So, I’m kinda speechless. I mean I know that it was Stuttgart and all, who aren’t going to be ranked among the world’s ultimate sides and everything, but I have rarely seen that comprehensive a destruction of a Champions League side. Sure, we handled Bayern, and put the wood to Lyon in exactly the same situation: rolling into our crib with an away goal off of a 1-1 aggregate scoreline.
But we just crushed them, thanks to the little genius you see here, Man of the Match for the second time in less than a week, Lionel Messi.
You run out of the superlatives that try to quantify the things that he does. Sublime, absurd, ridiculous, stupid, brilliant, magisterial, staggering, blah, blah, blah, blah. And what you’re left with at the end of it all is open-mouthed astonishment, and anticipation of the next time he plays.
We have watched Messi grow up before our eyes, from the mop-headed young’un who trotted onto the pitch and immediately set the world on fire with his skill, to the leader of men that he is today. The last two matches have shown another step in his progression toward being unplayable. He is now understanding fully the value of the pass, the slipped ball early into a match to a runner broken free by the fact that the entire defense moves with Messi. What choice do they have, really? So when he slid a pass to Pedro! early on, it facilitated the space for the goal, since Henry, Pedro! and The Yaya were as active as can be and storming the box.
And so he shot, and defenses around the world wondered: How in the hell do you play him, now that he’s passing to folks moving into space behind the defense?
Good question, and one that I don’t have an answer to, unless thank whatever deity you worship that he’s ours, counts as my offering of a solution.
Guardiola revealed that there would be an attacking surprise in today’s lineup, and we all wondered what it would be. So when he rolled out with Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Maxwell, The Yaya, Busquets, Iniesta, Pedro!, Messi and Henry, you could be forgiven for thinking “What surprise? Henry played center against Valencia in the second half, yo!”
But it was The Yaya, unleashed. I’ve often said that good things usually happen when our man mountain moves forward, and today was no exception, as The Yaya slid into central midfield. It was kinda weird to see Iniesta pairing with a dude who could use him as a hood ornament, but there it was. And The Yaya reveled in the freedom with an assist, and what should have been a goal, but was just pushed wide.
Stuttgart rolled out just like they did at home, with high pressure, intending to disrupt our Xavi-less midfield. And Guardiola found the answer in, just as he did in the second half at Valencia, the “Baby Kxevin is crazy” 4-2-4 with Busquets playing the role of destroyer usually played by The Yaya. Henry and Pedro! were on the flanks, ready to burst loose at a moment’s notice, and Messi was going crazy in the middle.
Stuttgart had no idea what to do. After an early foray into our box that was calmly dealt with, we began command and control. But rather than everything flowing through Xavi, it became a team effort as possession after possession resulted in pretty much everyone getting a touch. Our defense was playing every bit as high a line as Stuttgart, but because of our relentless midfield pressure, it could afford to. As one announcer said, our midfielders were hunting in packs, displaying the tenacity and aggression that were hallmarks of last season’s glory days.
This reduced Stuttgart to playing too quickly, or making bad passes that were easily intercepted by a defender or the lanky gams of Busquets. And off we went the other way, toward a Jens Lehmann who was about to get smacked upside the head.
But first, I want to take a moment to applaud something that, if it is indeed a trend, warms me to the core of my Blaugrana soul: the professional foul. We’ve started taking the professional foul to stop attacks, or kill breaks. Alves did it, Maxwell did it, Messi did it, even Iniesta did it, little thwacks that bring a whistle and stop play, so that we can reset. Every side in the world does it against us, so why not, right? Cool. So unbelievably cool.
And so we kept pushing forward, moving the match into the Stuttgart half of the pitch. And when Messi took a ball and danced laterally across the front of the defense, because of the movement and aggression we had been displaying, they simply had to play Messi for the pass to a streaking attacker. So they did. And Messi drifted left, to his favored foot, and smacked a snap shot off almost a dead run, that didn’t leave Lehmann with a chance in hell. Just over 13 minutes in it was 1-0, and looking like it was going to be more as we parked the bus our own way, with possession of our own, or gangstering the ball back when they had it. And to boot, between players running into space and direct, simple one-touch football, how could we not win?
Stuttgart really seemed stunned by the goal, not because it came against the run of play, but because it came as a consequence of an unplayable player, made even more so by his teammates’ movement. When Henry and The Yaya made threatening runs into the Stuttgart box, nobody knew what to do, so Messi took advantage of the space. Sounds easy, but his strike was sublime, with power and placement. And we were off to the races, applying even more pressure to Stuttgart, in an effort to put this one away nice and early.
