Here he is, our Man of the Match, scoring his first goal since the Iniestazo against Chelsea, Andres Iniesta. And truth be told, it was a shot that was far, far more difficult than it appeared on the screen. It needed to apply control, accuracy and body control to take advantage of the open net created by having a French wolf at the doorstep, looking to take advantage of a pretty darned perfect pass from Rafa Marquez.
It was also the early goal that is such a crucial part of our success, because when we score early, the other side has to come out and play. And if we are at all on form, it’s all over but the shouting.
There isn’t a whole lot to say about this match with two prominent storylines:
–A deliberately depleted Racing side that was complicit in its own demise
–A redemption match of sorts for some key characters who will be essential if we are to do a double, or even a single, this season
Guardiola knew that this match was the time to give the old dudes some, so to speak. So he rolled out with Valdes, Puyol, Marquez, Pique, Maxwell, The Yaya, Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, Henry and Krkic.
And Racing came at us like a side that has watched other sides vex us by flooding the midfield, only they didn’t quite know what to do with all of the bodies they’d put out there, except foul. So apologies to any Racing fans, but without talent or a plan, that side just didn’t have a chance. The good thing is that it enabled us to remember what it was like to play pretty, elegant football, to try some things out offensively and defensively and get ready for Stuttgart in midweek.
There’s also a certain irony in the fact that this match had so many moments of almost indescribably beautiful play, yet our goals all came from odd duck moments and set pieces. Go figure.
–The first came when Marquez looked up and saw a streaking Henry, making himself available for a long ball that was beautifully provided. The defense was solid on Henry, who helped our cause with a little bit of a pick. The ball shook loose for Iniesta, who calmly put it away.
–The second came from a rather odd free kick situation that was sparked by some brilliant play from Busquets. Henry stepped up to take it, and threaded it through the Racing wall. Ray Hudson eviscerated them for punking out, but if you look at the goal, they didn’t move all that much. Is Henry’s goal any more or less delightful than the Ronaldinho free kick, that he rolled under a leaping wall? Part of taking free kicks is determining what the wall is going to do. So Henry popped it in, and that was that.
–The third goal came from yet another Busquets moment of brilliance, as he went from creating chaos in the Racing box, to recovering the ball and curving a deft pass to Iniesta, whose touch forced a hand ball just outside the Racing box. Up stepped Marquez, another of the Redemption Team, who laced in an amazing curler. Ray Ray can say that he was aiming for the post all that he wants, but there was a bit of luck involved in that goal, in which the ball smacked the inside of the post and caromed in past the keeper.
–Even the fourth goal, though it came from an exquisite sequence of play, was a little funky. Thiago plops in a lovely ball for Messi who, in cruise control mode and not really wanting to get the crap kicked out of him any longer, took it, bamboozled his defenders and laced the ball back to Thiago. The kid took, paused and smacked a shot that deflected off a Racing defender and into the net. Yes, the original shot would have been saved.
And that was that, a 4-0 scoreline that really should have been 4-1 after Racing had a perfectly legitimate goal taken away due to a ridiculous offside call. Perhaps Marquez was wearing his cloak of invisibility yesterday, which explained why his keeping the Racing player on side was ignored. Whatever. Racing didn’t really protest all that much, because they knew that they didn’t have a chance in this one, in the Camp Nou, in a match that we had to win, with key players on our side playing out of their minds football.
Collectively, we didn’t look all that sharp all the time, a fact made less surprising when you consider how many players were shaking off the bench rust, and how much we dialed it back once it was clear that Racing wasn’t going to be any real threat. And truth to tell, this match wasn’t all that interesting for a neutral. Yes, I enjoyed watching a win that was all but guaranteed, and perhaps the lowest amount of notes that I have taken from any match this season reflects that reality.
But there are some other things to celebrate:
–This was Guardiola’s 100th match in charge of us, celebrated with a wire-to-wire victory with ease. Very nice.
–This was Iniesta’s 300th match in the colors, and he celebrated with scoring a goal. Perhaps that milestone is why the force field was removed from the goal.
And with that,
Team: 6:. A little clunky, a little funky, but they got the job done, then coasted through the second half.
Guardiola: 7. The right lineup at the right time. He should have pulled Messi, however, even if he wanted to stay in. Once we scored twice, Racing weren’t coming back, no way, no how.
Valdes: 5. One good save, coupled with too many “WTF, Victor!” moments. If you’re going to come out to challenge for the ball, do it man style. Word.
