In the journalism business, we call what is about to happen, “burying the lede.” It’s shifting the thing that everybody cares about to later in the piece. Sometimes it’s crazy, other times it’s to make a point, as it is now.
Finish your chances!
We had about 913 chances to get the third, or even fourth goal that would have put this match to bed, done and dusted, and precipitated the Krkic for Messi swap much earlier than it in fact occurred. A match that is in the balance, in a place at which we haven’t won in three years, calls for your best players. And one of those best players is Lionel Messi.
Early in the match, as here as the ball is going past the Amazing DeGea for our first goal (you can just see the golden boot exiting the frame), Messi was razor-sharp and raring to go. He gave his all for the club, and shouldn’t have even been on the pitch. Look at the 5 straight times in which he ceded possession. It was a tired player out there, a player who should have been subbed.
And if we finish our chances, he is, and we’re discussing another very good match from Messi, rather than how long he might be on the sidelines.
The best thing about this match is that we won at the Calderon, that cauldron that has, for the past three seasons, been a place at which we have fallen. And we did it with style. Despite the pressure, and effort, Atletico never had a real chance in this one. Think about the match, free of the pessimism of the LiveBlog, and how many real chances they had at goal. Even the goal that they scored was a fluke, when Valdes came out and fluffed his lines as the defense said “He’s got …. no, he doesn’t.” And that was that.
Guardiola rolled out with our best lineup (minus Abidal, off tending to his grandfather in Martinique) of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Maxwell, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro! and Villa. His intention was to go down with his best troops, if going down was in the cards. And we started off brightly, generating chance after chance, and putting Atletico on the back foot. And when they got the ball, we got it right back, with a combo platter of midfield pressure and aggressive defending, as we played our usual defense with offense.
Essentially, we won the war because we won the battle for the midfield. Anyone who has the match available, should find a 7-second sequence that begins at about 50:03. A wayward ball comes to Xavi, who gets it under control with a back flip, steering it toward Villa, who was running away. So Xavi hits the jets to outrun a defender who we all thought had a head start, slides the ball under his foot, controlling and letting him slide past, fakes out a second defender who has the angle on him by just stopping with the ball, then flipping a pass safely to a waiting Iniesta.
It’s about 7 seconds, but it’s a time span that so clearly indicates why we had this match under control. Without the midfield, you aren’t going to beat us, and we have the best midfielder on this planet playing for us. So your options are long balls, which are easily dealt with by our defense, set pieces, which you aren’t going to get too many of, counterattacks, which we aren’t going to cede because of intelligent possession, or attacks up the wing which, when our right and left backs are playing as solidly and conservatively as they were today, you ain’t getting, either.
It’s pretty simple when you think about it.
The inevitable first goal for us came after Villa was set loose by an absolutely flawless ball from Messi, only to have his shot somehow hit the post. Off the rebound, Pedro! slotted in yet another flawless ball for Messi, who did what has become his usual control flip score, all with one touch. That goal was hard. Really, really, hard. And he made it look so simple. It was 1-0, and we were off to the races. Now, I know that we had a 3-0 lead here, and lost 4-3, but this match was different. We were much more solid defensively (except for a couple of Keystone Kops moments), Busquets is a man now, and we had the wings on lockdown, so Reyes (booooo!) and Simao couldn’t hurt us.
They scored, yes, but it was pretty much a fluke of a goal that once we tightened up the zonal marking, wasn’t going to happen again, and they weren’t going to score off us in open play, because our two pit bulls, Pique and Puyol, were on. So after they scored, we regained possession and set about operating in their end a lot more, winning a corner.
We should pause for a moment here, and realize that we’re talking about a center back who stepped back from a defender, took the ball softly on his chest so that it plopped right at his feet, and smoked it past a helpless keeper. Pique scored goal No. 2 for us, and it was a delight.
And who knew that it would be the last goal scored in this hotly contested, but fairly one-sided match. Let’s look at some of the chances:
–Pedro! bollixed one up on the doorstep with a horrid first touch.
–Xavi gets stopped by a great save.
–Pedro! gets stopped by a great save.
–Villa hits the post.
–Villa somehow sends a shot over the goal.
–Xavi passed when he should have shot, P! blows the chance.
–Messi, on the doorstep, gets stonewalled.
–Villa bad touches another one away.
If we deal with any of those, then this doesn’t happen:
He’s clearly thinking “Ball? I don’t give a rat’s ass about that ball. It’s the ankle that I’m after.”
