This one took some time, folks, not only for our beloved Barca, but for me.
For them, the reasons were obvious: We came up against a side with next to no interest in playing football today. Their sole aim was to stymie our attacks, clog the midfield, have at least 5 men in the box and jam up the passing lanes. And, if a counterattack opportunity presented itself, they would be happy to take it.
Welcome to what we’re going to be seeing for most of 2010, so get used to more 1-0 or 2-1 wins, rather than 5-0 blowouts.
The picture that you see here is the epitome of truth and justice. The captain of the best team on the night is hoisting the trophy. It’s also a picture of my Man of the Match, Carles Puyol.
I can hear it now: “New site and already, Kxevin’s out of his mind.”
Whatever. Man of the Match is man of the match. The whole match. Other players (except for Abidal) came and went, going through periods of ineffectiveness, playing with the knowledge of a Monday Liga match, or a World Cup qualifier.
But from moment one of this match, Captain Caveman played as he always does, as if this were the last minute of the last match of the last season of the last year of humanity on the planet. His effort was constant, he was almost always in the right place at the right time, and the one error that he made, a wayward pass that became a Shakhtar break, he broke up inside the box.
On set pieces he lived up to his name of “Air” Puyol, leaping like a crazy man even late, late into regulation time, doing the Captain’s armband proud. For me, MOTM was a no-brainer. Even late, late into the extra time that was necessary to seal this deal, Puyol was playing as if daisy-fresh.
Guardiola rolled out with some semblance of our best lineup: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal, The Yaya, Keita, Xavi, Messi, Henry, Ibrahmovic. But what we saw is that in this game that we all love so, a determined defense can hold the best offense. Would Shakhtar have been able to hold us back two months from now, when everyone is clicking and at full fitness? No. But you also saw why the UEFA Cup winners had a slight edge in the overall competition, before we evened things up: While the Champions League winner is resting, the UEFA Cup winner is playing football. Shakhtar were fit, fitter than us, and it showed in their energy and industry.
Thankfully, they used that effort for evil, rather than good (in the playing football sense). We had the lion’s share of possession, epitomized in a statistic: At the 70th minute, we had completed 421 passes, to their 178. But if you don’t have the ball, you can’t beat us. Before anyone snarks about “anti-football,” they looked dangerous on the counter a number of times, and a coach will play the match that he has to play, so that his side has the best shot at winning.
And I’m not sure what they were playing for (penalties?), on a field that looked more like a neglected secondary pitch of a local high school, than a pitch upon which a world-class match should be contested, but I was never lacking for confidence that we would win. And so we did.
Recall that in the LiveBlog I observed that a moment of individual brilliance would be needed to win this one, because our team football was sorely lacking. Enter Pedro!
He charged at the defense, doing what he does oh, so well as Messi’s Mini-Me. His charge drew the attention of the defenders, as they moved to shut him down. This opened space for him to slide the ball to Messi, who was immediately surrounded by 5 defenders, including “Damn, that was weird” Chygnasty.
Messi controlled for an instant, and in that miniscule time span a number of things happened:
–Pedro! made the kind of diagonal run that just begs for a pass.
–The 5 defenders settled in on Messi, sure that he would do what he had been doing, which was dribble and shoot.
–The keeper made this same error, shading toward Messi.
–The 6th defender has to stay put to keep Alves honest, allowing space for P! to run into.
So when Messi controlled the ball, paused for that split second then slotted a beautiful, perfectly weighted pass for P!, the keeper was leaning the wrong way. Why? Because Messi continued his run into the box, which meant that the keeper had to guess that P! would slot it back to Messi, who would put the knife in.
Instead, Pedro! saw the lean and slid a beautiful shot past the keeper (who was helpless, really). And that was that, because except for a preternaturally stupid Busquets giveaway with less than a minute left that resulted in a long shot on Valdes, Shakhtar were not going to get that goal back. They began the day knowing that their best chance was in the penalty shot phase, and they played like it.
And still, we won.
So why the hell did this take so long?
Well, in part you can blame my making a 30+pound mountain bike travel 30 miles in about an hour and 15 minutes. Ouch! My check was cashed when I got home. Yours would be, too, so shut it.
