Usually, I start reviews with some observation, some moment of clarity that starts things off in the right way. Today, all I got is HOLY CRAP!
Now, I realize that this isn’t the pinnacle of eloquence by any linguistic or journalistic measure. But as an extraordinaily well-educated friend of mind says, “Sometimes, swearing is all ya got.” And so it is. Four goals. Four exquisite, astonishing goals, none of which were gimmes, or tap-ins. All required touch, skill, grace and balance from Lionel Messi, the man who, if anyone questions whether he’s the best player alive, we should all laugh until our sides ache.
Yes, Arsenal gave him gobs of space. Yes, the Alex Song injury really hurt their man-marking abilities. But when our little genius smoked that first goal (seen above) through a hole barely large enough for the ball, leaving Almunia with absolutely no chance, you had the sense that this was going to be a special match.
I confess to being clueless as to exactly how special.
Ultimately, despite the brilliance of our pint-sized, one-man army who is barely bigger than some of the kids who trot out with us for the pre-match festivities, this was a battle of systems. Arsene Wenger is an excellent coach, who season after season, manages to get the most from his charges. But it hasn’t been since the great Arsenal undefeated side, that he has had pure pedigree of the kind that we can trot out. Arsenal have talent. Gobs of it. But we have world-class players at almost every position, and it was the real difference in this match.
Put another, far simpler way, they had Samir Nasri and we had Xavi. They had Bendtner and we had Messi. Yes, if their club were whole, this would probably have been a closer match. Would Fabregas have found a streaking Walcott in space and delivered the pass to put him in on a helpless Valdes? Almost certainly, because we raised him to do that. Diaby didn’t even look at Walcott, dished a weak ball to the wrong side, and there went their chance to put us to the sword. Maybe.
I won’t go any farther without crediting Arsenal for a hard-fought tie. The injuries were too much for you to overcome. Yes, we were without Ibrahimovic, Puyol and Pique. But when our system is working, the ball never gets to the back line. Or when it does, it’s a desperate long ball that is easily scooped up. Because we live in the midfield, and are firmly rooted in a system that says “If you don’t have the ball, you can’t beat us.”
People deride tika-taka as minute upon minute of meaningless possession, but is it, really? We have the ball, and the other side chases it. They get tired, we spring into action and put one past them. More importantly, while the other side is chasing the ball, they can’t score with it. It’s as simple as that. When Arsenal had the ball, they showed signs of danger. But as with the Bilbao match, it was all about options. As Xavi stands there with the ball, he has four or five available passing options, making it impossible to get the ball from us. And whoever he passes it to has four or five options, and every one of those options has the foot skill and comfort with the ball to peel away pressure like layers of an onion, calmly choosing the right option.
And tika-taka continues.
You wonder if Guardiola’s lineup card looked like this: Valdes, Alves, Marquez, Milito, Abidal, Keita, Busquets, Xavi, Pedro!, Krkic, MESSSSSIII. You wonder if our practice sessions told him that this was going to be one of those nights for our Lion, that the one man Arsenal had who could man mark him was watching from a chair. Who knows?
Yes, this was another of those extraordinary team efforts. No, we didn’t play as well as those glorious first 30 minutes at Emirates. But we didn’t have to, because we had two away goals, and Arsenal had to chase the match. And nobody chases a match in the Camp Nou and lives to tell about it. Yes, they scored first, on a scramble of a play. Say all you want that Milito was fouled, but they took that ball man-style, and charged down to the other end. Valdes was standing his ground and parried the shot, almost long enough for Alves and company to come in and put out the fire. But Bendtner knocked the rebound past him with a nice finish, and it was 1-0, 3-2 on aggregate.
And I was a little surprised, because if you’d told me before the match that Marquez would be a better defender this match than Milito, I would have laughed, peed on your shoes, then back-kicked at it with my feet, like little dogs do in the park. But that’s what happened. The usually sure Milito was a little loose with possession, and was out-manned. Yes, he made up for it, but that first goal, and the abovementioned chance at another, were troubling. Yet the side remained calm, even as the advantage rested squarely with Arsenal, because they seemed to know.
Guardiola paced a bit, and then the first bit of magic happened. Messi makes a run, the ball isn’t cleared effectively, pinging off two defenders right back to Messi, who smokes a shot between them and past a stunned Almunia, who barely had time to move. It was a pretty absurd goal when you think about it, precisely the kind of goal that enables a team like ours to stay calm, keep the ball and hang around, because we always seem to have someone who can do something magical. A kid scores a brace? Sure, why not. A maligned BANGS bangs in two crucial away goals at Arsenal? Okay. Gotcha.
And now this. At the 26th minute, our passing efficiency was at 85%. Theirs was at 55%, with having had the ball about a third of the time. Much of this had to do with our aggression, as we challenged for every ball in the midfield as if we knew that our back line, if anyone got there, would be tested. So keep them from getting there.
The second goal came as the ball was worked loose, and a perfect pass to Abidal results in a joke of a cross that bangs around in the box, until it falls to Pedro!, who does the right thing and slides it to Messi for the brace.
Suddenly it was 2-1, and Arsenal looked stunned. They were still scrapping, but it was clear at this point, as every time they got the ball we just applied pressure until we got it back, that it wasn’t going to happen. Then came the third goal, which built from the back, as Marquez worked a ball to Keita, whose deft header into space found Messi on the dead run, leaving two defenders for dead. As he’s running at Almunia, two people are thinking very different things. Messi is thinking “Lob or corner. What about between the legs? Man, the world is my oyster.” Almunia is thinking “If I run at him, he’s just going to round me. If I stay put, he’s going to put it to one side. Better come out and be big …. what the??!!”
