The above picture is perfect for a match that was, for me, the most satisfying victory of the season to date. It was also the most convincing, and the most team-focused victory, over the last remaining Liga powerhouse in Villarreal, a club that has been banging in goals and making people say that “Hey, this might not be a two-horse race.”
And there was much pre-match pessimism, based on many things: Pique’s suspension, Abidal’s likely rollout at CB, sunspots, Pique’s suspension. The last two times Villarreal has rolled into the Camp Nou, they’ve come away with points. But both times we had something to celebrate, a trophy presentation that distracted us and motivated them. This time, it was just us, them and the burden of expectation.
So we banged out an exquisite team victory, and it’s appropriate enough that guy atop the pile, Eric Abidal, should be where he is. Because he’s my Man of the Match.
When there were all the concerns about who was going to play center back, and I was advocating Mascherano, I said “It doesn’t really matter, because if we play our game, they aren’t going to see enough of the ball to make it important.” Well I was right, AND wrong. They didn’t see much of the ball, but they sure did a lot with it when they did, to the tune of one goal (shut up and play, boys!) and some key, key interventions.
But most of this match was played in their end of pitch because once again, when we were challenged, we stuck our chests out and said “Bring it.”
Guardiola rolled out with our best available lineup, Valdes, Alves, Abidal, Puyol, Maxwell, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro!, Villa. And Villarreal rolled out with the current thinking on How To Beat FC Barcelona: High, intense pressure backed by very physical play, flooding the midfield and clogging the passing lanes so that Xavi can’t work his magic, and make the field narrow, please. Thank you.
That worked for Copenhagen, because we didn’t play that match that we played, because it didn’t really matter as much to us. We were also a little surprised by their intensity in what was another group stage match for us. When Villarreal came at us that way, determined to play football instead of turning turtle, it was not only commendable, but doomed, even though their match plan was intelligent and very well executed. We just have too many horses, and more importantly, we rediscovered how wide the pitch actually is. Both goals from open play were generated from the wide position, one by Villa and the other by Pedro! (with a Messi finish). When we make the pitch wide, our club is unstoppable, particularly when we play a team match that is predicated on our one-touch passing attack.
The ball moves faster than any man. You could see this as Villarreal pressed, and we passed, flicking the ball around to players who ran around like jackrabbits, constantly making themselves available. It was a direct, pinging style that we didn’t see against Copenhagen, allowing their match plan to have more success. Against Villarreal, they couldn’t really foul a player, because the ball was gone. And the direction, deceptiveness and quality of the passes meant that it was almost impossible to anticipate where the pass was going.
Once again, during the LiveBlog, it struck me that there was some uncertainty about this outcome. Watching the match with no input, our level of play removed any uncertainty. We were just too good. It’s the difference between a club in which almost every player in the starting XI is capped for their respective countries, at which almost every position boasts a talent who is the best, or among the best in the world at that position, and an excellent Liga side. Because make no mistake, Villarreal are an excellent Liga side, who brought their A match.
But you need the ball to play, and win, and that just wasn’t something that we were going to allow with a frequency sufficient to defeat us.
People grouse about our playing style, calling it boring and aimless. But yesterday’s match showed that it isn’t. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Every pass has a purpose, sometimes moving a defender a little bit one way. Other times, setting up a run for an attacker. Still other times, planning ahead for a move three possessions down the road, when that direct pass morphs into a side foot, and somebody is off to the races. It’s an effective playing style that makes sense, because it forces the other team to chase the ball, which you can only do for so long.
What you need is incredible discipline to play areas of the pitch, rather than men and the ball. And you still need, as Copenhagen was gifted, a lack of width on our part. When the width is there, that strategy goes to hell in a handbasket. The first goal is a perfect example. Off the restart, Villa took off like a scalded cat, cutting in toward a perfect pass from Iniesta. He took, controlled and slotted past the keeper in a heartbeat. If that pass and play comes up the middle, defenders are there, and it’s covered. Width and a brilliant diagonal run made that play possible.
And then, after a very close but incorrectly judged offside goal, we were distracted, which allowed Nilmar to take a pass, waltz past Puyol and slot home past Valdes. We were distracted by the referee, which might have been the one thing that Guardiola said to his charges at halftime. You’re in control of this match. Just play like you can, and don’t worry about the officiating.
The second half we came out like a team possessed, pressing even harder, pinning Villarreal in their half by pressing everyone with the ball, from defenders, mids and attackers, to the keeper. The results were wayward passes to our players, and a resumption of the attack. Our second goal was inevitable, a reward for incessant work and brilliant passing. Off of a free kick, Xavi slots a pass to Messi, who feeds Pedro!, who one-times it back to Messi, who cuts toward the corner and lobs the keeper. Pretty simple stuff, right? But….
58:41–Xavi looks up, sees that the Villarreal defense is unbalanced, and that Messi has clear space in front of him. He starts play.
58:43–After a couple of strides forward, Messi slides a pass to Pedro!.
58:44–Pedro’s one-touch is popped directly back to Messi.
58:47–The ball is in the back of the net.
That’s six seconds, six seconds of impossible football, in which we played with a round, unpredictable object while moving at full speed in a manner that was inch-perfect. It was a pretty crazy goal when you watch it, which was why both the English-language and Spanish-language announcers went crazy. It was absolutely sublime.
