we had signed him a year earlier, or he didnt break his leg, we would have won the CL semi finals we lost.
      Finally, “compare Villa in a Barca uniform to Eto’o….” ok, fair enough. But taking a look at their whole career, I would rate Villa just as highly as Eto’o, if not higher.

    • ooga aga
      March 8, 2015

      anyone remember when Villa was with Valencia? He used to MURDER us. We got him when he was slightly past his peak.

      i think you guys are having an debate that cant be resolved. etoo, villa, both world class strikers, Eto’o did more for us in the colors, Villa could’ve done more but for the broken leg, as you mention. we’ll never know. im sure Etoo scored many more goals in the colors, though. beyond that, just personal preference…there was nothing like Eto’o chasing after the keeper. a maniac.

    • Inamess
      March 9, 2015

      Yousaf, you make fair points and are right that his was the 3rd goalin the Milan game. I am not arguing that Eto’o had a better career than Villa though that would be an interesting comparison. What irks me are notions that elevate Villa to a Barca legend when I feel his legacy for our club is very overrated. Many great players have played for our club that are not given such status because they were not at their best or contribute that much to the club. (Ibra, L Thurman, etc).

      Overall, I would say that Villa’s Barca career was significantly inferior to Henry’s in both quality and productivity. That Villa was injured or maybe played out position is unfortunate but also irrelevant. In the end, Henry should be remembered as an Arsenal and French Legend, Villa as a legend for Valencia and Spain. No reason to give him a status that was not earned or appropriate another club’s legend as our own.

    • Timmymatic
      March 9, 2015

      Villa is a Valencia and Spanish legend but not a Barcelona legend at least not to me. whether we signed him early or not. whether he broke his leg or not. fact is he is not. Eto o also had a knee injury too. Eto won 3 UCLs. Of the past generation of strikers Eto o stands on the level of Henry and Ronaldo. The guy would have probably won a Balon d or if not for Ronaldinho. When we had Villa at Barca at most it seemed he was just Pedro but not as a winger but as a striker if you get what i mean. Eto o is a genius striker.

  4. March 8, 2015

    Well, to be honest, I have lots of respect for Rayo and Paco Jemez.

    See, Rayo is a team that every single season busts its ass to stay in Primera Division. It’s a humble neighbourhood team that starts practically every season from scratch, with new players and new faces, free agents and unknowns mostly, round a skeleton crew of veterans.

    Under those circumstances, Paco Jemez does not have the luxury to develop and evolve a “shut Barcelona out and bar the gates” tactic. He knows that this tactic has at best long odds and depends a lot on chance.

    Second and most important, he does not have the luxury of defining his season by drawing with Barca, not when relegation, with its terrible TV contracts and smaller audiences, is so close by. His season is defined by winning the battles he can win, and making sure his men keep by the lessons they have learned, even though they mean certain death against Barcelona.

    I don’t know if you have noticed it, and I may have imagined it, but it seems to me that every time a team parks the bus against Barcelona, it costs them. Even if they glean a point off Barcelona, that game is very exhaustive, usually costly in terms of cards and sometimes even injuries, and that has repercussions in the matches that follow.

    Paco Jemez considers the match against Barca to be a gift for his players and their devotion to his system. He doesn’t give a single solitary damn about how much his team lost to Barcelona. What he considers vital is how his men behaved in that match. Because when they see the approval in his eyes, when they see the approval in the eyes of their immensely more powerful opponents, who exchange their shirts, which the Rayo players pay from their own pockets, that loss becomes experience, a learning and reinforcing experience.

    And in the grand game of “stay off relegation”, this experience counts for more than a chimerical one or three points.

    • Dar_vincy
      March 8, 2015

      Coincidentally, was wishing Rayo would revert to a laid back style considering how much pressure they applied in depriving us time on the ball.

    • Inamess
      March 8, 2015

      Fully agree. A draw in football may be sports worst consolation prize in all of sports. The question is why are most teams satisfied with a draw. To my mind, a draw really only accomplishes three things:

      1) Gives consolation to fans and the team/coach that they did not lose and thus avoids anger and dissent.

      2) Gives a morale boost to an inferior team that they got an outcome from to a superior opponent.

      3) Avoids giving three points to a direct rival or gets a point when one is desperately needed.

      I can appreciate reasons 1 and 2 for the short term boost it gives the team, but reason 3 is the only one that really matters in the standings in the long run.

      Having said that,I wonder if a draw at Camp Nou would be a likely result in 2 weeks because or reasons 1,2 and 3. If things remain as they are, a stalemate, still gives Barca its one point lead but RM still avoid an away loss and have an easier schedule. A loss for either team, however, would be a disaster. For this reason, I’m predicting a low scoring/tight game.

    • G6O
      March 8, 2015

      I also have nothing but respect for Rayo, but if their idea is to not expend too much energy, that does not work when they play such an open game – they were completely exhausted by the 60th minute today anyway

    • bhed
      March 8, 2015

      Beautifully written comment.

  5. agar2515
    March 8, 2015

    Ooooohhh to see our now clicking front 3 unleashed on opposition, what a joy.
    Our front 3 being with Neymar btw, today Pedro couldn’t even bury chances against the usual fodder he notches goals against, but at this point with many you’re either in on him or you’re not. Im in the middle, he’s fine to pug in a starting XI against a team like this, or to come off the bench to buzz around for 20+minutes but that’s about it.

