This one wasn’t as easy as the scoreline seemed, thanks to a team that, despite all the warnings, were looking to Saturday’s big face-off with Sevilla. Ultimately, it was talent that turned the trick and a tiring Tenerife side that fought, scrapped, clawed, pushed and fouled, getting in our faces as if to say “You might be Barca, but we’re fighting for our Liga lives. So bring it.”
We did, but it took a lot out of us, little moments of brilliance that resulted in four exquisite goals. We get used to seeing those kinds of displays week after week after week, but it’s worth noting the sheer beauty and elegance of what we witnessed, putting four past a side that was not going to make it easy. Those dudes probably followed Xavi to the bathroom.
It was raining, pouring actually, the kind of weather that can make a lesser team better than it is, and a strong team weak. And perhaps that explained why the lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Maxwell, The Yaya, Keita, Xavi, Messi, Ibrahimovic and Krkic didn’t seem all that cohesive. There was pressure, to be sure, but pressure that was easily soaked up by Tenerife, who must have been watching DVDs of our Inter matches. They intelligently defended areas rather than men, and put a passel of white shirts around Xavi, as if to say “Somebody might kill us, but it won’t be you.”
They were right. It was Alves, who spanked in a delightful ball, that Ibrahimovic battled with two defenders for and headed down into the path of a scampering Messi, who popped it home past the keeper, just inside the post. It wasn’t what you would call you classic Barca goal, but it was elegant nonethless, as well as showing off one of the many reasons that we plumped for Ibrahimovic: strength and grace under pressure. Sometimes, you just need a giant in there, right?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic worked like a dog out there, and deserved a goal for his efforts. As it is, he will have to settle for an assist, and some highlight reel passes, including one to Alves that was jaw-dropping. Oh yeah, and a very annoyed Ninja moment:
So it was 1-0 and we were off to the races, right? Well, sort of. We had some absurd possession statistic of more than 80 percent, and when we came flashing up the pitch on a break, Ibrahimovic having run his tail off to get into the box almost ahead of everyone, when Maxwell decided “Hey, I don’t think that angle is too acute. Sure I only have to get it past two defenders, the keeper and inside the near post, my only viable shooting option. But I’m feeling the love.”
He shot it. Stupidly. Impossibly so, ignoring a wide-open Ibrahimovic, who was standing in front of a wide-open net, having pulled off the kind of run that needs to be rewarded to make your striker not think twice the next time you’re about to start a break. And frankly, it typified Maxwell’s match, but more on that in the ratings. That pass, or lack thereof was doubly painful because at 2-0 before the half, Tenerife probably accept the inevitable and bow down. They don’t play as hard, and we cruise.
Instead, Tenerife had life as Ibrahimovic and Messi were playing a two-man game, since Krkic was busy being knocked off the ball by any grownup that happened to come near him, when he wasn’t being stood up and dispossessed by defenders. If he’s going to play the wing, as he was deployed on this sodden evening, he has to play it with movement and working give-gos with the likes of Maxwell or Keita, rather than taking the ball and trying to do a Thierry Henry. There’s just something about pace, size and strength that tend to make that kind of play work a little better. Just saying.
Still, it never looked like …. wait a minute, Puyol smacked an awful pass that The Yaya couldn’t get to, and Tenerife came charging right back, to spank a goal past a helpless Valdes. Suddenly it was 1-1, and they started playing with even more vigor and physical aggression, figuring that the ref won’t call everything, right? We got to the half at 1-1, and we looked like the better team, but the better team that didn’t quite know what to do with a scrappy lesser opponent. More importantly, we looked a little tired, showing those tired team signs of passes that are just a little off, movements that aren’t quite as sharp as they should be.
Pique came off at the half, in came Pedro!, and Krkic began playing more toward the center of the pitch, where he is happier. Sure there are still grownups there, but he gets a running start at them. So when a beautiful sequence of passes flowed from Xavi to Alves to Pedro! back to Alves, who slid a perfect pass to Krkic, all that The Kid had to do was slingshot the ball past a helpless keeper. He did that, it was 2-1, and there was truly no looking back. The rest of this match was academic, really, since we weren’t planning on giving them any more gifts that they could capitalize on. So the only question was the final score.
Pedro! tallied our third, when Messi broke him loose with yet another brilliant, perfect pass over distance that P! slotted home. It was the kind of goal that we have been scoring with regularity this season, based off movement and taking advantage of a pressing opponent. This was the second glorious chance for Pedro!, as he missed what would have been a glorious goal when he took a ball, smoked the defender and with the net gaping, chipped it wide. Yes, I thought for a moment about Eto’o and his inability to score against Mallorca last season, but P! put that to rest with his clinical finish.
Then Busquets came on to fill out our midfield, so we could pass the match away, since The Yaya had been moved to the back line, leading to what is fast becoming a tradition: Phil Schoen Moment of Stupidity No. 5,002,316. He noted that The Yaya has played the back line with “mixed results,” demonstrating that he must have missed last season’s CL final, or this season’s home leg of the Inter tie, in which The Yaya not only played the back line, but did so with style and effectiveness.
