So, the cool thing about Playstation is that you can assemble teams, and they can pop the ball around and do really cool stuff. It’s all a video game, and provides hours upon countless hours of entertainment.
How cool is it that we have a real, live Playstation team to admire every week. Pep Guardiola has the controller, but we have the joy of watching “domination total del Barcelona,” as one of the Fox Sports commentators put it. And truer words have never been spoken. This match could easily have been 9 or 10-1, so lopsided were the statistics. We had the ball all the time, and spent all the time in their end of the pitch, essentially. They were never in the match, as we steamrolled out with a display of attacking football that had everyone wondering, 5 minutes in, why it wasn’t already 3-0.
So how absurd was it that after all that, Panathinaikos scored first?
I could hear the collective howl, that it was going to be one of those matches. The keeper bombs one long, Cisse does this insane, never again in his life on-the-fly flip directly into the path of Govou, who had Abidal dead to rights. He finished past a helpless Valdes, and that was that. 0-1 visitors, and I can bet that people were worried. Well, Panathinaikos had about another minute to celebrate the goal, before Xavi found Messi with a long pass that he threaded between two defenders. Messi controlled, flipped it past the keeper and we were off to the races.
Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Villa, Pedro! was the lineup that I wanted to see start the match against Hercules. If those guys had played for 15 minutes, it would have been 3 or 4-0, done and dusted. If you put marbles in a bowl, then put that bowl in a centrifuge, you have some idea of what the movement of our attacking players was like. It almost wasn’t fair, and you could see the “Oh, shit” looks on the faces of the Panathinaikos players, because professionals know that when a club is playing like that, you can only contain it for so long. Then that fraction of a step goes away, thanks to fatigue, and they have you.
The first goal was absurd enough, because it looked easy, but wasn’t. Not in any way, shape or form. Witness the other attempted passes that were intercepted and headed or kicked away by Panathinaikos defenders, passes from the feet of mere mortals. Now watch that Xavi pass again, as it floated, equidistant between the two defenders, directly not to where Messi was, but where he was going to be. Give that man the ball at his feet with only the keeper to beat, and it’s over.
The score was 1-1, impossibly, but everyone on the planet knew that it couldn’t stay that way for very much longer, because this was Barca football at its staggering best. You get the ball, and 3-4 midgets descend upon you, with quicker feet and more desire than you, to get the ball right back and resume the task of ripping your heart out. Or you get it into the midfield and that gangly dude is two steps ahead of you, to destroy the play and slide the ball to his midfielders, who resume the task of ripping your heart out.
The team’s best player is battling for the ball at the sidelines, working like a dog to break it loose, because the team seemed resentful when the opponent had the ball even for a second, as if the ability to play sublime, jaw-dropping football means that they should have the ball all the time. Possession stats were almost 80-20, and unlike the meaningless possession of the Hercules game, every time we had the ball, something good was happening. Guardiola was throwing his hands to his head time and again, as attacks resulted in shots that should have gone in, or passes that just missed.
But it was only a matter of time. The second goal came off The Luckiest Man in World Football, he who we call Pedro!. Dude took off on one of his crazy, high-wire runs that should have been stopped by the defender, but the ball bounced off the defender right back to Pedro!, who kept going, only to lose possession again and get it back …. again, forcing a corner that needed to have the defender ignore the keeper, who had the easy grab, and head the ball out for a corner. Crazy. Then in comes the corner, and the omnipresent Busquets heads across the box to a wide-open Villa, who slots home. 2-1, good guys.
And the relentless pursuit of goals continued, as Messi thwacked one off the crossbar before a delicate, seemingly impossible 1-2 with Pedro! (there he is again) found Messi again, running at defenders with the ball at his feet, in an area that makes him impossible to play. Because when he’s in the box, you can’t foul him, which is about the only way to stop him, and no matter what you do, he’s going to run around you. Unless he does a snap shot as he did in this instance, to make it 3-1 just before the half.
You never, ever want to be the next opponent of a club that has had egg rubbed in its face. Particularly not when that club is stacked with talent, talent that is still learning to play together as one of the most crucial parts figures his way through our thicket of brilliance.
The second half continued as the first, as another perfect pass found Pedro! directly in front of the keeper with the ball at his feet. I’m sure that he knows why he didn’t shoot, because I sure don’t. Then came a perfect pass from Iniesta to Abidal, who laid in a perfect cross for Villa, who did a Krkic in trying to get too fancy with a ball that should have been in the back of the net. And oh yeah, Messi missed a penalty shot by overthinking. The keeper stopped it, and the coolest part was the team was instantly there to console him, to make him understand that it ain’t nothing but a thang.
Messi had his revenge by taking a pass from Krkic and shooting from an impossible angle across the goal mouth and into the inner far post. Pedro! (again) was right there to bundle home the rebound, and it was 4-1. And then came this:
The word “ridiculous” has come into favor as a modifier with many uses. That party was ridiculous. That meal was ridiculous. It’s now overused, and has lost its power. But that goal was ridiculous. Flat-out, mindblowingly ridiculous. Because it was done in no space, and done perfectly. You can use words to describe it, to say that Alves popped a pass to Messi, who chipped a pass to Alves, who headed past the keeper. But words are so mundane for something that, in my notes, is represented as “Are you KIDDING me?!”
I don’t know how far this team is going to go in its various competitions this season. And I don’t care. What I know is that it is capable of playing mind-blowing football, as it did today. People will say “Oh, it’s just Panathinaikos,” and dismiss it. Because they didn’t see it. You can say about a high-wire act, “Dude walked on a wire between a couple of buildings.” It sounds so mundane. Then you see it, how thin the wire is, the absence of a net, and your mind is blown. Likewise, you see our players control the ball in between two defenders, or Iniesta pull off a ball move that makes the defender fall down, and you can’t even wonder how it’s possible. All you can do is enjoy it.
