People will whine, and people will moan. Conspiracies. Complicit refereeing decisions. A team who didn’t want anything to happen. They kicked us. They dove. Blah, blah, blah.
Fact of the matter is that championships are won with matches such as today’s and we came up short. Woefully short. Espanyol played their hearts out, as if this match were their entire season. We played like a team who has had season-defining match after season-defining match and finally, hit the wall. It was bound to happen. The Catalan derby was our 10th match in the past 30 days. That’s a match every three days. And many of those matches were enormous. Stuttgart at home. Arsenal home and away. Mallorca at their fortress of a home pitch. El Clasic.
So it’s understandable that Espanyol would believe that this was their time to play as cynical a match as I have ever seen, a match with precious little pride in their colors. Though that isn’t fair. They fought for their colors. Only they were, in my opinion, fighting for a draw. It’s also an understandable match that they played, because what’s the percentage in doing anything else for them? A prideful death? What would ever possess them to come out and play football with us? I wouldn’t either, were I their coach, who got one up on our genius today.
They flooded the midfield, worked like dogs, marked the life out of Messi and Xavi, defended as if their lives depended upon it, and dared the other players to beat them. It worked because we had no ideas, no movement and scads of meaningless possession. Sure they also dove, exaggerated fouls and fouled us whenever something promising was about to happen for us. If that’s your tactic, rock on. It worked for you, I guess. Maybe you can even look in the mirror tonight and say that we played the best club in the world to a draw, and feel like you actually did. Whatevs.
We have seen this kind of tactic before, and played right through it. Every time except tonight, when we sunk to their level, and did some exaggerating and fouling of our own. And this was the time when we oh, so desperately needed to rise above. But we couldn’t, because the players looked tired, mentally and physically. A passing game such as ours, with its movement and intricacy, needs players who are fresh. You can only fake the funk for so long. Espanyol was getting to most of the loose or 50/50 balls, which happens to us about 0 percent of the time. And the ones they didn’t get to first, they fought for.
Better now than at Inter, right? We have to look in the mirror as well, and say that we were outplayed today, that the other team wanted whatever they got more than we did, that Guardiola’s interesting lineup came back to bite him in the butt. Yet, when we rolled out with Valdes, Alves, Pique, Milito, Puyol, The Yaya, Busquets, Maxwell, Xavi, Messi and Pedro!, who honestly thought that such a lineup wouldn’t get a sniff at goal, wouldn’t even trouble a keeper whose red card was rescinded in time for him to play, but who his club really didn’t need?
The caught us at the right time for them, and a bad time for us. That’s life. But the fatigue explains the rush, the bad passes, the wasted efforts, the general futility of our approach to the game. Yes, Espanyol put tons of pressure on the ball, but we already know the way around that: passing and movement. We just couldn’t make it happen. Lord knows what their lineup would be, numerically. Maybe a 0-6-4? It worked for them as we struggled to find space, in part because Xavi was all by his lonesoome in the midfield.
Messi and Pedro! were forward, and Xavi’s midfield cohorts, Busquets and The Yaya, were too busy respectively flailing about in agony on the pitch, or helping to put out fires created by bad passes that were intercepted by them. Maxwell was supposed to be the genius touch, but that didn’t work out, either. The things that we needed to make things go differently, were sitting on the bench, to be deployed too late.
–An attacking winger who could play with his back to goal, make runs and distribute.
–A big, strong, creative striker who could set up camp in their box.
–A physical, possession-based midfielder who is also an attacking threat.
We got all three of those things, but we got them too late. The match was a mess, and everybody out there was tired because they not only started out tired, but had to play a man down when Dani Alves wasn’t intelligent enough to suss out how the match was being called, and pull out of a ticky-tack challenge at midfield, on the sideline. What possible harm could the attacker have done, particularly as you had held him up long enough for the defense to get back?
Yes, two of those things suffered from a lack of match pace and fitness, but still, they almost turned the tide. Messi suddenly had more space, we had more attacking fluency, Xavi could pick out passes since the midfield pressure was greatly diminshed. Suddenly, we weren’t relying on Pedro! to be our attacker. Then time ran out. We had a great sequence toward the end of the match, where we were piling on pressure, only to have Maxwell kill it. And that was that.
It isn’t the first time that we have been found wanting this season. Sevilla found us short at home in the Copa del Rey. Atletico found us short and defenseless at their home. Rubin Kazan actually took a match from us, by copping an early goal, then out-muscling for most of that home Champions League leg. And now Espanyol.
What’s painful about this one? We dropped two points. Espanyol will view it as leaving what they came with, which is what most teams want more than anything when we roll out at them. But our standards are such that a draw feels like a loss. The pain of it is that we are locked in pitched battle with the second-place EE, for Liga supremacy. We beat them at their house, and people were acting like the championship was done and dusted. But for many, this was the championship match, as it will probably be the most difficult league match that we face the rest of the season. We do still have to see Sevilla and Villarrreal away, but they have too much pride in their colors to play the way that Espanyol played today. We win football matches. It’s what we do.
Win this match, and it’s back to a 6-point lead, 3 if EE beat Valencia, with 5 to play. Now it’s a bit more fraught, but our mission hasn’t changed: Win out. Remember, we can finish tied with EE and still win the Liga on head-to-head. So I’m not worrying, or acting as though the Liga was lost, as some are. We are still top in every meaningful category that can be used to determine a tiebreaker. And we will learn from this one, as Guardiola will learn that sometimes, you can be too smart for your own good. Sometimes, lads, it requires one great effort. How many times was one of our attackers headed for their defense with zero support? Dig once, get the goal, then rest. Just saying.
