Already, I am reading that this wasn’t that good of a match, that EE had excuses, that blahblahblahblah.
Nonsense. For me, this was a spectacular match. Tell my hoarse voice and sore body, evincing the effort of willing our beloved Blaugrana on, that this wasn’t that good of a match, then shut up. It was a great match, for so many reasons.
–We’re coming to the head of a run of 10 matches in a month, or roughly a match every three days. We’re tired, we’re injured, we just had a huge match against Arsenal to get us through to the Champions League
final semis. And we won. With ease.
–We didn’t just win against anybody. We won against the Liga leaders if you believe that goal-differential voodoo, that was sitting at home, resting and plotting, while we were playing Champions League football. If we were going to go down, this was to be the time. Lots of people predicted that we would.
–Most importantly, we’re badasses. In all of the pretty football, people forget the mental toughness that this club has. A punk would have gotten in Sergio Ramos’ face after that silly foul. Messi said “Look, let’s get him back by putting the ball in the damned net.” So we did.
I don’t know if we will be champions of the Liga. There are still 7 matches left in this season. I know that this past week, beginning with Bilbao and ending with EE, we displayed the grit and swagger of a champion. We aren’t scoring 48 bazillion goals this season, but we aren’t giving up any, either. Our 2-0 wins this season are sometimes more convincing than our 5-2s of last season, because Guardiola has this team playing at an amazing level right now, as a collective. And it’s a joy to watch.
But man, did it start out with another match of “What the hell is he thinking,” as Guardiola rolled out with Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Milito, Maxwell, Busquets, Keita, Xavi, Alves, Pedro! and Messi. Yes, Alves was functioning as right wing, and some were wondering if we really meant to score goals this time out. But let’s think about this for a moment: We only needed a draw out of this match, so what better way to go about it than to flood the field with defenders, particularly a defender that can function just as well as an attacker. They don’t get breakaways or that much time to dwell on the ball, we don’t concede and the world is a beautiful place.
What made Guardiola’s lineup so daring, but so right, was the brilliant play from his fullbacks, even the one who was playing as an attacker instead of a fullback. Maxwell, Alves and Puyol are so comfortable with the ball at their feet, and so sure of their positioning on defense, that such an edgy scheme could work. And when they were caught out, midfielders were chasing back to force passes to be better than they needed to be.
Brilliant. The match started out a tough, foul-rich affair with yellow cards for everyone! Yay! The battle was for the midfield, as Pellegrini rolled out Gago to vex Xavi, and keep him from controlling the match and killing his team. As our Man of the Match might say, “Nice try.” Because for a while, the battle was pitched. But as Gago faded, Xavi became ascendant and transcendent, controlling the match and the tempo when we had the ball, and dishing out two highlight reel assists for both of our goals.
The difference in the two teams was very clear, in that our midfield was there to create, theirs to destroy. It wasn’t until they brought Guti on that they got some creativity, but by then it was too late because not only did we have a 0-2 lead, but we were on. If you want to have some fun, watch that match again and look at our touches as the ball pings around. We had to pass it hard because they were chasing hard, so we didn’t have time to dwell on the ball, and it had to move around fast. Then marvel at how everybody on the pitch had a rock-solid first touch, as if the collective said “We can’t be sloppy. If we have slop, we get in trouble.” It was, simply put, an extraordinary match to watch, and one that was surprisingly drama-free.
It was also a tale of two halves, as once we got the second goal, we switched from attack, to destruction. So everything they tried, every move they made, found one of us at its terminus, as if we were inside their heads. And the one time that didn’t happen, the one-on-one for Van der Vaart, Valdes stuffed him like a Christmas turkey.
And that was that.
