Every day in a person’s life, it is said that they should learn something. Nothing teaches you about yourself like adversity, those times when you’re staring at something that you don’t want to admit or deal with, consequences that are, frankly, going to suck the big one. And what you do at those times can define who and what you are.
And you learn something. So what have we learned today, after watching our beloved club play only a half of football and win a tense, close-fought match?
–We learned that Puyol will be impossible to replace. Look at that rocket of a header of his off a flawless Xavi cross. And remember the ball after ball that he headed out of danger. Now recall what might have happened had we had him for that awful 1-1 most recent draw. He brings something to this club that will never be replaced.
–We learned what it would be like if we didn’t play our possession game, and what trouble our defense would be in. Guardiola is right in that without the ball, we’re kinda crap. You can get at Pique and Puyol, and Alves generally finds himself on the wrong side of attackers.
–We learned that we can play without Messi. Yes, he was in the lineup. So?
–We learned that Villa, like Krkic, has some stuff going on that needs to get resolved, and I don’t mean tomorrow.
–We learned that Valencia is for real. Those guys aren’t going anywhere. Their coach came up with a game plan that had us in danger for a while: attack the wings and clog the midfield passing lanes to minimize the Xavi effect. It’s worth noting that for the go-ahead goal, Messi was the playmaker and Xavi on a wing.
–We learned that people who doubted Mascherano and what he can bring to this side should doubt no longer.
This match was huge. It would tell Valencia where it was, and it would test us so that we could see where we were. Both sides were looking to find things out about themselves, and Guardiola rolled out with a lineup that included a surprise: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Maxwell*, Busquets, Keita, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Villa. The inclusion of Maxwell surprised me because of Valencia’s pace and fluency on the wings. Presumably Maxwell was in for his offense, but the way Valencia was bombing up and down the flanks, it was his defense that was tested far more than his offense.
Another surprise was the freedom of Keita, who has become the Xavi doppelganger, a combo platter of ball winner and playmaker, a pressure-relieving pit bull who today, was also Man of the Match. Busquets slid back to the spot right in front of the defense, but in reality he was all over the field as usual, wreaking havoc and winning balls.
But Valencia sent a message that they were serious very early on, when a pass caught the defense pushed up and done for pace. Valdes kinda flapped at it, and Maxwell saved the day, before trouble arrived. That Valencia scored first didn’t surprise me all, because they looked a lot more ready to play this match than we did. Whether it’s the FIFA virus or what the hell ever, who knows. But they were quick and intense, ready to show everyone that they are legitimate contenders for the Liga title.
Of course, we helped their cause by having absolutely no wing play, which made it very easy for them to clog the middle and gum up our passing works, a lack of possession and control that springboarded attack after attack. And the goal for them finally came, it was kinda painful to have it all happen because of an awful pass by Xavi. Dude dished a stinker, then tried to tackle it away from the attacker, who was off to the races, full-tilt boogie at a defense not renowned for its pace. As usual, the ensuing fire drill didn’t put out all the flames, as everybody chased the ball, but nobody marked the leaker coming up from midfield. Keita saw the danger, and got there a fraction too late. The finish flew past a helpless Valdes, and it was 0-1. Even worse, we weren’t looking good as a unit, though individual players evinced our typical brilliance.
That we got into the half being down by only one goal was, more than anything else, a testament to the ability of our defense to scramble, and the immense quality of Busquets and Keita, who destroyed attack after attack, particularly Keita. And I don’t presume to know anything about what was said at halftime. Guardiola said that he just reminded the players that we need to keep the ball. And often, all it takes is a mirror to give a real professional a pep talk.
Because we came out and got elbow-deep in some Valencia ass, and the match was under control in a way that it never was in the first half. Valencia were chasing ghosts, the jailbreak counters weren’t happening and very quickly, we scored a beauty of a goal that began with Keita and Busquets combining to win a ball that sent us off to the races. Iniesta linked with Xavi for a millimeter-perfect 1-2 that yielded a score of such ease that even the force field had to yield. We had the keeper dead to rights.
Most importantly, we scored in the first 5 minutes of the half, which meant that Valencia couldn’t buckle down and protect the lead, and they had too much pride to play for a draw. And Villa, in a bit of charity, was conspiring to keep them in the match by either being offside or missing golden chances. He was lining up offside, or not bothering to get back onside, something that our previous “9” was incessantly lambasted and called lazy for. Should we say the same thing? Dunno, but our midfield turns the ball so quickly that it is essential that our attackers always keep themselves on. Yes, it means sprinting back after a play ends, because you never know.
