As any even half-cocked Buddhist knows, a fundamental expression is “be here now.” It denotes the mindfulness necessary to live life effectively. Because hey, if you aren’t where you are, then where are you?
Thinking about Inter Milan and Wednesday, maybe?
Consider the last time you tried to do two things at once: Drive and talk on the phone, cook and talk on the phone, walk and chew gum, pat your head and rub your tummy. How often are you successful?
Yet, we spent significant chunks of a match against (thankfully) bottom dwellers Xerez, deciding to be here now just long enough to cadge a few goals and do the business against a side that was some better finishing away from really making this match interesting.
As Guardiola said post-match, “It was a dangerous game because however much you prepare tactically, your mind is on last Tuesday’s match — and the one we will play on Wednesday against Inter.”
Even his lineup had that match in mind, as he rolled out with Valdes, Puyol, Marquez, Txigrinski, Maxwell, The Yaya, Keita, Xavi, Jeffren, Henry and Ibrahimovic. That this lineup would score goals wasn’t really a question. The question was would they score enough to win, or would plucky Xerez defy the “Don’t wear white at the Camp Nou” edict and vex us mightily?
Got my mind on my money and my money on my mind.
We came out and, essentially, let it be known that we could do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, on offense. Henry found the fountain of youth, and was capering around like somebody who suddenly lost about 10 years off the clock. Or maybe, like somebody who doesn’t want to be left out of this very crucial time in the club’s season. Jeffren was making like Pedro!, with the running around like a headless chicken. Xavi was relaxing a bit in midfield, leaving The Yaya to be giant Xavi, with extraordinary effect. And it was all fine in Paradise.
Xerez are a very dangerous side, because it’s fighting for its life, and you just never know. But they had to go and wear the white strip, the big dummies. So we knew how this one was going to end up. Before I go one word farther, full credit to them for coming to play. Xerez understand that to stay up, they need 3 points from every match, so the time for packing it back and trying to hold what you came in with isn’t for them. Hats off.
What this match also showed is that there is a decided talent gap between sides such as Xerez, and us. Duh, right? But that gap manifests itself in a simple reality: No matter how hard they work, the ultimate quality just isn’t there. They had chances galore, and just couldn’t put them away, because that little smidgen of refinement, the extra quality on the ball or the patience that allows a great player to extend a second, just isn’t there. So instead of having a rather difficult match, we had a stroll in the park, with about 7 vexing minutes.
We’re a different equation. As Ray Ray said, we’re “An Elysian temple of goodness,” which is pretty funny when you come to think of it, because he’s right. So when Xavi popped in a millimeter-perfect ball for Jeffren to run onto, our winger was greeted by two defenders who fully comprehended the danger. And they would have had it covered, but when Jeffren dug in to make his cut, he slipped and fell to the turf. But in doing so, he snaked out a leg to keep the ball close, popped to his feet and beat a near post-shading keeper.
Blammo, 1-0 off a goal that really was and wasn’t expected. We knew we were going to score, we just didn’t know when, and whether we would be able to score enough goals to be able to stroll comfortably through this one. The answer came shortly thereafter, when Keita slotted in another perfect ball for Ibrahimovic, who found himself in the box, rolling in on the keeper. But rather than taking a shot that would have been contested, he neatly slid the ball over to Henry, who tapped in for the 2-0 lead.
The astute will find a certain irony in the fact that we were debating the merits of Ibrahimovic during the LiveBlog, while he was on the pitch, demonstrating exactly why he might be the perfect striker for our system. He assisted, scored, played defense on set pieces, battled for possession in the midfield, held up possession and passed with grace, style and dexterity. Yes, an outsized price means outsized expectations, but he was a delight to watch yesterday.
What wasn’t a delight to watch (though it might have been for a neutral) was the Xerez goal, which you knew was coming just because they were working too hard and being too brave not to be rewarded by the footy gods.
And this is the point in every review where people smack their heads and say “Man, Kxevin’s a jackass!” So get ready.
The Yaya spanked a crappy pass to Txigrinski that the Ukranian couldn’t control. His blunder gifted possession to Xerex, and they attacker spanked a piledriver of a shot into the upper corner. We had one shot to stop that goal, but it was at the feet of Marquez, who didn’t quite have the pace to, even though he sensed the danger, get over to block the shot and control the attacker. Could Valdes have gotten to that one? Maybe. But if he shades to that near post, that means trusting that Marquez had the back cut covered. Risky proposition. So he played the percentages, thinking “If he can spank a shot into that sliver of space at the pace that is needed to beat m …. whoa!”
And the “25 million for this crap” began, about a player who really didn’t have that bad of a match. He played like a player who spent time injured, hasn’t gotten much in the way of playing time and is still finding his way into a side, which is to say, erratic. He’d make a very good play, then get caught out of position. We have to expect that.
Yes, I said that The Yaya fed him a crappy ball. I’ll drag out the basketball analogy, in that your point guard, as he’s coming up the court, assesses options. If he smokes a pass to the shooting guard, that player is going to take, stop and pop. If he smokes that identical pass to the center, it bounces off his hands or he has a hard time controlling it, and it’s a turnover that leads to a fast break going the other way. Xavi, Iniesta or Messi control that ball, no problem. Txigrinski doesn’t, and never will have those kinds of ball skills. So he turned it over. Does he have culpability? You bet. Does he have full culpability? No. Sorry, but he doesn’t.
We took a 2-1 lead into halftime and really, were it not for the luck that usually graces the best sides (which makes you wonder how lucky it really is), Xerez would have had another goal or two to show for their pluck.