This match, however, was also another bright, shining example of team play, in which everybody gave everything for everyone else. Milito falls down at the beginning of a Thong Boy attack, then gets back up to hustle his way back into the play, preventing any real danger. Messi runs all the way back from the other end of the pitch, to disrupt an attack. Keita just gives it up in the midfield, doing the donkey work time after time. Considerate passes flowed like water, and the only sullying of that delight was when Messi didn’t square the ball for Pedro!, deciding to shoot it himself. Casillas stopped him.
Perhaps he knew that we didn’t really need that third goal, so why not cover himself in even more glory. The GolTV announcing team discussed it. Phil Schoen wondered, and nibbled at what I am about to say, which is why the hell didn’t he pass the ball to Pedro!? Ray Hudson shouted him down, saying in effect that Messi is playing so well, blah, blah, blah. Nonsense. Pass the damned ball and take the goal. P! was there and wide open, as wide open as the net on his side.
There. I said it. People won’t like it, but it needs to be said. And in a way, I’m glad that he didn’t score the goal, because our two goals were team goals. That individual exploit would have been a fly in the ointment.
The first goal came as the result of a quickly-taken free kick. Messi rolls it to Xavi and keeps running. Xavi just one-times a little scoop for the onrushing Messi, who again amazed. He made it look easy, but you try chesting a ball perfectly, so that it bounces behind the defender who would have otherwise had you covered, and into the shooting space opened up by the keeper thinking that you’re going to do that other thing. It was 0-1 just like that, from a goal that came out of nowhere.
The second goal, like the first, pretty much came from nowhere as well, as Xavi took a pass, spotted the running Pedro!, and slotted a ball to him that was in the exact space it needed to be for Pedro! to take it without even breaking stride, and pop it past Casillas.
It was nice to have P! score that one, as I can only imagine what the feeling must be like to score in El Clasic, against the EE, for a player of the system, who fully understands what this match means. And boy, did it show.
The second half we pretty much decided to close up shop, playing defense with possession, and real defense when we didn’t have possession, closing out the match in a way that was as beautiful as it was emphatic. Iniesta came on, and Tika-Taka began in earnest, though it was on even before that. I know that detractors say that the style is a lot of negative passing, both back and laterally. But detractors are usually bitter, because their team has just been dismantled by Tika-Taka.
I, however, think that there is a difference between using a “negative” ball to sustain possession and reset the offense, and just banging it back to the keeper because that’s all that your little brain can deal with. Our back and lateral passes usually have a purpose, as they move defenders around and create space for our attackers to exploit. And they do. So for those keeping score, that’s 4-0 us in the last quartet of Clasics, and Guardiola has never lost to the EE as a coach.
Oh, and Thong Boy still hasn’t scored against us. And there isn’t a whole lot else to say, except “Like a zombie hunter looking for a Twinkie??!!” Ray-Ray, what in the hell are you talking about?
Team: 10. Another excellent, all-for-one and one-for-all match. The result of shutting it down against Arsenal once the match was secured was clear to see in the energy with which you all played today.
Guardiola: 10. You outcoached Pellegrini, and shifted your unconventional system to something more traditional when you had to. Yes, a moment of brilliance bailed you out, but let’s not quibble about that, shall we?
Valdes: 10. Every thing, every time, every place. You even started some breaks with your outlet passing, and you even knew when to just hoof it up the pitch. Brilliant stop on Van der Vaart. Yes, he helped by hitting it right at you, but some of that was the extreme rate of closure you laid down.
Puyol: 9. Brilliant, controlled and self-assured, particulary with the ball at your feet. You got caught up the pitch a few times, but let’s not natter about that, shall we? Once again, you played like a captain, in the biggest match of the season so far.
Pique: 10. Um, is it the shoes? Thong Boy is supposed to be super fast, but there you were, running along beside him. When he faced up with you, you won those battles, and pretty much owned that back line.
Milito: 9. Okay, I’m going to whisper this, because it might upset some people: I think you’re a better center combo with Pique than Puyol. Sssshhh! Don’t tell anyone. Your stay-at-home qualities, coupled with confidence on the ball and unrelenting tackling, work like a charm. You’re the foundation when Pique roams.