Messi lobbed him, with a beautiful, stunning finish that most players screw the pooch on, but not Messi, not on this night of nights. Great players aren’t thus because they do a lot. Great players are great because they do a lot in situations. Say what you will about Ibrahimovic, but his goals this season have been huge. And Messi’s hat-trick half came in a match in which Arsenal came in with a shot. But rolling into the locker room at 3-1, 5-3 on aggregate, they looked a beaten side.
The second half continued as the first. There would be no letdowns that would allow Arsenal back into the match. This was clear as even in the 85th minute, Maxwell ran like crazy for a ball that was going out of bounds, just to retain possession and the certainty, rather than a throw-in. It was that kind of effort and committment, by every player who touched the pitch for us, that won this match.
Yes, you can cite the immense talent gap and Arsenal’s unfortunate injury bug. And people will. Looking at our lineup, almost every player starts for his national side, and that was also part of the difference in this match. When great players play as hard as they can, very good ones don’t stand much of a chance. It’s as simple as that.
And then Messi, not being content with a simple hat trick, wanted to stamp his name with authority into the history books. He made a run that Xavi saw and, while holding the captain’s armband in his hand, casually slid a ball to Messi, who was stopped once, but was quickest to the rebound, whereupon he put it between Almunia’s legs.
Yes, that’s beating a keeper high, low, to the side and over the top. It was amazing, and a performance that has all the pundits buzzing. As I said in the run-up to this match, Messi wasn’t going to be mediocre against the same team twice. I didn’t think he had four goals in him, but if you let him run around with the ball, bad things are going to happen to you.
Team: 10. It was an amazing collective display. Not every player lived up to the perfect standard but as a group, they dominated, helped, pressurized then killed the match with style.
Guardiola: 10. Is it genius to write Messi’s name on the lineup card? No. But he had this side about as ready to play as I have ever seen them, and hats off for riding the hot hand and giving Krkic the start. He’s earned it.
Valdes: 7. On form, he holds that Bendtner shot rather than spilling the rebound, but he was pretty much perfect after that.
Alves: 8. A true hell-raiser on that side, with some pinpoint passes and exceptional defense. Sometimes, being an irritant is just as effective as playing very well. When you can do both, watch out.
Marquez: 8. A few giveaways, but the Kaiser kicked ass and took names tonight, stopping attacks, starting attacks for us, intercepting balls and making a liar out of the anti faction. Was it the haircut?
Milito: 7. He’s been better, but a very strong match after he got out-manned for that first Arsenal goal. His strong challenges change the way players approach our box. Keep sharpening that hatchet, curly.
Abidal: 7. His passing gyros were WAY off, but excellent defense in mostly shutting down Theo Walcott, who was getting increasingly frustrated.
Keita: 9. Dude was magnificent, doing that thankless job of running around everywhere in the midfield, to keep anything from happening that doesn’t benefit us.
Busquets: 8. Good Busi. Gooood Busi. From making the right passes to breaking up attack after attack, you can see the future in this gangly assassin. I’m deducting a point for the silly exaggeration in the coming together with Eboue. Come on, dude. We’re killing them. Just man up.
Xavi: 10. Truly an all-planet display from the world’s best midfielder. Pass after pass, he had our midfield on lockdown. The only way to get the ball from him was to foul him and even then, he’d already released it and sent an attacker on his way.
Pedro!: 6. Some good and some bad, but he wasn’t quite his usual self today. He was playing with more calmness, which was good. But we will need him to be much better against EE, since it’s looking Henry isn’t going to see the light of day this season.
Krkic: 8. An excellent all-pitch match, with insane amounts of forward pressure, midfield battling and possession and all-around control. It’s the kind of match that Henry used to play for the side, in which he doesn’t show up on the scoresheet, but is very influential.
Messi: 10. Unfortunately, I only have 10. He deserves more. Yes, he had a couple of bad passes. But every time he touched the ball it meant danger, and his aggression, constantly running forward to pressure Arsenal’s back line, displayed a kind of energy that is that of a true leader. Has there ever been a clearer Man of the Match?
Maxwell (for Abidal): 7. Continued the overall excellence, and seemed to better understand how to positionally play Walcott. He was much better against the speedy attacker today.
The Yaya (for Krkic): 6. Clunky and funky at first, but began playing his way into the match.
Iniesta (for Pedro!): incomplete. But man, was it good to see him on the pitch, sliding those balls around on Xavi’s wing.
And now we’re in the semis, against Inter Milan, who are playing excellent football right now, scoring when they have to, and not conceding. It is said that if you give a good coach enough shots at you, eventually he will figure out a way to beat you. We’ve seen Inter in the group stages, where we drew them away and spanked them at home. Should be some good football.
Yes, people will say that we depend on Messi, but here’s how I look at it: If you’re going to war and you have the ultimate weapon, why the hell wouldn’t you use it whenever, and wherever you could? People used to scoff at the Chicago Bulls and say “They’d be nothing without Michael Jordan.” But you know what? They HAD Michael Jordan, and they won six championships.
Likewise, we have Lionel Messi, and we won six trophies last season, and are on track for two this season. Do we depend on him? No, because other players on the side can kill you. Do we revel in him, and understand that we have the best player in the game right now, bar none? You bet your bottom dollar we do, and what of it?