Team: 3. It was time to man up, and you didn’t. Fatigue? I’ll buy that. But to not create a single meaningful chance on goal for a group of the standard of ours, isn’t up to snuff, and you know it.
Guardiola: 4. You didn’t have them ready to play today, even though you knew what they would be up against. The right subs at the wrong time, i.e. too late. Should have been done at the half, to give them both plenty of warm-up time. And you got outcoached. You always say “One match at a time,” but you were thinking of midweek. Keita and Ibrahimovic should have started. We had a chance to get our foot on their throats, and it went away. Pedro! isn’t the player that his stats would have you believe. And you know it.
Valdes: 8. Well, you’re my man of the match. Who knew that you would be called upon to make more saves than Kameni? And I still have no idea how you parried that ball off the post, but you’re the only thing standing between us and a loss. Hats off to you. If some dude named del Bosque calls, answer the mobile.
Alves: 2. Stupid, stupid, stupid. You couldn’t handle the physical nature of the match, and you let them get under your skin. Usually, that’s what you do to the other side. Then you compound matters by picking up a silly second yellow, when you should have just let it go. You hurt your team. Seriously. In a match where every man was needed.
Pique: 7. On many a counter or attack of theirs, you were our last line of defense. Yes, you had some funky passes. But your always timely interventions and a calm that belied the angry freneticism of the match were your hallmarks today. Nice work in staying above it. Too bad you couldn’t pass some of those qualities on to some of your teammates.
Milito: 2. You had to pick now to play like a guy who had a long injury layoff? Even if your curly locks were getting in your face, it’s still pretty easy to discern Blaugrana from blue and white. So why did you keep passing the ball to the wrong side?
Puyol: 5. Hard to fault your effort for the colors, but you have to act like like a captain, and take your side by the scruff of its neck. Get in some faces on the pitch and demand the kind of excellence that we need to be champions. And I much prefer you at right back. You looked lost out there, and improved when Maxwell moved back, and you could return to your familiar stomping grounds.
The Yaya: 5. Yes, you were strong on defense, but your attacking midfield captain needed you to be better. It wasn’t your fault that your teammates kept giving the ball away. I know. But you were also sluggish afoot at times.
Busquets: 3. You killed more attacks than Espanyol defenders with your exaggerations of fouls. Stop it. If we have the ball, get up and contribute. Don’t lay there like a petulant child. The ref will stop play, because he thinks that you’re dying. Then Xavi looks back like “Dude, what the ….” You made some good plays on the defensive end. But again, your passing, movement and fluency are supposed to be helping our attack.
Maxwell: 2. Yes, the last time you played in the midfield, you were very good. So what happened? Was it the pressure that got to you? Whatever it was, your panicked passes and sluggish movement weren’t helping matters one little bit. You are supposed to create on that wing, in terms of attacking width and passing, not to mention possession. Why were you playing like a defender, instead of an attacker?
Xavi: 4. Ick, dude. I know you were due, and perhaps it was all those stories that herald you as everything except a cure for cancer that made a comedown inevitable. But I don’t think I have seen as many bad passes from you in a season, as I saw during this match. Hope it’s all out of your system, because we need you for the rest of the way.
Pedro!: 3. Just stand still. How the hell is somebody supposed to pass the ball to you if you’re running around like a chicken with its head cut off? And learn to play with your back to the defense. Every now and again, you need that skill. Yes, your energy is commendable. And I know that you work so hard because you aren’t as talented as the group that you’re playing with. But calm down. It will help you a lot.
Messi: 5. You’ve been marked by a whole defense before and prevailed. And many times you kept the ball too long, which played into the hands of a defense that was tailor-made to stop you and only you. I liked how you kept going back to get the ball, but just outside our 18-yard box is not where you should be playing. We destroy teams with passing and movement. You were a threat whenever you got space, I know. But great players are sometimes supposed to carry their teams on their backs, which doesn’t mean by doing everything.
Henry (for Milito): 4. You tried to make a difference, and did some good things, such as making constant runs off the shoulder of their defense. But for the most part, you were below standard. Whatever you need to do in practice, do it, because I’m not sure that we can get through this season without what you bring to the table when you don’t have the suck.
Keita (for The Yaya): 7. You were excellent, right away and the whole time you were out there. Why didn’t you start? Dunno. Don’t look at me. I just armchair quarterback this stuff. Your physical presence, ball skill, aerial ability and pace were exactly what our midfield needed to make Xavi and Messi’s life a delight.
Ibrahimovic (for Pedro): 3. You looked sluggish and uninvolved. I know you like to start, but you have to be ready to come on and electrify. This match was screaming for you to do that thing you do. So get in the box and raise some hell.
And now, we wait. If we’re lucky, Valencia will draw EE tomorrow, leaving us right where we started over the weekend. If we’re really lucky, they will beat ’em, but two defeats in their home in the same week would be a bit much to hope for. Which leaves us, as noted above, in the exact same spot we were before we laid an egg against our “neighbors”: Having to win out. Our next match is against Xerez, and we will be facing it without Dani Alves, because the league isn’t about to rescind his red card, as they did Kameni’s. And I’m not sure they should. Can you get a red for being a big ol’ dummy? Just asking.