    We’re somewhat lucky he doesn’t have the gumption or talent of Alexis, that he’s happy being a role player, because wow our attacking bench (Who else is there Munir? Sandro? Ummm?) is bare as heck.

    I only worry about a game coming in which we have to claw our way back and the front 3 arent clicking, otherwise we’re golden

    • Jim
      March 8, 2015

      That’s good – and unbelievable !

  6. Dar_vincy
    March 8, 2015

    Spot on with your assessment of Pedro, Agar.
    It’s a sad story seeing the once lethal Pedrito lose his attacking potency.
    His insufficient attacking contribution isn’t as frustrating as when he scuppers an attacking opportunity.

  7. Dar_vincy
    March 8, 2015

    Is it me or does anyone else notice how Xavi seems to attempt more through balls these past few games he’s played?
    The nostalgia it brought couldn’t be more stronger.
    Then, could it be as a result of the space our magnanimous opponent afforded us?
    Or was it the constant movement in his frontal view that precipitated the decision?
    Or is he flowing with the current tactical tide?

    To other matters; we had the Uruguay Suarez, but it’s safe to say…we’re already witnessing the Liverpool Suarez. Hopefully next season he becomes less superfluously generous like Neymar is this season. He like Messi, ditto Neymar, act on gut-feeling and i’d hate to see him compromise that on the altar of profound deference, if not reverence for the greatest player of all time.
    Both send-off looked harsh to me.
    Barcastuff is saying Alves will miss just a game, other platforms say 2.
    Would appreciate a clarification on this.

  8. G6O
    March 8, 2015

    I absolutely don’t mind if they keep doing this, but you have to wonder why they insist on it – since Paco Jemez has been Rayo’s coach, they have always played an open game against us, and the average score from those games is something like 5-0.25 for us.

    At least we get a reminder twice a year why teams park the bus against us (and two very entertaining games) 🙂

  9. ciaran
    March 8, 2015

    You gotta love Rayo, they play the same brand of football every match and fall with honour. As Peter dais above though, you have to respect what they do. They could change everything about how they play and still come out with a loss or stay true to themselves and prepare for the rest of the season. As long as he keeps them up then I say fair play…

    It does highlight one thing for me. Everyone recently has been talking about individual brilliance and its importance versus team play and you see a team who plays good football without individual brilliance and gets humiliated to a degree… Makes you really think about how lucky we are to be able to call upon individual brilliance every now and then

  10. barca96
    March 8, 2015

    I’m a believer in Pedro. But it seems that he doesn’t make any sort of movement into space when Messi has the ball like how Neymar does it or it’s just that Messi doesn’t trust him.

    There were many times when Pedro was free and had acres of space but it was one or a combination of both above.

    Also he screwed up 2 great goal scoring options by not passing quickly enough.

  11. barca96
    March 8, 2015

    First time it’s not Messi for MOtM for me when we’re winning. This match was Suarez all over it.

    The passing was as crisp. Two final balls were either too far ahead or behind the player. That pass from Suarez to Messi and Rakitic to Suarez comes to mind. Those were 2 goals. Even when it’s not a last ball, the passing all over the pitch was pretty poor by our standards. At one point it was just 60+%.

    I love playing a Rayo and I know most of us do too but I hope you guys won’t be angry at them for letting a handful of goals when they face Madrid.

    • ooga aga
      March 8, 2015

      i think the passing % was lower because we were trying a lot of balls behind their defense, and less short passing, because they were pressing us, with their lines pushed up. makes sense our passing % will be lower.

      pedro…his touch seemed off…then again when was the last time he played a full 90? or last time he played two matches in a row? dude is rusty. we didnt see his best game today. i dont envy any striker on the same team as MSN.

      yeah, RM will probably beat Rayo. such is life. we’re the leaders so it doesnt matter as much anymore. woot!

    • Jim
      March 9, 2015

      Yeah, if you want to play a longer game the downside is that you’ll lose the ball more often and it’ll come back at you quicker resulting in less time in possession and you chasing more. It has to be about balance and using the longer pass when it’s on, as it was on occasion yesterday.

    • ooga aga
      March 8, 2015

      i dont understand the analogy. are you saying Paco Jemez is a foolhardy or foolish coach? A tottering, senile old man like Don Quixote? He’s actually a very good coach. I guess I don’t think this is fair to him and his team, but maybe I am missing your point. They play a certain way because it suits them, not because of some romantic notions.

  12. ooga aga
    March 8, 2015

    i read that the president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, Villar, wants the CdR final to be played at San Mames. my understanding is that the Bernabeu is usually the go-to location since it is the biggest in the country (along with, or after, the Camp Nou)

    Villarato! 😉

  13. hansh
    March 9, 2015

    I particularly liked the bit about players like Messi or Gretzky who attempt things that other players simply would not think to try – there’s a quote attributed to Arthur Schopenhauer that says “Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.” Seems accurate!

    I see this quality in other Barça players too – Xavi, Iniesta, Neymar, for example – who make the most inventive or seemingly illogical passes and plays.

  14. March 9, 2015

    The finish for that first Suarez goal, that is what we were missing since Eto’s time, to manage Messidependencia. I am so glad about Suarez, barring his first touch and control and also his passes on some key situations. That ball to Messi was a bit too heavy,even by Messi’s ability.

    Will Alves be out for one or two matches? Very stupid act, absolutely unnecessary.

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