Wow. There isn’t a lot to say about this match, really. I mean there is, but there actually isn’t.
On the surface, we gave Almeria such a thorough hiding that they fired their coach after the match. Yes, he was already on the hot seat, but still. We put 8 goals on a Liga side. Other noteworthy landmarks: Messi cracked the 100-goal mark, and the club is off to its best-ever away record.
How did this all happen, and for that matter, how in the heck did EE thump Athletic Bilbao 5-1?
Because today’s matches weren’t about each club’s respective opponent, it was about next Monday, for an El Clasic that I cannot wait to witness.
We rolled into Almeria riding high, but coming off an International break, when usually we don’t see our best match. Guardiola came out with Valdes, Alves, Puyol, Fontas, Maxwell, Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro! and Villa, a lineup that showed that he wasn’t taking Almeria lightly. And the home side got off to a bright start, charging into our end and forcing a corner, and a save from Valdes in the first minute of the match. But once we got on the ball, it was time for business.
The real question is, how do you play against a side in which every player is an attacker, whose best player runs like crazy just to pressure the defense, who, when up 3-0 has two players running full-tilt after a loose ball? Good question. Almeria rolled out with the Barca Formula: High pressure and flood the midfield. What they found, as our last few opponents have, is that when we are pinging the ball around as we are these days, that formula just doesn’t work. As long as the ball moves faster than the man (and it always will), if we are playing our game, there is no answer against it.
They weren’t making the error of chasing the ball, or doing silly things. It’s just that the ball was moving around with such alacrity, always with a player at the end of it, that after a while you just can’t shift that last time. And it isn’t just the passing, it’s the spaces that our players are comfortable in, guys that could seemingly play tika-taka in a shower stall full of defenders.
And on the defensive end, you have that same side, that views your having the ball as a personal affront, so every player then becomes a defender, going all out to win the ball back so that every player can become an attacker again. It really is staggering to watch sometimes. When players say things such as “Who wouldn’t want to go play for Barca,” opposing team fans get riled up. I will apologize in advance for the way this sounds, but right now, it’s true. This is a club with one of the best players in the world at every position, who makes the game look like a game, something played for pure joy. It’s movement, it’s passing, it’s goals and beauty, it’s highlight reel stuff that captivates. Rare is the club whose players, when linked with us in rumor or reality, probably wouldn’t think “Hmmm. Pretty cool.”
Masked by the ease with which we play the game is the hard, hard work. You have to run and move all the time, and this was ultimately the undoing of Almeria. You don’t run out of energy, you run out of options. Look at the first goal as an example, a goal in which Almeria pretty much did everything right. But Messi popped Villa a pass during a full-speed cut and Villa, with a defender in his shorts, side-foots a pass to Messi who, because he never stopped running, now has a shooting lane. Any keeper alive will play an attacker for the easier shot, which was the near side. So Messi slingshots a rocket on a diagonal into the far corner. The keeper didn’t have a chance, and it was another insanely difficult Messi goal that looked like he was walking to get a drink of water.
Other teams pass well, and move well. It’s harder to do it at full speed, to make the kinds of demands upon each other that our players routinely do. “Bet you can’t,” the passes seem to say. And they can. And do. And we win. The second goal is an example of this demanding kind of football, one of those crazy high-wire acts in which it looks like the opposing defense is running around like Keystone Kops, but what is there to do. Alves takes the pass and charges at the defense. You have to respect that move, so you cover it and he slides it to Messi, and the two of them bat it back and forth, always moving, before Xavi enters the picture to become that third option. He pops a pass to Iniesta that is blocked by the defender, right back to Iniesta for the rooftop finish.
Here’s something to notice when you watch the replay of this match: Our players are never, ever out of balance. So when the defender blocks the pass, Iniesta hasn’t stopped moving, and is right there to put in the rebound.
The third goal was on own goal, as if we needed any help. It was also typical of the way Almeria’s day was going. Pressure creates errors. Against a better side, Maxwell’s cross is a ball in which I am typing “Why wasn’t anybody attacking that cross?” And by the by, why wasn’t anyone attacking that cross? It also happened with a cross from Pedro!, in which Villa watched him, seemed to know exactly what he was going to do, and then stood there and watched the ball roll through the box. But this time, Almeria’s captain did the work for him, deflecting it into his own net.
It was 3-0, but Almeria were still playing hard, still trying, not because you never know, but because of pride. They never stopped working, despite the “How did this happen” looks on their faces. And then came a fourth goal, a beauty of a long, attack-starting pass from Fontas to Pedro!, that was put away past a keeper who probably should have stayed home. And permit me to say that Fontas, with that play and his play in general today, reminded me a lot of Txigrinski. And it was 4-0, with plenty of time to go in a half in which the fifth goal was almost guaranteed to come from us. We had the ball, we had the best players, we had all the goals, we had the advantage.
So when Messi and Pedro played a 1-2 that launched Messi in on goal, you kind of breathed a sigh of relief for Almeria when his shot was stopped. But where most players spank a shot that hard and get thrown off balance, Messi was almost standing still, waiting to see what would happen. When the rebound came off of Alves, he simply extended a leg across his body and volleyed it home. It was 5-0, and the ref can be forgiven for blowing for full time a few seconds early, with no added time.
The English-language commentators, Robbie Mustoe foremost, was blathering about how Almeria needed to put up a fight, get stuck in, do something, blah, blah, blah. But if you watch the match, they were trying. It’s just hard. Really hard when you’re playing against a side that is on form and the best in the world, and you aren’t. So the second half, they enjoyed better play because we really decided to sit back and play out the string, knowing that at 0-5 to the good, the match was over. So we stroked the ball around, and Almeria pressed, forcing a couple of saves from Valdes.