The last goal was my favorite, because it demonstrated our sheer excellence with the ball. Alves passed an absurd ball to Messi, absurd because it had pace over distance, a lovely little curve and enough spin that it dropped essentially onto Messi’s boot. Messi controlled and chipped it over the keeper at close range. It wasn’t just the pass that was remarkable, however. Messi’s control was staggering. I can’t think of another player in the world who, with the keeper and defender in close proximity, could take a pass from that distance with that kind of juice on it, and never let the ball get more than 6 inches from his foot.
There really isn’t a whole lot to say about this match. Tenerife were a relegation side who played their hearts out, but got tired. And in that fatigue, those holes in the defense that weren’t there when they were fresh, gaped when they were tired. And that was all that it took. Our win puts immense pressure on the EE, who roll into Mallorca’s indomitable fortress to try and keep pace with us. Let’s see what happens.
Team: 6. A little sloppy, mostly because you were guilty of looking past Tenerife to the huge Saturday match against Sevilla. Luckily, it was Tenerife.
Guardiola: 8. Can’t fault you for the substitutions. The Pedro! for Pique made it clear that you wanted to win, and right now. He turned the trick. And thanks for letting Henry fluff his feathers in front of the home faithful. Nice way to show love for an influential, outgoing vet. Moving The Yaya to the back line was bold, but it did the trick. Then you brought Busquets in to help solidify the midfield, keep possession and roll up the time. Rock on.
Valdes: 6. You didn’t have a ton to do, and one got past you that you couldn’t do a whole lot about.
Alves: 9. Has it been a while since you were Man of the Match? It just goes to show what you can do when the other team decides to not test you on the defensive end. Nice to see that your passing eye is back. That ball to Messi couldn’t have been better had you rolled up and dropped it on his foot.
Pique: 6. Some sketchy balls from you keep your rating, though you were kicking out the jams once you got that little bit of funk out of your system. Bummer about the bruised knee. We could use you against Sevilla.
Puyol: 6. You looked tired out there. Key interventions worked to offset the negative influence of that goal you were ultimately responsible for. Even when tired, the fire is there, and way to marshal the troops. That’s what a Captain does.
Maxwell: 4. Between the giveaways and non-pass to Ibrahimovic, this wasn’t a match to remember for you. We will need you to be better, much better against Sevilla, who have actual wing attackers.
Keita: 5. You weren’t much to write home about, either. I liked that you were covering so much ground when The Yaya moved back to the back line as Pedro! came in for attacking purposes, but you’ve definitely had better, more influential matches.
The Yaya: 7. You aren’t Xavi, even though you insist on playing like him. It helps the side immeasurably, as does your calm presence in the midfield. When you moved to the back line, like Pique you rolled forward on the attack, with effort and distribution.
Xavi: 6. Two more, then you can get the rest that you deserve. And was that a little bit of a limp that I was detecting as the match wore on? You weren’t as influential as you usually are, in part because every time you touched the ball, somebody from Tenerife fouled you. But when you popped up, you were amazing, as usual, with pinpoint passing and midfield control.
Messi: 7. A very quiet brace, and I see that you’re deciding to show off your passing, something that is much appreciated. It will also serve to make you unplayable. You have two matches to strive to match a pretty amazing goal scoring record for the club, but I wouldn’t focus on that. Just keep being brilliant.
Krkic: 4. Sorry Kid, you scored a goal but other than that you were mostly invisible, and lost out every time you came up against a full-sized human. You were definitely more comfortable in the middle, but wing play is going to be what will ultimately keep you at the club, so get used to it, and adapt.
Ibrahimovic: 6. You worked your butt off out there, sometimes trying a bit too hard, but that’s okay. From defense to midfield possession and passing to battling in the box, you played an all-pitch match. Nice of the fans to recognize your effort today as you came off.
Pedro! (for Pique): 6. Man, all that you do is score goals, but you shone in your rightful role as super sub, to take advantage of a weary opponent. My hat’s off to you as you battled as a defender on one end, then made the run to score the goal at the other. Wow.
Busquets (for Ibrahimovic): 5. You have to learn to play facing forward. Entirely too many negative balls for my taste. And once again, you screwed up and lay there on the pitch while the opponent ran the other way. Get up and fight, damn you.
Henry (for Krkic): incomplete. Your efforts, had they been for more of the match, surely would earned you a good rating, as your style, effort and movement demonstrated once again what we miss on that left wing. Two more matches for you, then on to the next phase. Good luck.
Next up, on Saturday, is a Sevilla side that need points. Bad. They want to grab that Champions League spot from Mallorca, and with two matches left, can’t afford to lose any ground. But obviously, we need the points as well. It should be a battle royal, so be sure to be there. I will be running the LiveBlog, in case folks were wondering. See everyone on Saturday.
And finally ….