What a match. Barça played its best half of football all season, Valencia defended like lions, even if if should be ashamed for being second-placed team in the league and cowering on the rocks, both goals were of very high quality.
There were key moments galore, and even when players weren’t at their best, teams stepped up to have teammates backs. It was, all in all, great entertainment and fitting for the marquee match of the weekend in La Liga.
It is unfortunate that all of that excellence was sullied by incompetence. In the first half, Lionel Messi unleashed a shot that the keeper fumbled, and the ball went over the line. Clearly. To people at home, people in the press box, people in the stadium. The Valencia players hung their heads, the Barça players ran off to celebrate. The goal was clear to everyone except the people whose responsibility it was to make the call: the officials.
The ref was unsighted, the linesman was busy looking for an offside that never was, thus leading to a goal that never was. Games can’t be officiated by robots, but with all of the time and money that leagues put into marketing, and clubs put into finding the best talent, it seems a shame that it has to all be undone by simple incompetence.
The post-match narrative was that “everybody is happy.” The logic is that both teams got a point, so didn’t lose too much ground, and the championship rivals gained ground. No. Wrong.
There are 18 players who are unhappy, as well as a coaching staff and countless thousands of Barça supporters. My prediction was for a 1-2 win and a continued streak, lead atop the Liga intact. This wasn’t sport, this wasn’t fate. It was simple, garden variety ineptitude of the kind we see in match after match in La Liga, an entity who strives with each and every breath to live up to the saying, “Played by geniuses, run by jackasses.” To this, we can add “officiated by dullards.”
It isn’t just Barça. That every team in the league can cry conspiracy is cause sufficient to make someone, anyone in charge wonder about what can be done. You can’t remove the human element from the game. But when that human element discards the hard work and excellence of a group of athletes, something should be done, even as nothing will. And that will be that.
In the first half, Barça was sparkling. The press was aggressive, allowing Valencia nothing at all. The midfield was vibrant and the back line pressed up. The people who craved attacking, possession football got their wish as gaudy stats were something like 70 percent possession and more than 400 passes attempted in that first half, a half that, for all of that dominance by Barça, ended scoreless.
Valencia could be defensive against Barça, knowing that the very football that so many clamored for the team to play, is also logical and easy to defend. The two men who could have changed that, one was capering about for PSG, the other doing rehab work in Barcelona. The consequence was that for all of the possession and excellence, very few clear chances were created. The hints of attacks that might have been, died at the feet of an offside yet again Luis Suarez, who returned to the quagmire that has defined his performance this season.
The danger of that was that Messi was off today, misplacing passes, making runs and being dispossessed, playing like a man who is either carrying a bit of a knock, or just off. With Neymar, Messi could have off days. With Suarez in his funk, if Messi isn’t on, Barça is in trouble.
But even an off day for Messi is still enough to cause alarm bells to ring whenever he has the ball, witness the goal that he didn’t score, a moving shot sufficiently difficult to handle that in in-form keeper was flummoxed. The beauty of the way that the team played in the first half is that nobody’s form mattered as the group came at Valencia in waves of possession, players and ball moving in an inexorable dance toward their goal, until at the death, Messi was either dispossessed, or Suarez was offside.
Any time that Valencia got anything at all going, Umtiti or Busquets, both of whom were stunning today, took care of business, and returned the ball to the mixer. Vermaelen gets an honorable mention for his first start in ages, being dumped into a crucible such as this, and acquiting himself more than honorably. He played quite well today, well enough to be in the rotation, instead of on the transfer rumor list.
While the first half was compelling for culers, the second was compelling for neutrals, as Valencia came out on the front foot, as it looked a bit as though Barça was psychologically damanged by that blown call. The larger issue was physical, however. As Iniesta started to slow, the difficulties that Rakitic were having — a poor, poor match — became more evident, and gaps began to form. Valencia rushed forward, confident that the pace of the Barça counterattack would be sufficiently deliberate to allow them sufficient time to get enough players behind the ball to shut things down. This happened, time and again in a match that Luis Enrique probably watched and nodded smugly. For all of the scoffing at his wing play and going over the top, they were tactical variances that served to destabilize opponents, admittedly assisted by a Suarez who was still a viable scoring force.
