And it was all going so well …
Possession stats in the 70s, the ball pinging around in midfield, Barça attacking, Valencia defending, Barça resetting, Valencia defending again. Everything was headed toward the inexorable conclusion until something horrible happened.
Iniesta took a tackle of the type that players take all the time. Enzo Perez got the ball but came through the man to do so. In 99 of 100 of those challenges, the player gets up. Today was the hundredth, and Iniesta signalled to the bench as soon as he went down. Even he knew.
There was excoriation for the Valencia player but in reality, there wasn’t malice. It was a hard challenge, but not a butcher’s challenge. The bad luck was that Iniesta’s foot was planted and that was the leg that Perez hit after getting the ball. Dani Alves, in the Juventus/Milan match, laid an almost identical challenge on an attacker, who went down, grumbled a bit then got up to resume play.
What happened in the aftermath of Iniesta being stretchered off is a link went missing. When Rakitic entered the fray, the midfield was Busquets/Gomes/Rakitic. Absent was the associative kind of midfielder, that shuttle player like Iniesta, who can flit about the pitch with the ball to make space. What remained were a bunch of incomplete URLs, and Valencia took advantage.
Compounding matters is that the precise players needed for those roles were watching from the stands, as both Arda Turan and Rafinha were injured, and things were still a bit raw for Denis Suarez. The result wasn’t that midfield control was lost, but rather that open links weren’t closed as players who weren’t used to a certain job were forced to perform it. Injuries can come at good or bad times. Having a trio of creative mids all injured at the same time is luck of the worst kind.
Passes got longer, runs with the ball proliferated as the Barça attackers had to close the links somehow. This increased the danger because every lost ball meant a Valencia counter, and a man moving with the ball is less secure than a pass to an open teammate. Valencia began to find its way into the match, and then Messi happened, with a goal that will be controversial.
He took possession just outside the Valencia box, and fired past Diego Alves, who immediately ran to the referee to complain about Luis Suarez, who was in an offside position. Some contend that the FIFA “clarification” of the offside rule means that as long as Suarez didn’t make contact with the ball, he can’t be interfering. But the FIFA rules clearly state that interfering with an opponent can also be “preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball. For example, by clearly obstructing the goalkeeper’s line of vision or movement.”
Was Alves able to see around Suarez at the time Messi struck the ball? What is his obligation to move to find clear space? Suarez didn’t make contact with the ball, and Unidamo Mallenco clearly judged Suarez to be a sufficient distance from Alves so as to not clearly obstruct his vision. So the goal stood, and a brilliant goal it was, even if it was also a goal that Alves almost certainly saves if a big Uruguayan wasn’t acting like a duck blind.
The first half ended 0-1, and if things weren’t looking to be completely in control, they were feeling rather comfortable. Barça was having most of the ball and the lead, even if the physical play being allowed by Mallenco made the movement of attackers with the ball rather fraught. The trend this season (again) seems to be to kick Barça off the pitch, with physical, aggressive football. It doesn’t work, until players are actually kicked off the pitch, as in the cases of Pique and Iniesta. Valencia hewed to the current trend with a vigor that at times bordered on recklessness. Mario Gomez went into Gomes, studs up, making full contact with the front of the shin, a clear red card offense that didn’t even get a yellow. Montoya was willfully and wantonly thwacking Neymar about, something else that is all the rage this season, as opponents take advantage of the “He had it coming” worldview to kick the crap out of a player trying to play his game.
When play gets physical and messy, the natural reaction is to close ranks and for everyone to focus a little more intently. Someone forgot to tell Gomes, who lost the ball, then compounded the error by sashaying after his man, Munir El Haddadi, who used the open space to fire past a helpless Ter Stegen for the equalizer.
We can only imagine what Luis Enrique must have been thinking after than goal, because it wasn’t long after that Denis Suarez started warming up. For a team such as Barça that is so vulnerable without the ball and whose game is predicated on having the ball. such lackadaisical play is intolerable. Gomes was clearly and directly at fault for that goal, with sloppy play on one end and lazy play on the other. A player doing his job is never more crucial than in a difficult away stadium with an opponent clawing its way back into the match. Poor play can be a lifeline.