Everybody was everywhere, and after a sequence in which everybody on the side touched the ball again, there was a lovely passing sequence that ended with Messi popping a little lob to The Yaya, who knocked in a perfect ball for Pedro! to tap home. It was 2-0, and this thing was over.
Stuttgart were able to vex us so at their house because overall, we played like crap, but also because our fullbacks were static as can be. Maxwell fixed that, which gave the likes of Hleb something to think about, which kept them from storming up the pitch, unbound. But more importantly, we played something of the kind of football that we can play. And it was beautiful.
I said during the LiveBlog that there was no way Stuttgart were going to score two goals against us. No. How. Because as a talking head said at halftime, “They are enjoying playing football.” So the second half went along pretty much like the first, right down to a sublime Messi goal.
We roared up the pitch on a break that looked dead in the water, as Stuttgart got back to erect a wall in front of us. Pedro! played it to Alves, who just flicked a pass to Messi, who did a little spin, saw that Lehmann was leaning the wrong way, and spanked a shot past him. He shoots so quickly that it’s impossible to know if he will be going against the grain, or with a piledriver to the far corner. But you have to guess, and Lehmann guessed wrong. It was 3-0 us, and from that point the only issue was to finish off the match, and not get hurt.
But there was a fourth goal in the offing, and Krkic came onto the pitch and barely had time to get his cleats wet from the grass, before Ibrahimovic spanked a perfect pass to Krkic who, on the dead run past the defense, one-timed it past Lehmann. Yes, Ibrahimovic nutmegged the defender to make the pass. You did indeed see that one right. And it was 4-0. And Baby Kxevin was speechless.
Team: 10. It wasn’t that everyone played well. They didn’t. But the overall committment, sheer quality of effort and work rate were astonishing.
Guardiola: 10. The right tactical decisions, including the one to start with Ibrahimovic on the bench. And man, did he have them ready to play. Note how after bringing Ibrahimovic on for the injured Busquets, he then subbed Milito so that Pique could move to the DM role. Nice.
Valdes: 7. Kinda weird, because he just didn’t have much to do except cheer goals from one of the best seats in the house. Patrolled his box as usual, but was guilty of a couple of funky clearances.
Alves: 7. Bold and marauding at both ends of the pitch, with some crazy-good crosses for Messi that I thought would result in a goal for sure. Timely steals and interventions as well, including one Stuttgart pass that really could have been trouble.
Pique: 8. What an excellent match on both ends of the pitch, strong in the air and on the ground, strong in the box and when he slid into the DM role, he was resolute there, as well.
Puyol: 6. Our captain didn’t have a lot to do, but has been better and more effective. Pique was far and away our best defender today.
Maxwell: 7. Very good match, with lots of forward pressure that kept Stuttgart unbalanced. Very solid positionally, as well.
The Yaya: 9. What a match, from his central midfield position. One assist that could have been three, and intelligent possession decisions almost all of the time.
Busquets: 9. An excellent match as he teamed beautifully with The Yaya, making interception after interception, and was so smart with the ball. No word yet on the severity of his knock.
Iniesta: 4. Another clunker for Ghostface, with off positioning, poor decisions with the ball and general ineffectiveness.
Pedro!:7. He’s getting a much better read on the match, and understands the value of bombing into the box when you have great players around you.
Messi: 10. I’d give him an 11 if I could, as he did everything today from defense and possession to knocking in the brace.
Henry: 6. Had some nice movement and a very good all-pitch effort. Soft in the box was his downfall today.
Ibrahimovic (for Busquets): 5. Way to tease Lehmann, and way to pass a perfect ball to Krkic for his first Champions League goal. Not much beyond that.
Milito (for Henry): 6. Was playing to a higher rating, but the match was pretty much done when he came in, so it’s not as if he had everything in the world to do.
Krkic (for Iniesta): incomplete. Yes, he scored a goal, one that came after the match was way outta reach, but one touch, one goal isn’t that bad a day at the office.
So, we’re through to the final 8 of the Champions League, with every side being beatable. Messi is going batshit crazy on the pitch, our movement and aggression tend to be back, for now. I will celebrate when I think that it’s back for real, frankly. And meanwhile ….