This one was coming.
An away match that had many culers more nervous than the Classic fully lived up to its billing, for all of the worrisome reasons.
— Barça being bathed in sonnets of praise.
— An opponent down on its luck, just after a coaching change.
— A very difficult ground for away teams.
— A star player still working his way into form after an injury layoff.
This was an enthralling match of football that conspired to frustrate, delight and confuse. End-to-end brilliance resulted in what is, on aggregate, a more than fair result if we look at the entire situation. They should have gotten a penalty call as Pique pulled back his man, and Suarez was in with a fair shout for a red card after his fancy footwork on a Valencia defender, not to mention that the goal he scored was offside.
But more than the circumstances, this result was fair because Valencia played the game with grit, fire and the determination of a team that didn’t want to disappoint its home fans but more importantly, didn’t want to disappoint each other. They fought, clawed and seemed to always be in position to cut out that final pass, time and again, laying in wait until they were able to catch a tired Barça, who stopped doing the very things that had made the team’s recent run of successes so laudable.
Coming into the match, Enrique chose his best XI of Bravo, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Iniesta, Rakitic, Neymar, Suarez and Messi. And Valencia was vulnerable early as first Messi, then Neymar missed legitimately excellent chances. If any of those go in, Valencia is probably in for a battering. As Busquets said after the match, there were opportunities to finish Valencia off, and those have to be taken. They weren’t. Meanwhile, Valencia, with its only real chance on goal, buried it. It’s worth a look at what happened.
Starting to build play from the back, their defender feeds a pass to a midfielder, who takes the ball in acres of space. No tracking, no pressure, no press. He picks out a flawless pass to the runner, who controls it. People were heaping abuse on Mascherano, and some probably will here, as well, but have a look at the quality of that ball, and the control that it took to bring it down. Both were verging on perfect.
As the eventual scorer is dashing toward the Barça goal, Alves is focused on the ball. As he sees that Mascherano and Pique have the Valencia attacker bracketed, he stops running. At another time, in another place, he makes a simple diagonal run to cut off the eventual goal scorer instead of relaxing when he sees his CBs on the scene. Because if anyone cuts off that runner, that goal never happens.
Instead, the scorer is allowed to take the pass in acres of space, and he lashes home for the equalizer.
A lot of questions can be asked about the goal, but the one most noticeable from this seat is that Barça stopped being the team that had heretofore been worthy of all the accolades. That team was playing like Valencia, backstopping each other, taking tasks upon themselves and getting things done as a hard-working unit. After Barça scored the goal, the team started playing as though the lead were much bigger, as though things were much more than a mistake or two away from being equal, and that cost.
Was tiredness a factor? Possibly. Enrique made no subs but really, the one area of the pitch that could have benefited from a substitution was bereft of options. Both Sergi Roberto and Rafinha, natural subs in that second half, were on the injured list. The bench had a keeper, a couple of forwards and defenders, but no mids. So Barça tried to make do with a throttled-back approach to things that eventually cost them. That’s football.
Lost in the post-match chagrin will be that Barça played a very good match of football, one that on a different day would have found the team winning by something like 1-3 or 1-4. The early signs were that it would be business as usual, as Neymar bossed his wing. Valencia countered by sagging extra men to defend him, confident that a poor Messi could be controlled and would ultimately do them less damage. It was a gamble that paid off, particularly coupled with the fact that we saw more of the cranky, contentious Suarez than the confident, lethal striker who has been prowling the Barça front line. He struggled to read plays that were developing, often caught on the wrong foot, only to be outrun to the ball by a quicker Valencia defender.
Was the blessing and curse of that trident on display today? Arguably. If any one of them if off, the other two become easier to control. If two are off, the job for a determined defense becomes a lot less complex. Stop Messi became stop Neymar. The blizzard of goals that comes from the best front three in football is worth celebrating for the magnificent thing that it is. But when the system is properly functioning, as it was in the Classic (the Roma match can be discounted for the appalling defending by the Serie A side) or Villanovense, goals can potentially come from anywhere.
But at the Mestalla, a hapless hunting ground for Barça that required a miracle Busquets putback for a scrappy win last season, everything needed to be spot on. For about 30 minutes, it was as chance after chance was created and spurned. As Valencia came into the match and the sharpness of Barça diminished thanks to the endless running, chances diminished and danger increased as players weren’t in the same positions to make the necessary plays.
In the first half, Iniesta or Neymar are in position to harass the player making the long pass for the Valencia goal. Late in the match, people are watching, and figuring that the CBs will be able to deal with it. Heavy legs force poor decisions.
Were there subs available to Enrique who might have been able to turn things? Man, was this a match for Pedro, but he’s in the Stamford Bridge miasma. Sandro or Munir? That means taking off one of the front three, unless you sub Rakitic, who disappears when he’s tired. But then you drop Messi into midfield, which means more running and ground covering for a player still coming into form after a knee injury. Vermaelen for Rakitic, move Mascherano up and do the double pivot thing? That was probably the most viable option for Enrique, but until the match was out of control, it was in control. Barça was throttled back but playing well enough to keep Valencia from scoring, a couple of defensive errors aside.
The danger of tired players, however, is that easy things become complicated, and covering sprints lose that necessary half step. That, too, is football, even as the signs that something wicked this was comes was clear for Barça. Neymar was suddenly quiet, which meant that Suarez was quiet. Messi was making solo runs like a player who was in world-beating mode instead of a dude looking for his best form, and the Valencia defenders were converging on him, confident in their ability to control that option. And, at the end of the match, after the equalizer, Messi was snarking at a Valencia attacker, another bad sign. His day had gotten to him as three excellent scoring chances that he usually buries in his sleep, plagued upon his mind. He had a free kick come close, and another late chance that he shot directly at a waiting keeper.
But Messi is allowed to have poor matches. Despite what an adoring fanbase might believe, he is human. But his team is supposed to have his back, and it did for 85 minutes of mostly very good football in an exceptionally difficult ground for Barça. But the game doesn’t always go as it’s supposed to, and the ball doesn’t always go into the net. Enrique was sanguine about the draw, as well he should have been. His team played really well, and was outdone by an exceptional bit of football. It happened against Roma, just as it did at the Mestalla. It will be easy to search for and find reasons for the two dropped points, but sometimes the answer is that football does what it does.