As a Sevilla fan at that club’s The Offside page noted after they gave our kids and b-teamers a 3-1 kiss at their house, “Remember when we pissed them off last season? 4-0?”
Yes, we do. And it was deja vu all over again, in a masterclass of decisive, dominant football, with a twist: Usually, it’s our opponent who catches us looking forward to a crucial mid-week European encounter. This time, it was us catching someone in a position of disadvantage. Because make no mistake, Sevilla had to balance the club’s Champions League needs past and upcoming, with what will almost certainly be the club’s most realistic chance to win silver.
So they rolled out with a spate of tactical naivete that was sure to fail, and so it did, because they ran into a buzzsaw, and we got, as Parliament-Funkadelic would say, not just knee deep, but hip-deep in that ass.
This was a match that was over before it started, because of Sevilla’s staggering tactical blunder of deciding to absorb our pressure, playing with a two-goal lead as they were. This means that we had plenty of space, and almost all of the possession, with stats approaching 70/30 some 15 minutes into the match. And Guardiola let it be known that he was for real with this one. He rolled out with Valdes, Alves, Pique, Abidal, Maxwell, Keita, Busquets, Xavi, Messi, Pedro and Krkic. That’s the real deal, minus Iniesta, Villa, Puyol and (arguably) Ibrahimovic.
This was also the wrong lineup for Sevilla to decide to give space to, because the way teams decided to play us toward the end of last season, was to press the hell out of Xavi, foul him if necessary, just don’t give him the time to pick you apart.
Are memories really that short? Xavi is a demanding, almost tyrannical taskmaster. His passes make incessant demands upon the attackers. They say to Krkic, “Don’t stop the run next time.” They say to Alves “Of course you can control this pass with two defenders on you. You need the ball right now, so take it.” His perfect little pass to Pedro! in space, said “Even after last year, they still don’t respect you. Make them pay. Here ya go.”
Pedro! turned on the jets, and went on one of his crazy, high-wire, stumbling runs that made mincemeat of three defenders. He crossed the ball and Konko, running toward the goal to defend, knocked it into his own net as if he were the intended recipient of the pass from P!. 1-0 good guys.
To their credit, Sevilla stuck to their game plan. But without applying offensive pressure, Alves and Maxwell became almost full-time attackers. So where most clubs have two or three in the attack, we have Alves, Maxwell, Messi, Xavi, Pedro!, Krkic and Keita. It’s just too many men, and if you don’t stop the ball, it becomes impossible to play. When you allow Keita to bring the ball all the way up to your box because you’re worried about getting killed by Xavi, it presents a whole different set of problems, as Sevilla also discovered. So you have to respect more of our attackers, which is all that we need.
The second goal came from about as beautiful a play as we will see this season, mostly because of its simplicity and perfect timing. Messi popped back behind the defense, then broke through a space created by the Sevilla back line. Xavi popped an inch-perfect ball for Messi, who slid it past Palop, making it 2-0 and saying to Krkic, who had missed a couple of gilt-edged chances, “That’s how you do it, kid. Pay attention.”
More importantly, we were now in the driver’s seat in this tie, and Sevilla had to play football. Simple as that. At least, if they wanted the trophy they did. So out they came, garnering more possession for a bit. But our defense allowed them four passes at most, and nothing at all threatening to Valdes, who is probably getting used to another season with the best view in the house.
The third goal was, to me, the most important because of what it represented. When Pedro! stroked a ball to Alves, who fed a streaking Messi, did anyone really suspect that Messi would spank that ball into the upper 90, in about the one space that he had to put it, since Palop was, as usual, playing out of his mind against us? And It was a right-footed finish, defenders around the world noted with horror, because playing Messi in the box has always been easy. Just protect against that devastating
rightleft foot. So did anyone really expect that kind of a finish. No. And it was 3-0, with the tie effectively over because until that moment, Sevilla had mustered approximately zero shots on goal.
There isn’t a lot to say about this match, really. David Villa made his Camp Nou debut, bringing joy to the multitudes. He also rolled into the lineup as if to the manor born, with play and movement that looked as though he belonged. So it was really no surprise that he had a hand in setting up the fourth goal for the Messi hat trick, feeding Iniesta who squared it, and that was that. 4-0, and as thorough a thrashing as I’ve seen us deliver. Sevilla never had a chance. The incessant midfield pressure and ball-hawking attackers meant there was never any time to settle on the ball. Anything long was intercepted by Abidal, Pique or Maxwell, who fed the midfielders so that they could return to the task of turning the screws.
