I have to start this off with props to Mallorca for determined and good performance. They’re pretty good at home, aren’t they? You kind of saw it coming, though, didn’t you? They had such a good record at home and we’re guilty of starting most matches fairly poorly that it looked like we were going to be down a couple of goals before the first ten minutes were over, but instead Victor Valdes’ best friend, Señor Poste, saved us from going down at all and we were able to convert that into a very valuable win.
Obviously the victory is tempered by the biggest news: Iniesta will miss at least the next two matches and probably the return leg against Arsenal as well with a tear in his hamstring. The diagnosis is that he’ll be ready for the clásico, which is obviously fantastic news, though missing him against the Gunners is going to be a blow to our strategy. After all, we’ll be without one of our best passers, which is what will help us get around any pressure that Arsenal puts on us as well as keep the ball out of their hands, which could end up being more important, especially in the second leg if we’re defending a lead.
That news is itself tempered by the return of Xavi. After 10 days that felt like 700, we get our maestro back, which, if we’re going to be without Iniesta, is fairly vital. I have faith in Busi, Yaya, and Keita to get the job done against a team like Athletic Bilbao, even though los leones aren’t a team to scoff at in the least, but against a world class side like Arsenal, it’s all about Xavi controlling the tempo. Now, he wasn’t spectacular against Mallorca, but you could tell when he came on because suddenly there was a sense of calm, a sense of space that simply hadn’t been there before. It was such an obvious shift that Guardiola felt perfectly comfortable, with the narrowest of leads, putting Jonathan Dos Santos on with 15 minutes remaining.
The starting lineup was an intriguing one, with Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Milito, Maxwell (added–thanks Ade), Yaya, Keita, Iniesta, Pedro, Ibrahimovic, Jeffren put out by Guardiola. I was a bit concerned before it started on where our attacking creativity would come from not because I don’t trust that midfield, but because I thought Mallorca would come out gangbusters and Jeffren and Pedro might have a hard time filling their primary wing roles. I’m also a recent convert to the whole 4-2-4/Messi swinging around through the middle/total football thing, so while I was looking forward to the whole classic 4-3-3 thing, I wondered if we wouldn’t see a bit of clunkiness when it came to the final third. I was hoping Jeffren’s pace would mask an positional deficiencies in his game and I hoped that Pedro could continue his solid run of form.
In the end, we looked like a bunch of scrubs during the first twenty or so minutes (not that we didn’t have some chances, but they weren’t clear chances and were called back for offsides anyway). If not for the aforementioned goalpost and some good work by Valdes, we would have been down two goals early and it would have been a very hard comeback indeed. Of course, that’s how things work sometimes and had there not been some untimely and incorrect offside calls against us, maybe we would have broken the deadlock far earlier than we did (63rd minute). And by the way, Pedro was offside when he actually did get the ball in the back of the net, so that’s the one I can’t really complain about.
What’s strange is that those two times that the ball came off the post were the only two shots on goal that Mallorca had. Another strange stat: Mallorca had 10 total shots while Barça only had 7, but 5 of them were on target. That Barça had almost 70% possession is probably what prompted Guardiola to trust in JDS, but it is somewhat worrying that such massive possession resulted in so few shots. We had slightly more shots-per-minute than Mallorca (roughly one every 13 minutes for us and one every 15 minutes for them), but weren’t particularly incisive, especially considering that our shots were often from set pieces. Still, we held them to only two shots on goal in 90 minutes and a big fat 0 over the final 70, which is something to celebrate.
Milito nearly scored with a brilliant header that Aouate was equal to, Ibra had a half chance that he turned into a real chance which Aouate again did well to keep out, Jeffren dipped a shot over the bar after stumbling over Keita’s well-weighted through ball, then Ibra and Messi combined to do this, which would have brought my house down had it gone in (the group watching here would have torn the place to shreds in delight). In the end, it wasn’t quite as impressive as this, but only because the end result wasn’t a goal. Sandwiched in there, of course, was Xavi’s entrance to the game and a few minutes later a corner kick that Puyol got a foot on, sending it into Aouate’s body. Dudu could only palm it straight to Ibra, who made no doubt about it with a vicious blast into the top of the net. He was well onside thanks to the man at the back post and it was a well-taken goal. Glad he could put that one away.
So we went up 1-0 and we never really looked like letting one slip past us in the final few minutes (Aduriz was clearly off in the one he put by Valdes), but it would have been nice to go up 2-0 and really put it all to bed–which Messi should have done, really, instead of blasting over the bar from the box. Who here, if it had been paused before he let fly, would have bet against him? But Mallorca played hard and well and, again, they should be given credit for holding us to 1-0 and for creating the chances that could have beaten us. On a different night, it very well could have been a win for them.
Enjoy the highlights:
So there you have it.
Tomorrow begins my earth-shaking Arsenal Week Part 1, so stay tuned for random updates to that. It should be a busy next couple of weeks for us, regardless of what happens. We’ve got @Arsenal now, Athletic at home on Saturday, Arsenal at home on Tuesday, @Real Madrid on April 10, then Depor, @Espanyol, Xerez, @Villarreal, Tenerife, @Sevilla, and finally home to Valladolid to end the season. That’s a fairly monstrous away schedule and if you mix in a Champions League semi final with that (please oh please let’s do), there will be a trip to either Moscow or Inter as well. Wild stuff.
It’s the business end, as they say, so let’s do it. For the children. Or whatever.