Barça was, in the second half particularly, even as it was noticeable in the first, too slow. As Iniesta lost that step due to fatigue, Valencia players that he was intercepting in the first half, got past him in the second. The difficulties of Rakitic became evident on the Valencia goal, a dazzling bit of play that saw Semedo get caught flat-footed on the overlap.
Because Rakitic wasn’t covering, Semedo hesitated just long enough for his man to get the corner and lace in a hard, low ball that Ter Stegen moved out to get. Problem was that Vermaelen, in the back line because of Pique’s stupidity, let his man get goal side of him to knock it home just before Ter Stegen could get there. It was an unfortunate goal to give up for many reasons, not least of which was that it took advantage of the weakest link in the XI in Rakitic, as well as preying on the uncertainty of a new player. It was a class goal that leaves us with the question, would it have been scored had Pique been in the XI? Impossible to say, even as many will ask the question.
Valencia was buoyed by the goal, and pressed forward to seek the dagger. Valverde, sensing that things were in the balance, subbed Iniesta off for Deulofeu, who picked the wrong match to play down to the level that everyone expected of him. He was awful in possession, uncertain, turned the ball over and fouled at the wrong time, a subsitution that Valverde would certainly have liked to have taken back.
The sub he got right was Aleix Vidal for Rakitic, as the Catalan got busy in attack up the right wing, and had a key intervention to keep Valencia from going 2-0 up and putting paid to any points at all from Barça. Valencia were running and gunning, the Barça right flank being terrorized by a man who, as it turns out, played the full match with a broken toe, and things were looking bleak.
And then came Messi.
It doesn’t matter how off he might have been, doesn’t matter that he was misplacing simple passes. He struck a pass, on a diagonal, over distance, that fell perfectly for Jordi Alba to volley home for the 1-1. It was an astonishing goal not because it came against the run of play, as it didn’t. Barça was back on the hunt, and working hard to equalize. But it came against the run of form. But that is why Messi is the player that he is, because the kind of match he is having is often immaterial to the effect that he has.
Valencia knew what was coming, had the right defense, but the pass was too perfect. And spare a thought for the Alba volley finish. Suddenly it was 1-1 and the Mestalla went as quiet as if the ruckus was an audio track, and someone pulled the power cord. And Barça was hunting, as again Valencia looked to play off the counter, looking to capitalize on a moment of weakness or inattention that wasn’t to be.
The best remaining chance fell to Paulinho, one of the players who sparkled today. We can be assured that he will take a look at the cross that fell to his head, realize how much time he in fact had with the ball, and kick himself. But it’s also safe to say that he won’t kick himself harder than the refs will, if they have a shard of professional pride.
Culers will scream conspiracy, but that doesn’t wash with me, unless the conspiracy is simply to support a lack of excellence, to be perfectly fine with the kind of officiating that, week after week for team after team, reduces matches to key moments defined by human error.
Next season, the Liga will introduce VAR, but — as of this moment — not goal-line technology. For the unfamiliar, they are two different things, both of which should be present in a league that offers, week after week, the best football in the world and boasts two of the most glamorous teams in the game. It’s a conspiracy of incompetence that shouldn’t be tolerated, because it’s expensive.
Officiating errors last season, outside of the team’s mental walkabout, cost Barça last season at Betis, most significantly, but also at Villarreal (a match that featured the same official as today’s). But they cost every team. The Liga should have better officiating, should have men adjudicating the match that are of a level approaching the quality of the titanic showdown fans got to watch today. The game, the players, the fans deserve that. And until that happens, it’s hard to ever envision a situation, particularly in a match such as this one, in which everybody will be happy.