But mostly it was because opinions on our various players were so galvanized in the aftermath of this match that I (however briefly) doubted myself and my own evaluations that were formed in the eye of a blurry, intermittent Web feed, and borne out by a viewing of the match.
So I watched it again, and still nothing changed. So off we go.
Don’t forget that this is still pre-season for our lads, and that our main striker is coming off surgery for a hand injury that has made him late, late, for a very important date. He will integrate into this club in a way that will make jaws drop. He’s already much, much farther along than Henry was at the same point in his first season with us. Henry isn’t fit, either, by the by. Excuses? No. Just reality. People are expecting us to drop the ball and play exactly as we did at the end of last season, in the CL final. Need I remind everyone that last year’s club began the season with a loss and a draw, and had to be more on-form because it had to play its way into Champions League group stages?
But most importantly, the club was collectively off in this match, in part because of the efforts of Shakhtar but in part because they haven’t really played competitive football. Bilbao rolled out a second-class side that didn’t really test us. We played Gamper at about half-speed. The pre-season friendlies probably weren’t even as hard as our practices. So. Not bad for our first real match of the season, because even though the side wasn’t at maximum effectiveness, we still played our game, which is you can’t beat us if you don’t have the ball. Guardiola didn’t look that nervous because he knew this, that Shakhtar were playing as hard as they were going to, and they still couldn’t even get the ball from us, unless we gave it to them.
We got the diet of the Barca Rules: packed midfield, packed box, tight marking on Xavi. It explains the emergence of The Yaya as an offensive force, and will make Piquenbauer blossom even more this season. And it won’t happen very much this season, but imagine a defense of Chynasty and Pique, flanked by Alves and Maxwell. That back line is as potent as most midfields!
As with the Chicago Bulls and the Jordan Rules (allow Michael Jordan to score his 30+, but don’t let the other guys beat you), we will adapt to the Barca Rules. Movement on and off the ball will be even more crucial, and dynamic wing play will be more important than ever, which makes me happy about a bit of news lurking at the bottom of this match evaluation.
And with that, the ratings:
Team: 5. They will improve, but the midfield pressure wasn’t there, nor was the one-touch game that opens up a determined side such as Shakhtar. Some was because of the crap pitch, some was just because it’s early days.
Guardiola: 8. The right starting XI, and the right substitutions, though I would have subbed Monument instead of Busquets. Youth and energy turned this match. But his short squad might bite him in the butt.
Valdes: 6. Dude. Next time you want to watch a match, buy a ticket. He had nothing to do. So maybe it was being shocked that a ball came his way that resulted in that absurd bobble, right on the doorstep, of the long shot that was precipitated by Busquets’ stupidity. Still, I was a little puckered on that one.
Alves: 5. Solid on defense, but man, what the hell is up with his crosses? One still hasn’t dropped from the Monaco sky.
Pique: 8. Full-on Piquenbauer mode today, as he quickly figured out that Shakhtar weren’t going to attack, and the congested midfield meant that he had space to become the attack starter. And what a glorious bit of keepe-uppe in the first half, including a Seal Dribble, to thwart a Shakhtar defender and start the attack. Shame about the haircut, though.
Puyol: 9. One wayward pass kept him from perfection. The rest of my effusion is above. What a majestic match, to show the new kid, Chygnasty, how hard he is going to have to play to displace him. Inspired? Perhaps.
Abidal: 10. A perfect match, right down to his time-killing inteplays with Messi, late in the extra time. Tackles and interceptions, and very intelligent moving forward on offense, including a couple of crosses that deserved a better fate than rolling impotently, across the box. People who say that he needs to play more offense just didn’t realize the kind of match this was. Alves was way up the pitch. If Abidal gets caught up as well, we’re screwed. His forays happened when Alves was back. I can’t say enough about the way he played yesterday.
The Yaya: 9 Man-sized. He was all effort, control and industry. He showed too much of the ball at times. Whether due to overconfidence or the pitch, only he knows. Massive individual effort in the pursuit of the victory. He was subbed when it was clear, on the Shakhtar counter that developed right in his face, that he was hammered.