Team: 10. It was everything in depth, from defense to offense to fighting for possession. This was exactly how we all knew this club could play. There might be another clunker or two in this season. But today, the effort was there to go with the brilliance. If the best is also the most fluent and hardest-working, how can you argue with that?
Guardiola: 9. He had his charges ready to play. I thought that he left Messi out there for too long, but that’s just me. The match was over at 3-1, and sure as hell over at 4-1. He did make the right substitutions, even though he put us down to 10 men with the Krkic sub.
Valdes: 4. Probably gets a higher rating if not for the fact that the one thing that he had to do all match, he fluffed. Usually he’s ready for action, but today he was totally flat-footed and waiting to be beaten by Govou. I guess I’d be ball-watching too, though, with an attack like we had today.
Alves: 7. His flitting up and down the right side of the pitch is so crucial to our attack. And when a team just lets him do what he wants, as Panathinaikos did, he influences the game in profound ways. You have to honor Messi, Villa, Xavi and Iniesta, then you worry about Pedro!, and here comes Alves. When he gets the ball the defense shifts, and the danger begins. He was caught out of position on more than a few occasions, in his role as offender (offensive defender).
Pique: 8. Not a lot to do but did it beautifully, including key interceptions of the few times that Panathinaikos did charge into our end. And the Piquenbauer boots are in full effect as he charged up the pitch, delivering the ball to the precise spot that we could do damage with it.
Puyol: 9. We are a different defense with him on the pitch. He is almost always in the right spot at the right time with the right play, including stopping a Panathinaikos break that was reminiscent of the one Saturday that resulted in Hercules’ first goal. Captain Caveman just slid over and dealt with it.
Abidal: 7. The Greyhound got smoked on the goal, plain and simple. I don’t know that any defender alive had the pace to do anything with a full-tilt-boogie Govou, who was able to take the ball in stride, but part of defending is position. Call me harsh, but Govou was making that run from far enough back where it shouldn’t have been a surprise to Abidal. But after that, he was almost inch perfect, fluent and powerful.
Busquets: 10. Hard to believe there was a time when people doubted this dude. If you watch the match again, spend some time just watching him. It’s sublime, from the perfect passes that he doles out, getting ambitious only when there’s a sure payoff, to the way he is always where the ball is, including one time when Alves was caught up the pitch. He destroys and then creates, winning the ball then distributing it. Wonderful. And I don’t know if that was a shot or an assist for the Villa goal, but it looked too deliberate to be a shot.
Xavi: 9. He was absolutely, spot-on brilliant today. The difference between he and Iniesta is worth noting again, as we saw a number of Iniesta passes that were full of ambition, but intercepted at the defense. You can see Xavi consider those passes, but wave them off in his mind for the absolute, sure thing. And when he does spank a long pass, you know it’s going to get there, because it’s Xavi. Just wish that his finishing matched his passing.
Iniesta: 8. If he stays healthy, we have the best midfield in the world. Period. His passing, ball control and runs with and without the ball destabilize defenses in a way that makes the lives of the forwards so much easier. Then he stops, and slides a pass to an on-the-run attacker. As noted above, his ambition loses us possession at times, a complexity less problematic with Xavi on the pitch. At some point, I will stop panicking whenever he takes a hard challenge. I just have no idea when that time will be, folks.
Pedro!: 7. He started out very strong, then disappeared for too long as our high-wire act did its thing. His effort is off the chart, and his football IQ is constantly improving. Still don’t know why he didn’t shoot, but I do know that when he is on the pitch, good things happen that he creates with his almost constant movement. The effect on and for Alves was huge. And his first 10 steps are so fast and effective that he gets to balls that defenders have a seeming leg up on.
Messi: 8. What a staggering match in terms of effort, results and dedication to the colors. He still solos more often than he should, particularly when he’s smelling a hat trick or some such milestone. And that penalty miss was pretty pathetic. But he’s passing more, and passing better this season, which should fill the footballing world with dread, if it hasn’t already.
Villa: 7. He’s finding his way, but is getting there faster than we could have hoped. At times he looked almost fully integrated with our offense today, but didn’t make a few runs that he should have. Note that people called Ibrahimovic “lazy” and “static” for not making those same kinds of runs. Villa has to learn, as did Ibrahimovic and Eto’o, that you get your butt to the front of the net when an attacker has the ball on the wing. Excellent crosses went begging on more than one occasion, crosses that are the job of the forward to put away. And again, lay off the mustard, and just tap that Abidal cross home.
Krkic (for Villa): 2. Nice pass to Messi. The end. It was another earnest but almost wholly ineffective display from CT. Guardiola put him in because really, who else do we have to substitute for Villa? But I wonder what Guardiola thinks as he makes that move. Each match brings its own evaluation, and I don’t know if he is trying too hard or what the deal is, but again today, he just didn’t cut it.
Milito (for Pique): 5. This is a deceptive rating because players start from 0 and work their way up. He was playing his way to a much higher rating, and showed his immense value with that key interception that broke up a Panathinaikos attack. And dude, when the ball falls at your feet on the doorstep of the goal, shoot! Shoot Gabi, shoot!
Mascherano (for Xavi): 4. A few bad balls, and one overambitious pass that could have led to something bad, had we not been playing so well collectively. Had a couple of excellent wins of the ball, again in a way that takes care of business without doing anything that would endanger the team with a foul or a card. Can’t wait to see him once he gets it all figured out.
P.S. Spare a moment and a good thought for Antonio Valencia, the talented Manchester United attacker whose season came to an end today on a fluke of a play, really, in which a fairly mundane challenge resulted in a shattered ankle. That’s how easy it can happen folks.
And finally ….