Puyol: 7. Unfortunately, matches such as this one reinforce his belief that he is faster, bigger and stronger than he is, a Superman notion that sometimes comes back to haunt us against real opposition. But he had a fine match at right back, surging forward on attack and playing stalwart defense. Ray Ray’s impassioned defense of our Captain was heart-warming, if a bit misguided.
Marquez: 8. An excellent match capped off by a goal, an assist and a number of first-class defensive plays. And I gave him an extra point for chopping Canales down like a tree in the second half. “That’s for later, kid, when you’re wearing that ugly-ass white shirt.” Not sure if this is a sign that Marquez is coming back to himself, but I liked what I saw.
Pique: 5. His touch was a bit funky, and his uncertainty in playing the ball out meant that it spent too much time in our end. He didn’t seem to know what to do or where to be at times today, and he has to stop those rash divings-in for the ball. Studs up is never, ever a good thing.
Maxwell: 6. Very solid, moved forward with style and energy on offense, and controlled his side on defense. No, he isn’t Abidal, but he’s a first-class defender who will improve with reps. I daresay that by the time Abidal is healthy, Maxwell will have hit his full stride.
The Yaya: 7. Full-on man today. Busquets should say to Guardiola, “I want him out there whenever I’m out there.” He frees up Busquets to do his playmaker thing with his indomitable presence, ball control and ability to keep an attack moving. For me, the value of The Yaya came when Messi laid out a pass that said to Racing “Here, we’ll give you a goal.” The Yaya said “No, we won’t,” and destroyed the attack single-handedly.
Busquets: 9. Spectacular today, a sentiment echoed by Guardiola. Advanced playmaking mid certainly seems to be his role, and I’m not exactly sure about this, but I would be willing to bet my favorite Barca shirt that Busquets has had his best matches with The Yaya backing him up. His energy and intelligence were in full effect today, and his work rate was off the charts. And no stupid flopping about, which was nice to see. There was one point where he got whacked upside the head. The old Busquets would have fallen to the pitch, twitching like an electrified fish. Yesterday, he stopped, checked to make sure he wasn’t bleeding, and kept on kicking out the jams.
Iniesta: 10. Magnificent, magisterial, magical, mickeyfickin’ amazing, any adjective you’re willing to use to describe Ghostface, fit perfectly. This was a man shoved into the engine room of our attack, who ran the show as if he were manor-born. It wasn’t just the goal. It was the little runs, the constant working, the midfield pressure, the pass after pass that plopped in the right spots for our lads to work with the ball. Wow.
Messi: 5. Solid, and his passing was very good today. The lay-off to Thiago for his first senior goal was class all the way, too. Whether he was playing with a bit of a knock or not, show some enthusiasm, and celebrate a goal with your teammates. He and Jeffren seemed to be sharing a moment as they walked back up the pitch, with Messi all sullen-faced. Don’t know what the reason was, don’t care. If you want to be a leader, act like one. It was a great ball to him from Jeffren, and a great ball from him back to Jeffren. That goal deserved to be celebrated, and what cooler way than to have the team’s icon fete the event with him. I didn’t dig it. Not at all.
Henry: 5. I liked the all-pitch game, didn’t like the rust. He got some excellent passes, but he was let down by his touch. And he has to harden up in the box. People are going to whack you from behind. So man the hell up, turn on their asses and make them pay. Nice pick on the Iniesta goal, and nice free kick. He was doing things out there that made it clear why Guardiola’s “real” starting XI has him in it. But he has to do a lot more.
Krkic: 5. Excellent effort from CT, though I confess to having absolutely no idea how the hell he didn’t have a brace. Dude was on the doorstep twice, and both times couldn’t turn the trick. Amazing energy and industry, and for the first time in a long time, he looked confident on the pitch. It showed in his play. Guardiola is hitting the pipe if he thinks that CT is a “9,” but what do I know, right? But that one shot in which he froze his defender, made space and smoked that rocket at the keeper speaks to his immense potential.
Jeffren (for Puyol): 5. Good energy and flair on the attacking end, but Racing had given up by then, so we just don’t know.
Pedro! (for Henry): 4. Not much to do, really, because we were in a holding pattern and didn’t need to score any more goals. Was beginning to play his way into the match.
Thiago (for The Yaya): 6. Energy and industry, and I love his passing and aggression. That pass to Messi in the box was Barca-class. Yes, his goal took a lucky deflection. His future is bright, and Guardiola’s remarks about the differences between he and Dos Santos were very interesting. The latter sounds more like the Xavi type, and Thiago more the Iniesta type. Man, are we stacked in the midfield.