I’ll offer up a YouTube comment by a user named willbjmadrid: “That second goal for barca ( the first for Messi ) was amazing just unstopable you just have to hold up your hands and say that Barca are class and i’m a XXXX XXXXXX fan.”
From that moment on the match was done. Villarreal didn’t look all that likely to score from open play, barring any errors, because our back line was on form, particularly Abidal. For the third goal,
That our third goal came from an offside position was, saith many, justice. Pedro! roared in from wide (again, the width), and smoked a shot toward net that deflected off a Villarreal attacker directly to Messi, who bundled it home.
But here again, it was a goal of the highest quality, as Messi had to deal with a deflected ball coming at high speed and toe poke it past the keeper off the volley. It was the one chance that he had before the defense closed down and the keeper had a chance to compose himself. It looked easy, but it wasn’t. And this match was done and dusted, an astounding display against a first-class Villarreal side who played their hearts out, played attacking football whenever possible, and didn’t park the bus. Hats off to them. We move into undisputed possession of second place, barring events on Sunday, which remain to be played out.
Team: 9. Great match, aside from a few lapses in concentration. The covering and support of each other was amazing to watch, and indefatigable. Those were some tired guys at the end of that match, deservedly so.
Guardiola: 10. Right lineup, right substitutions (particularly Keita) at the right time, and what must have been a killer halftime speech.
Valdes: 8. The one goal he couldn’t do anything about, excellent play after that, including stopping a Rossi free kick that came smoking from behind the wall, and catching it cold. Our sweeper keeper kicked out the jams, and notice his much improved long distribution.
Alves: 6. This was a vexing match for our Energizer Bunny, because for every good thing that he did, a bad one seemed to follow almost directly after. A great pass would be followed by sloppy possession. An excellent would then find him getting caught up the pitch on the counter. And he has to shoot. If you’re an attacker, you have to shoot.
Abidal: 9. He wasn’t perfect, but everybody on that pitch who was playing defense had their butt saved by Abidal yesterday, even Maxwell, who was saved from being last man who stopped a goal scoring chance by Abidal’s pace. He even intercepted a pass just outside the Villarreal box and morphed into attacker. Our French Greyhound will never, ever quell the “He sucks at CB” talk, but playing next to Puyol is a very different proposition.
Puyol: 7. Speaking of Puyol, key interventions and his usual lion-hearted performance mostly cancelled out Villarreal attackers waltzing past him, including Nilmar for their goal. And what a rocket header that just missed.
Maxwell: 6. What he is supposed to be bringing to the side in his left back role is a bit more offense and midfield control than he’s been providing. But his lack of pace coupled with Alves’ roaming, means that such a thing will happen only rarely. He was solid, and a lion in the air.
Busquets: 6. Not his best match, as we are seeing that he tends to be less effective in pressing, physical matches with a lot of midfield action. He often dwells on the ball too long, messing up attacks or giving up possession. Mostly good, but a lot of Bad Busi, as well.
Xavi: 6. Caught in possession a few times, and some uncharacteristically wayward passes, he seemed just a bit off, thanks in part to the intense marking and pressure from Villarreal. Had another “shall we dance” moment, which was ruined when the referee didn’t play the advantage.
Iniesta: 8. We needed him, and he came through with a brilliance that makes me love me some Ghostface. Passes, runs, steals, defense, taking fouls, that moon-like pate was omnipresent, and it needed to be.
Messi: 8. When your best player is also one of your hardest workers, it’s really, really hard to argue with the assertion that he is the best player in the world right now. And his brace was a delight to watch, for all the aforementioned reasons.
Pedro!: 7. Still had too many moments where he wasn’t in the match, but our Random Chaos Generator was verging on amazing. His energy is boundless, and he understands that when not scoring goals, you can still help the side by pressuring everyone you can run to, passing and being a general nuisiance. Dude’s gotta shoot more, though. There were two runs into their box in which he was caught thinking too much.
Villa: 7. You can tell, as with Henry his first year with us, that he isn’t used to the game that we play. He still tires into the second halves of matches and becomes completely ineffective. Beautiful goal, and some excellent passing as well as defending made his delightful effort symbolic of team strength. Everybody was doing everything.
Keita (for Villa): 7. And that number was rising like a rocket. This was an inspired substitution, as the midfield needed his pace, athleticism and physicality, as Xavi was beginning to wane. He closed down everything that came near him.
Adriano (for Maxwell): incomplete. Not that impressive in the time that he had out there, but not long enough to really score.
Mascherano (for Xavi): incomplete. Again, the right substitution, but not enough time to do anything except help us run out the string.
Finally, we should all recognize how amazing this time is. I have watched a lot of Barca sides over the years and this one for me, is so special. The Ronaldinho years contained delights, silverware and amazing moments, but that side didn’t, match in and match out, from front to back, play football with the beauty of this side. It’s Masia graduates and choice purchases, coupled with a coach that understands the game and how to, most matches, get the most from his players. Everyone is playing at or close to their peak, and even when they aren’t, there’s someone who is able to elevate his game to make up the difference, and keep the engine purring along at a high level. Every one of the starting XI is undisputably world class, and we are so fortunate, whatever happens this season, to be able to watch this amazing, amazing group of players.