So can poor finishing. Rakitic and Suarez missed excellent opportunities to continue giving Valencia hope. The latter was 1 of 5 on excellent chances, including an open header that he punted over the crossbar. Yes, he made the run, made the play that led to the winning goal. Finish like he’s supposed to and such heroics aren’t necessary. Barça is a great team, but even the best teams have a hard time overcoming sloppiness and inexactitude. Bad decisions kill.
The second Valencia goal came from another poor decision as Digne, who had plenty of time to play the ball to feet and make the secure pass, headed it away. It fell directly to Valencia, who wasted no time as Nani laid in a perfect pass that was struck home for a 2-1 lead, and a berserk Mestalla.
Suddenly Valencia players were everywhere and Barça looked a mess. Did the Iniesta injury affect the team psychologically as well as tactically is a question only the players can answer, but salvation came in the form of a set piece. A perfect ball found the head of Rakitic, whose header was parried away by Alves directly to Suarez, who smashed home from an acute angle. Just as suddenly as it was 0-1, it was 2-2, but Valencia kept coming with a fantastic chance — only the selfishness of Nani and the determination of Sergi Roberto saved a third goal.
The match settled into a familiar pattern: Barça possession and probing, Valencia with the lightning counter. Rinse, repeat. And with only two minutes of added time, things looked set for a draw when one last run was the one. As noted previously, Barça just keeps doing what it does, daring you stop it one more time, to muster one more effort. An exquisite, high-speed interplay between Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez put the Uruguayan in perfect position in the box.
Valencia, given the match Suarez was having, would have been better off letting him shoot. But Aymen Abdennour, a sub at LB who had a brilliant match, cleared Suarez out. It was a sure penalty. Messi stepped to the spot, and drove home just under the hand of Alves, the penalty stopping specialist, who guessed right but was a fraction too late.
The players celebrated, and some savage Valencia supporter threw a bottle at the embracing pack, a stupid, reckless act that unleashed Messi, who strode toward the Valencia supporters, hurling verbal invective of the likes never before seen from him. Ever. His face was contorted with rage, righteous indignation and exultation, and it was glorious.
This was also a champion’s victory. Teams have a moment where things come together, where something happens that kick starts a fire. Was this it? It was an exceptional win that shouldn’t be marred by an abysmal refereeing performance. This week, Barça completed the comeback, showing the mental toughness and resilience that is a mark of this Luis Enrique team.
Solutions must be found to the aggression of opponents, and how refereeing laxity allows possession to be turned in dangerous areas. After the match, some were again lamenting about how Luis Enrique has let the midfield to pot, positional play, blablabla, but here’s something worth considering:
Luis Enrique’s Barça doesn’t play like that, and isn’t going to. So it’s probably worth putting those familiar tropes away, and understanding what this team — THIS team is doing, and how it’s doing it. You can’t hate chocolate ice cream because it isn’t rocky road. It is what it is. Luis Enrique didn’t “let” the midfield go to pot. He has his charges playing in a way that suits the skill sets of the players that he has. What does anyone reckon would have happened to positional play Barça had, say, Xavi, Iniesta and Keita been injured? Who remembers the chaos of matches that was quelled when Xavi entered? Few, apparently.
The Denis Suarez for Gomes substitution was excellent because it restored that linking player to the midfield and let Barça back into the match. Suarez was also more capable tracking back, and putting Valencia’s defense on the back foot with his movement and aggression with the ball.
It’s difficult to be calm and neutral in the face of such a match, that had me trembling for the last ten minutes or so, then giddy, jittery with nervous energy in the wake of the remarkable, last-second heroics. This is a magnificent football team That we have the privilege to enjoy, week after week. What’s next? Who knows, but some there should be some respite as the woeful Granada visit the Camp Nou next week.
Barça lost something when its Captain was struck down. But it might have also gained something significant in a single moment, that might go down in culer lore as the Rage of Messi.