Keita: 8. What a strong match, from sensing when to attack and when to defend, to intelligent passes (including one for Henry that was thisclose). This is the Keita that we signed, and it’s good to see him. I thought he could have shot long more (well, at all).
Xavi: 6. He’s been better, but he’ll never be worse, which is good. But his giveaways were uncharacteristic, and while his possession game was mostly right, his offensive game just wasn’t there. He usually sees the field better. Some of the blame goes to the attackers, who weren’t making themselves available in the right spots.
Henry: 7. People were ripping on Henry after this match and for the life of me, I don’t understand why. From tracking back on defense, to making passes, to shifting to the center when Ibrahimovic came out, his effort and scoring mindset were constant. Very good long-range effort that forced a save from the Shakhtar keeper, as well. It’s okay to dislike Henry, but you can’t fault him for the match that he played yesterday. He had his usual “soft” giveaways, but that he didn’t have more shot attempts is the fault of his service.
Ibrahimovic: 7. Again, people were all over BANGS, calling him lazy, saying now we see why Inter sold him, blah, blah, blah. But did you see him running up the pitch to break up attacks and harass defenders into bad passes out of the back. Did you see him running onto balls, chasing down long passes intended for him and trying anything to get balls into a danger position, including a crazy lob pass for Henry that I still don’t know how he got over the defense. Henry’s bicycle attempt was unfortunate, but the kind of effort he turned in, without full match fitness and still with a healing hand, can’t be faulted. Expectations are immense. But he isn’t shit if he doesn’t score 4 goals and notch 2 assists. Give him time.
Messi: 9. He didn’t play a whole match, but he was a constant danger. He intelligently held back when BANGS and Henry were roaming the box, sensing that they needed space to do their thing. But when Ibra came off and Henry moved to the center, Messi sprang into action. He picked the club up and put its offense on his back. All it needed was the effort of Pedro! to seal the deal. He was also very smart, in that he knew this would be a long one, and he should save his effort. He did, which also accounts for his being quiet early, and was able to play fresh in the late stages.
Pedro! (for Ibrahimovic): 8. What an impact player. His pace and movement, coupled with energy and ball skills made scoring only a matter of time. He and Messi are quite the danger tandem. And don’t underestimate his awareness in reading the keeper and taking the shot instead of trying for the dish. And I think that he earned the penalty, he just shouldn’t have tried to sell it so hard. But he clearly got Malachi Crunched by the Shakhtar defenders.
Krkic (for Henry): 6. Instant danger, then tailed off. His confidence appears to be growing. That run that he made, even though the shot didn’t have a chance, was exceptional.
Busquets (for The Yaya): 3. Played way too soft for what his role should have been. It’s why I would have preferred Monument in that situation, because he doesn’t screw around with the ball, then flop as Busquets does. He should have kept the ball moving on that late-match giveaway. If any Shakhtar attackers are in place, that’s a jailbreak going the wrong way. Man the hell up. The ref hadn’t been calling those fouls all match. He wasn’t going to start then.
And finally, look at the odd emotions on Chygnasty’s face in this picture. I mean, his club lost, but the club that he’s going to has just won its 5th trophy in 12 months. It’s very funny.
A few more thoughts:
–Speaking of Chygnasty, he looked like a 25m defender to me, all match long. Hell, I almost wish he wasn’t as good as he broke up attack after attack, calmly controlling the ball and knocking off a long pass to start a Shakhtar non-attack. His positioning is already top-notch, and he is physical without being reckless. His performance, and the sudden realization that he’s our player now, was one of the delights of this match.
–We have, right now, the best club in the world. The match fitness will come, the one-touch game will return and the movement off the ball that creates passing lanes will rear its head. Naysayers should just calm down. Some Barca sites are already branding Ibrahimovic a failure in the comments spaces. Wow.
–More encouraging news came in the way we defended aganst Shakhtar’s set pieces. There seems to be less zone marking and more “Oh, there’s the ball” marking. Big difference.
In other news:
Contratulations to Jeffren, who will be staying up with the first team says EMD. Final Fantasy will get the chance to turn some real matches, and I’m sure that he will. He will be on pins and needles in the January transfer window. I don’t think it’s a full-on promotion, but he has until January to show why he should stay. Let’s wish him well.