“I have suffered many times as a rival, now it is much nicer,” said David Villa, who showed up and started hoisting silverware. “[Messi] has been sensational as always, it is a joy to watch him play as a teammate.”
And so, it’s our first silver of the season, in a stunning victory that has me wondering, frankly, if this season’s club isn’t better than last season’s. Dunno. I just know there are some points to give out.
Team: 10. Yes, they got a little tired toward the end, allowing Sevilla some time on the ball in threatening positions. But they always put out the fire. Every man on the pitch wanted to destroy, and it showed. It was effort and elegance, unleashed to devastating effect. An opponent who played right into their hands certainly helped, but I don’t believe there are many teams that could have gone with us today, the way the lads were playing.
Guardiola: 10. The right lineup, with what must have been one hell of a pre-match speech. Also the exact right substitutions, at the exact right time. Things were getting a little funky, then came Villa and Iniesta, and we were off to the races again. Adriano coming in was the perfect time-killer, as well.
Valdes: incomplete. He didn’t have anything to do. Anything. Our defense blanketed Sevilla, so all he had to do was watch the match.
Alves: 9. He’s been working on his defending in the off season. His attacking skills were razor-sharp today, as well. We forget how many goals he is involved in, in one way or another.
Pique: 8. A little unsteady when fatigue set in, and his usual positional sense let him down as he was a pylon for Sevilla attackers, once they got going and committed to at least trying to score. Love his attacking forays, too.
Abidal: 8. One horrifying clearance that could have led to a goal, had he not sprinted back and put out the fire alongside Maxwell. Yes, he lined up as a center back, but rarely played like one once the match got underway.
Maxwell: 9. Where did the extra gear come from? Last season, it seemed that he was always chasing attackers. This season, he’s outrunning them, as well as slotting into the midfield when it’s attack time. I daresay he’s too good to see a lot of bench time, but I don’t know how Guardiola is going to work that. He provides a different look to the left side than Abidal, one that is much more aggressively offensive.
Keita: 10. Magnificent, with an all-pitch game that was truly from box to box. He was one of the best players on the pitch today, from storming at their box with the ball, to heading away danger in our box, providing some muscle and just making me all woozy with delight.
Busquets: 9. Aside from a Bad Biscuits moment, he was Keita in this match, in that he was invisible to the naked eye, until you realized that nothing was happening for them in the midfield, usually because of No. 16. His nose for the ball and calmness are uncanny. And he’s still improving?
Xavi: 9. Got a bit too ambitious with a few balls, which is to be expected when someone with his ability to see the pitch, is given space, time and distance. His passes are capable of opening up defenses with a rapier-like deftness. And as long as he has players willing to run like dogs to make themselves available, he will keep on making them.
Messi: 10. And I don’t mean the hat trick, though that was certainly nice. He’s learned how to control and protect himself by playing one-touch football. He is also learning when to pass, when to challenge defenders and when to let someone else help him make the challenge. That run off the Xavi pass for his first goal was like a pure striker’s. And more right-footed finishing just means that he becomes even more difficult to play.
Pedro!: 7. I loved his all-pitch game. Like Keita, he was roaming from end to end, playing defense and making himself available on offense. His goal was lucky, but a delight. He’s picking up right where he left off last season, as is Messi.
Krkic: 5. His industry and effort were nice, but he has to learn to finish chances. He always seems to find himself in the wrong place compared to the ball and the defender. And Xavi will get you the ball, so he will have to curb his tendency to start a run then suddenly change directions, or stop a run too soon after he begins it. That happened a few times.
Villa (for Pedro!): 8. Wow. You can still see that he isn’t used to playing with the Flying Wallendas of football. There was one cross-pitch pass that went to the exact spot that he vacated, and would have opened Sevilla’s defense like a can opener. Love the movement, aggression and passing. He responded well to the tyranny that is our excellence.
Iniesta (for Krkic): 8. Get someone to remove the bad goalscoring juju that you have. Please. I’d forgotten what joy it was to watch a fully fit Iniesta, as he shifted roles from attacker to playmaker in the blink of an eye. He really is an amazing player, who deserves a better season than he had last year. I still don’t know how he missed that chance, though. Crazy.
Adriano (for Xavi): incomplete.
Next up, on Wednesday, is the “official” Camp Nou debut for the new team, the Gamper Trophy match. Guardiola will almost certainly field our strongest lineup, at least for a half, not as much because he wants to win as because he wants to see how they all work together. It’s also a glorious party for the Camp Nou faithful. Until then, download the match, and revel in the excellence of our side. It’s a team that we might never see the likes of again in world football.