And then came number 6, courtesy of Bojan Krkic, a goal determined to say to his doubters, “See? I CAN play this game!” It really was a beautiful goal because it showed off his touch, quick feet and shotmaking fluency. Cooler still was the bench reaction. Everybody wanted to see him score, and were leaning around each other and going nuts when he finished with style.
Number seven came not long after, as Krkic slashed up the pitch on a forward run and spanked a pass to Villa, who smoked a shot at the Almeria goal. It was stopped by the keeper, but not caught, and there was Messi, who never stopped running, to tap home for his hat trick. Messi’s three goals might not have been the most beautiful goals on the planet, but they were typically Messi, goals made from movement and effort. Because you have to be there to score.
The eighth and final goal was just for practice pitch fun, as Messi made a dynamic, aggressive run with Krkic and Villa right alongside. It’s the kind of run that we haven’t been seeing much of from us. It’s also the kind of run that drives defenses crazy, because Messi has the ball, flanked by two strikers. He made the right decision, slid it to Krkic, and celebrated with CT after he slammed home his brace, and the final goal of the match.
This was a dominant performance that pleased Pep Guardiola, and it should have. What it also showed is that if you put your foot on a club’s throat right away, the match becomes a lot easier. Recall the missed early chances against Hercules, chances that if turned, has them thinking “We’re doomed,” rather than “We’re in this thing with a chance.” We’re an on-form side right now, folks. Enjoy it. I sure do.
Team: 10. A few missteps, but a dominating, unified performance that could have had more than 8 goals, frankly.
Guardiola: 9. Right lineup, he had them ready to breathe fire today, and made sure they didn’t slack off at halftime. Right substitutions as well, except for Messi. He has to get into the habit of protecting the family jewels.
Valdes: 8. A very strong match, including a couple of saves that were more difficult than they looked. And I have to, once again, note his much-improved distribution from the back. When your keeper can start play as accurately as Valdes has been of late, it’s like gaining another attacker.
Alves: 8. He just doesn’t look like a player who wants to leave this club. He was a delight to watch on both ends of the pitch today, an indefatigable demon slotting through balls on one end and sliding tackles on the other.
Puyol: 7. Strong match, and invaluable in shepherding the young’un through the forest.
Fontas: 7. Some early uncertainty, and a few wayward balls, but this dude’s future is bright. That assist to Pedro! was remarkable, and he has pace to go along with his size and ability.
Maxwell: 6. Erratic, but mostly good. People like to cite his seeming excess of back passes, but if you look around, he’s making just about as many as anyone else, really. And he’s a rock-solid defender who will almost never give you a bad match. What a pro.
Mascherano: 9. It’s worth spending time watching him. He makes everything so difficult for the opponent. A simple pass is contested, and the ball is loose. What should be a routine header becomes more difficult with a midget Argentine in your back pocket. During one amazing sequence he worked a ball loose and started the attack way up the pitch, but was also the first man by Valdes when our keeper needed a safety valve. Another excellent passing game, too. It reminds you of how stacked we are when a player of this quality isn’t starting every match.
Xavi: 8. He was brilliant, even making a sliding tackle on the defensive end. Again, he was all effort and virtuosity, running the offense and partnering with Iniesta in a way that facilitates our offense, and defense through offense.
Iniesta: 8. Some invisible-but-effective Ghostface moments, and a very well-taken goal capped off a fine performance from a player who is showing us all what he’s like when fit and on form. We haven’t really seen that for a couple of seasons.
Messi: 10. Man of the Match for so many reasons. He was involved in 5 of our 8 goals, and set a template for his teammates to follow with his work rate and effectiveness, the week after Internationals. He had his Killer Eyes on today, commented on by someone during the LiveBlog with a “Messi looks focused.” Indeed.
Pedro!: 7. Our RCG did it again, pressuring defenders and still running like crazy but doing so intelligently. His performance this season points out the value of being capped, and letting a player reach full maturity. Last year I carped a lot about his match IQ, and seeming inability to be where the ball was going to be. He’s fixed that, and how.
Villa: 6. In addition to his flagging energy late in matches, he has to understand that our wide players are going to cross the ball, and he can’t just stand there and watch it. On the up side, he has fully integrated into our offense in a way that makes it a joy to watch. He and Messi verge on telepathic sometimes. His goals will come, but I like the overall play from him.
Thiago (for Xavi): 6. A lot to like, but he’s still a little too loose with the ball. He will always be flashy in a way that Xavi isn’t. His energy and willingness to help out whereever are great. Recall the play where Alves held up the attacker, and Thiago came in for the steal. I don’t think he’ll be promoted in January, but he’ll definitely be told that he’s part of the first-team plans next season at that time.
Keita (for Iniesta): 5. Keiteee was a little off today, but still brought a dynamic, physical presence to the center of the pitch.
Krkic (for Pedro!): 8. I really liked his game today, from the positive movement to the constant effectiveness. Gone was the constant sense of trying too hard. And both his goals were beautifully finished, particularly the first one. Granted, coming in a 5-0 lead does a lot for a player’s confidence, but still. Let’s hope this is a stepping stone. I would love to be wrong about Cuddly Toy.
Before El Clasic next Monday, we have a Champions League clash away to Panathinaikos. If we win there, we are assured of topping the group. And then there will be the match that should, on paper, be a classic Clasic. Until then ….
P.S. For the record, Almeria weren’t that poor. They were playing to their ability, but as their club president said, there’s a talent chasm. They tried, they put out, they had their moments. Give them full credit. This performance by us shouldn’t be diminished by the opponent quality. When we’re playing as we are now, the only question is how much we win by. Let’s hope it continues.