And then this:
We’ve talked about it enough. But if we finish our chances, it doesn’t happen, because the Krkic switch is made 10 minutes earlier, when he was finished warming up, but the match was still in the balance. No, I won’t get into what this says about the confidence factor in Krkic. That’s another post, and another time.
Team: 9. Excellent performance, marred by that rather clunky goal that we gave up. But the passing and movement, and defense in depth were pretty amazing to witness, from a club that people think can’t defend. Oh yeah? Check out all those spearmint shirts in front of the ball when Atletico has it in our end. Everyone did exactly what they were supposed to do, unlike last time we visited the Cauldron.
Guardiola: 6. Great game plan, the right lineup, but a coach has to read a match better. Everyone could see how heated it was getting, and how the ref had lost control of things. In matches like that, you get your best player off the pitch, particularly when you see that he’s playing like a zombie. No way a fresh Messi gets stopped by DeGea on the doorstep.
Valdes: 6. If you come off the line for the ball, get it. Okay? Strong match after that, controlling his space in a commanding way, and making some very difficult saves look easy. Communication with the defense needs work, though. You could see Maxwell and Puyol confused a few times as to what Valdes’ intentions were. That can’t happen.
Alves: 8. Excellent match, particularly now that he has the range on his passes into the box again. He did get caught up, leading to the play that led to the corner that led to the goal. But beyond that, and a couple of loose touches, his play was hard to fault.
Pique: 9. Piquenbauer had a stunner, from bringing the ball up to timely defensive plays to scoring the winning goal. It’s pretty hard not to award him Man of the Match, except that there was indeed somebody who deseves it more. Is he even better this year? How is it that a center back can be as offense-minded as our marauding right back, yet still be omnipresent on the back line?
Puyol: 9. Another MOTM contender, with a leonine performance on the back line. He ran everything down, took fouls, headed balls away and brought balls up the pitch. It was the typical match from a man who is making a liar out of some dumbass who said that last season would be his last as automatic starter.
Maxwell: 9. What a solid, brilliant match from him, going forward at the right times, but always, always making sure that the wing was on lockdown, frustrating whichever attacker Atletico ran at him, be it Reyes or Simao.
Busquets: 7. Excellent match, marred by some “Bad Busi” moments of loose possession in dangerous spots. He bailed himself out twice, and made up for it with winning ball after ball, and making excellent pass after excellent pass. And anybody wondering why Forlan had such an invisible match should check Busquets’ back pocket.
Xavi: 9. My Man of the Match is so because this match depended upon tempo, control and midfield excellence. Those three characteristics embody the match that Xavi played today. If he doesn’t play as well, we have a much more difficult time. Both coaches realized that the midfield battle winner would be the match winner. Xavi was amazing.
Iniesta: 9. And speaking of amazing, you could argue that his ovation from the Cauldron faithful was as much for his wonder of a match as it was his World Cup-winning goal. He was beautiful today, from making the right run and always being around the ball, to pass after pass after inch-perfect, ball controlling pass.
Messi: 7. He played himself down from a 10 with that tired-out phase in which he lost the ball 5 straight times that he got it. But what a match, one that for me was epitomized not by the goal he scored, but by playing catchup with Reyes on the break, and making a perfect sliding tackle to knock the ball out for a throw. When the best player on the team also works the hardest, stand back.
Pedro!: 6. Played in fits and spurts, but those moments were fine ones. And he really came into his own when we were killing off the match, with his constant motion, always being ready to receive a pass and inevitably playing the right ball to someone. Great assist on the opening goal, too.
Villa: 2. Awful today. From the offside calls and static play, to not moving to passes to missed chance after missed chance, this is match that he will want to forget as soon as possible. We can only hope that his slow start means a fast finish.
Keita (for Xavi): 6. He came in when were trying to kill off the match, and won the day with his athleticism and fresh legs, as he chased balls down and harassed attackers. Having him as an option off the bench is so reassuring.
Mascherano (for Iniesta): incomplete. He didn’t do much, but giving that hard foul with the clear “This one’s for Messi,” was awesome. There was no real malicious intent, just a nice, hard professional foul.
Krkic (for Messi): incomplete. He didn’t have a chance to do anything at all.
And now we get to see if we can solve the problem of Messidependencia. If he’s out on the short end of things, we’re without him for three matches, two Liga and a Champions League. All should still be winnable, provided Villa stops playing like a dork. He gets a nice rest, and hopefully doesn’t come back too rusty. Even a month is still only six matches. I’d be a lot more worried if the club was, but all signs are very positive.
Krkic keeps getting chance after chance thrown at him. First we sell Ibrahimovic, then Messi goes down. Now we get to see, over an extended period, what our No. 9 can do. And boy, do we need him.