Maxwell: 8. Excellent match, sir. The notion that you just needed reps to play like a full-time starter seems to be coming to fruition. You had a few mental lapses out there but all in all, your veteran savvy and knowledge of where the ball was going to be, ruled the day.
Busquets: 8. You played to a 9, but lost a point for the diving. When you couple creativity with disruptive tendencies, it’s easy to see why Guardiola likes you so much. Just don’t dwell on the ball so much. You gifted an opponent another break, that your back line had to snuff out. And just once, finish a match with grass stains from tackles, not making turf angels of faux agony.
Keita: 9. People are going to say that you didn’t play that well, and that you disappeared for stretches. Laugh at them. Yeoman work in the midfield, and I’ve never seen you as graceful with the ball. You were flying solo a lot, and pulled it off with style.
Xavi: 10. Sorry, but that’s all I have to give. Command and control. It’s as simple as that. You are the best passer in the game, because you’re always facing forward with your shoulders square. This makes it hard to read where you are going to dish the ball to, and it also leaves you in perfect control. Always.
Alves: 8. I know it probably didn’t seem all that weird for you, playing right wing as you were. But not having to rush back on defense as hard must have been something of a relief, right? Even in the absence of much real danger, your pressure was constant, and your presence had the disruptive effect that Guardiola intended.
Pedro!: 8. You were a bit funky early, but quickly played your way into the match. I know, right? How many goals do you have to score before teams stop giving you all that space on the left to run around in? Dunno, but keep scoring ’em, okay? You were much more composed today, so there was less of that infernal overrunning of the play that you are so fond of.
Messi: 9. Make that pass to Pedro! for the sure-thing 3-0, and you get a perfect match score. As it is, you were almost there, with all-around brilliant play. I know that Puyol is the captain, but this is your team. You carry it well as you score goals, play defense, contest for possession in the midfield and draw fouls. More importantly, you don’t get mad, you get even, which is the attribute of a true assassin.
Iniesta (for Maxwell): 8. Guardiola brought you in to activate the Tika-Taka monster, and you did it with amazing style and precision. We kept the ball for so long that by the time they got it from us, they were so desperate that they did silly things. Then we got the ball back, and you and Xavi resumed the tormenting game.
Marquez (for Milito): 7. We were in command and control mode by the time you entered, but you immediately began to show that perhaps people shouldn’t be as down on you as they are. I should apologize, however, for my scream of horror when you came onto the pitch. Sorry, Kaiser.
So. We have a 3-point lead in the standings with 7 matches left. In effect, this means that EE needs to finish 4 points better than us, with 7 matches left. We have two tricky ties left, away to Villarreal and Sevilla. They have a couple as well. I wouldn’t be as quick as some are to anoint us as Liga champions, but it’s certainly ours to lose. But recall that we dumped a 5-point lead in the standings in less than 7 matches, so it could happen. No, we weren’t playing as well as a unit then. Yeah, yeah, I know.
I think this match also showed that the Big Two are really the Big One. I’ve said before that greatness is about taking the chances when situations arise. We didn’t have very many shots on target, but two of them went in. They had many more chances, and none of them went in. Either that last ball went begging, or the shot just wasn’t good enough. It’s one thing to dispatch Racing, or come back against Sevilla. Barca isn’t Sevilla. Yes, their rebuilding project will continue, probably with a new coach next season. And if it comes together the way they keep hoping, we might well be on the wrong end of those scorelines next season.
But for now, we’re the best team in the Liga, and to my eyes, it wasn’t all that close.
Official thanks to Vicsoc for running the LiveBlog. It’s a feature that the denizens of this space have come to expect, enjoy and rely upon. I had to do my part to help victory, by going to the exact same place, wearing the exact same outfit and standing in the same place as last year. I even sat down for much of the second half, as I did last year. And look what happened. Yay!