And boy, did they come out in the second half like they realized that. We, on the other hand, came out of the locker room as though we were still in our jammies, smacking our lips at the aftertaste of cocoa and cookies after nap time. And they got in our butts, big time, which meant one thing:
It was Valdes Time. Save after astonishing save, Valdes was on the case, keeping them from scoring and keeping us in a game that we suddenly seemed to have lost interest in. My favorite save of his was off the point-blank header, because he followed the play, and correctly sussed out the path of the ball, its most likely terminus and the fact that the lesser Xerez player would go for power rather than placement. So Valdes just stood right in front of the dude, and caught his rocket of a header without giving up the rebound. Hell, he even got himself in trouble by spanking a clearance directly to a Xerez player then making the save, just to pad his stats. Yes, Marquez could have given him a better return ball, that gave him more time to actually make a good pass, but that’s a quibble. Valdes screwed the pooch on that one.
Guardiola, sensing the danger, sent in Pique and Messi, the former to stabilize the back line, the latter to say to them “Keep pressing forward if you want, but the little dude is going to kill you.” And it worked, as we regained control of the match, and our equilibrium. All we needed was a third goal, and a lovely display of passing dexterity found The Yaya storming into the Xerez box, facing defenders who seemed to say “No, you take him.” The Yaya slid a square ball to Ibrahimovic, who banged home the one-timer, capping off a tip-top match for him, and getting The Yaya into the scoring column, with an assist.
Then we turned the dials down even farther, and rode out a match that got rather chippy at the end, resulting in not one, but two Xerez players being sent off, one on a shameful, cynical tackle on Messi. Now as I noted in the LiveBlog, professionals don’t like to be shown up, so Messi should have expected the blades to come out, and I’m sure he did. Just not that hard. Then another Xerez player was booted after picking up his second yellow, for a silly, silly challenge on Krkic.
We did what we had to do, which was not kill ourselves, not get anyone injured, pick up the three points and get a few minutes for key players, going into Wednesday. Would Messi have played had Guardiola not sensed the alarm bells ringing? I think so. Messi thrives on reps, and needed some match time to prime his engine. And now, we look forward to Wednesday, when another team wearing white will come into our house. Can’t wait.
Team: 6. Mostly solid and effective. The star-less lineup meant a “one for all” approach that worked very well.
Guardiola: 7. Right lineup, right substitution patterns, atrocious halftime speech, if he even made one. We almost let Xerez back into the match.
Valdes: 9. My Man of the Match patrolled his area like a lion, sprinting off his line to break up Xerez attacks, making save after save and being generally excellent. Yes, he hosed one off. So he wasn’t perfect.
Puyol: 7. Very good match, with key interventions at important times. He was a little under the radar, but his effectiveness was as per his usual. No, he can’t attack like Alves. Those days are gone for Captain Caveman. But what a defender.
Marquez: 5. Most of the danger from Xerez seemed to come from his side of the defense. He still can’t cope with real pressure, which necessitated the Pique addition to bring things off the boil.
Txigrinski: 4. Some good, some bad, some adequate, some mediocre. I’m still not completely sold, but I can see the promise. He was much better his last time out. This time, he was very tentative, but looked much better when Pique came in.
Maxwell: 7. Solid and assured, with as much attacking as I have seen from him in a while. He adapted so quickly into the side, once he started getting the regular reps thanks to Abidal’s sudden fragility.
The Yaya: 9. What a match by our Terminator, both on the offensive and defensive ends. He made key midfield interceptions, then bombed forward on the attack, preserving Xavi and his energy for Wednesday’s match. Hell of a run and subsequent assist, as well. He looked like Our Yaya yesterday, which is good. We need him.
Keita: 8. One of those quiet but insanely effective matches for Huh? What? as he helped control the midfield with his athleticism and pace. It doesn’t note anything on the stat sheet, but any loose ball that was near him, he got to, including battling for possession to work the ball loose for The Yaya to make his run that led to our third goal. Nice to see after his funk of last Tuesday.
Xavi: 7. He was like this apparition who was there, just off the field of view, that would pop up, do something amazing, then dissolve into quietude. His first perfect ball was for Henry, whose weak shot was awful. Then he hit Jeffren with yet another perfect ball. I love watching him play. I know. Duh, right?
Jeffren: 5. He had one of those Pedro! matches in that he wasn’t that good, except he scored a goal. Like P!, he seemed to be trying too hard to impress, as if wanting to make the most of his limited pitch time.
Henry: 6. Turned back the clock with this one, a very good, and very active performance that included a well-taken goal, and a joke of a shot. Which is about par for his course this season. You had to really watch his match to understand the unfairness of some saying that he stank yesterday. He did run out of steam in the second half. Big time.
Ibrahimovic: 7. Excellent match for our Big Swede, who was doing everything on the pitch. He looked like a player who was enjoying the game again, even smiling and (shudder) celebrating goals with the team, something that he doesn’t always do. But as I mentioned above, he passed, defended, possessed, assisted and scored.
Pique (for Marquez): 7. Brilliant, stabilizing influence on the back line and at the rear portion of the midfield.
Messi (for Jeffren): 5. Was just warming up, and serving as the nuclear deterrent. A couple of moments of appalling selfishness, but that’s part of the wonder that is Messi, right? Right?
Krkic (for Henry): incomplete. The Kid looked active, but didn’t really have time to do much except run around and look cute. Was almost the benficiary of an amazing assist, as Ibrahimovic tried a little chip lob of the kind that Xavi executed to perfection in El Clasic. Would have been an amazing goal had the pass gotten there and Krkic did the business.
How is everyone feeling about Wednesday, in the wake of this match? I’ll tell you how I feel, which is like we can’t really draw any inferences from this match. It was Xerez, not Inter Milan. Yes, we looked good and times, and disinterested at other times. We almost certainly would have had greater focus against a better side, or without Wednesday looming. That’s life.