And then it was Xavi and Puyol who combined to put us ahead for good. Messi destabilized Valencia’s midfield with a run, a lovely tactic that essentially removed their ability to play the passing lanes by making a player who can dribble his fool head off the playmaker. No passes, no passing lanes. Messi fed Xavi who was lurking on the wing, who dropped a ball right in the one spot that it needed to be to meet Puyol’s head rather than the keeper’s hands, or the head of a Valencia defender. Puyol’s rocket blast of a header had pace, power and precision. It also had perfect timing to beat a keeper who was having one hell of a match.
It was 2-1 and that was that, as Valencia just didn’t look like scoring, once we clamped down on things, and we sailed home for the win. It’s hard to overestimate the value of this win for the side. It was huge, in part because we haven’t exactly been setting the world afire at the Camp Nou. But also because we have to win to keep pace with That Other Spanish Team, so that when we beat them we will be top of the table. Valencia was a tough, daunting opponent that came at the worst time, after an International break. That we dispatched them by only playing a half of football and essentially without Messi, speaks volumes for this club.
And this match was very real for us. Usually when we beat someone, it’s almost as though we can’t be bothered. But Alves, going at a Valencia player after the match and some more in the tunnel, makes it very clear how much this match meant to us.
Team: 5. About the right score for playing only a half of football. Yes, the half was majestic, but sleepwalking through the first half kept the overall score down.
Guardiola: 8. Right lineup, perfect substitutions. But why weren’t they ready to play this huge, huge match? Aren’t great philosophers also motivators?
Valdes: 6. He really didn’t have a whole lot to do today, once he finished picking the ball out of the back of his net. His distribution needs a lot of work. I haven’t seen more balls puntet out of bounds since a coffin corner NFL punt specialist.
Alves: 7. Excellent passes, crosses and a few key interventions.
Pique: 6. Fine match, but didn’t really have a ton to do as Valencia were choosing to do the dirty work on the wings. Had a few brain cramps, and he still has to learn how to deal with fire drills.
Puyol: 9. Speaking of marshaling a defense during a fire drill, he should have known that someone was leaking from midfield for the tap in. Other than that, he was astounding, including the headed goal and getting his noggin to any serious ball that flew into our box.
Maxwell: 5. Width is the key to making our midfield and attack work. We didn’t have much on the left, and he still gives away corners needlessly.
Busquets: 8. Brilliant at reading a match, and figuring out where the ball is going to be, rather than where it is. And he seems very suited for the creative destroyer role that he plays with increasing regularity these days.
Keita: 10. A stunner of a match. He won all after ball, helped retain possession, tracked back on defense and stormed their box. He’s one of those stat-stuffer dudes, but know that he was absolutely amazing tonight.
Xavi: 5. Not as influential as he usually is, but when he stepped into the limelight, great things happen, including goal-scoring chances by the bundle.
Iniesta: 8. A few of his patented Dribbles to Nowhere dragged his rating down a tad, but he was glorious, showing off a lower-risk game, as well. Nice goal, as well, not as much the tap-in as what it took to get where you are today.
Messi: 3. I kept thinking that something was going to be the spark that set him off, but nothing was. Aside from a few moments, including a couple of blown scoring chances that an alert, focussed Messi puts away, he just wasn’t there today. Recall how rare his first-half touches were.
Villa: 3. He was there, and did a number of very good things, then he’d mess it all up by blowing some glorious scoring opportunity, or not passing when he should have. And I’m still not sure how he missed scoring when he was put in on goal, with just the keeper to beat. But he did. He’s doing so much right, though he still is only half-assed playing defense and battling for possession in the midfield. But for a striker, the ability to be there is huge. He just isn’t finishing, and how.
Mascherano (for Xavi): 8. Would somebody tell me again that he isn’t Barca quality? Between distributing, possession and being kinda Xaviesque, he was also a one-man “Closed” sign for the midfield. It’s worth watching him and only him for a bit. Man, what a player.
Pedro! (for Villa): 5. With more time, probably would have played to a higher rating but again, his energy, pace and unpredictability made him the perfect substitution for that time of the match.
Abidal (for Keita): 5. A few nice moments but we were in command and control time, by the moment that he entered.
Next up is group leaders Copenhagen on Wednesday, for Champions League football. I expect that we will take care of business, and assume a leadership of the group that we are not going to relinquish. Meanwhile ….